From dancing in the streets of Memphis, Tennessee, to appearing in Chanel's new film, there is only one (dance) step. Charles Riley, best known as Lil Buck, is one of the six celebrities invited by Chanel to reflect on fame for the centenary of N°5. ETX Studio met up with the 32-year-old American dancer to talk about his career and his own vision of fame and success.
You mention in Chanel's new campaign that you want kids in Memphis to know that they can make a career out of dancing. Did you believe that you could become a dancer when you were a kid?
When I was a kid, I didn't believe it was possible to make a career out of dancing. And especially being from Memphis, Tennessee. There was very little opportunity to become a professional dancer there. I had no idea that you could pursue a career like that. It was not until I was much older, in my mid-teens, that I said "Hey, I might be able to do something with dance."
I have always enjoyed dancing for the love of it. I got into it because of my older sister, who has always loved to dance. I grew to love it myself for the way it made me feel. And especially the sense of freedom it gives me -- the freedom to be myself and to learn who I am through the movement. The more I dance, the more I learn who I am as a person.
You also explain that you want street dance to be considered as fine art. According to you, why is it still not recognized as such?
I think street dance is not recognized as fine art because a lot of people tend to put it in a box, and label it as a type of dance that comes from underprivileged communities. Most of these dances that influence the world now come from underserved communities and, more particularly black and brown communities. Some people would not put street dance on the same level as ballet or even consider it as contemporary. But it is. Street dance is really contemporary. It is modern, new, relevant and ever-evolving.
What's more, a lot of people assume that street dancers are just born with this gift. They imagine that it is something we can just naturally do, and that it does not take much practice or focus to master this craft. Some do not even consider it as a craft, but more like a kids' dance that should not be taken seriously. But it should. Street dance has been changing the world for generations!
I also think that the lack of recognition of street dance is tied to the music that it is predominantly performed to. It is not just rap, hip-hop or "street music." People did not really recognize Memphis jookin' as an art until I collaborated with a classical musician. But why? I was doing the same exact thing that I was doing in the streets, but I simply changed the music that I performed to. The movement stayed with me. My partner Jon Boogz and I are trying to address this lack of recognition through our company, Movement Art Is (M.A.I.). We want to show people how far you can push the boundaries of street dance and help create social change.
You founded M.A.I. "to inspire and change the world while elevating the artistic, educational, and social impact of dance." How can dance educate and raise awareness about pressing social issues such as racial violence and discrimination?
Well, dance has always been a powerful tool for social change. It is one of the oldest forms of language. Jon [Boogz] and I have been using dance in a way where we can bring awareness about important social issues. We want to show people that dance is not just solely for entertainment. It can be used to spark awareness and to help create change around the world.
That's why we created the film "The Color of Reality," which touches on police brutality. We also produced another dance video, "MAI," about the mass incarceration system in America. You can tell any story through movement -- that's the true power of dance. We can use it to raise awareness and educate people in different ways. We can reach their heart and soul, not just their mind. Dance does not only make people think, it sticks with them. It makes them feel these issues through the movement and makes them realize that some things have to change.
The covid-19 pandemic has been particularly challenging for dancers and dance companies. How did you go through these troubled times?
The pandemic has been challenging for many of us in the dance community. A lot of my friends' dance studios had, unfortunately, to close down. I think this pandemic has just been a huge eye opener to all of us. It has taught a lot of us many lessons, especially about how you need to adapt to different times.
I have fortunately been able to survive through this pandemic with the blessings that I've gained throughout my career and my savings. I had the opportunity to perfect my craft during this past year, and to appear in certain commercials and social media campaigns. You have to strive for longevity in this industry. That's why I've always seen myself as not just a dancer, but also as a businessman.
Chanel's latest film discusses the notion of notoriety. You rose to fame thanks to a viral video, in which you performed with Yo-Yo Ma to his rendition of Camille Saint-Saëns' "The Swan." Have these circumstances affected your vision of fame?
My collaboration with Yo-Yo Ma really helped launch my career and bridge the gap between street dance and fine art. Social media and streaming platforms like YouTube helped out as well. When our performance went viral, I just could not believe it. You know, everything happened so fast! I do not think that it changed my vision of fame, but it really helped me understand that you have to be ready before these opportunities come to you. I use my notoriety in my hometown with my peers. Personally, I see notoriety as a cultural currency. I'm glad that I can use it to inspire kids in Memphis, who never thought that something like that could happen to a street kid from Westwood.
Throughout your career, you have become the worldwide ambassador for Memphis jookin, appeared in the TV show "Empire," performed with Benjamin Millepied and Madonna, just to name a few, and you are now in Chanel's latest film, "Celebrity By." What is your biggest accomplishment?
When I was a kid, my goal in life was to become a background dancer. I grew up watching these background dancers going on TV and dancing next to some of my favorite artists like Lil Wayne and Madonna. Being a kid from Memphis, I did not know how much money dancers made and I thought that they earned millions of dollars. That is why I wanted to become one of them, and to make enough money so that I could take care of my family.
I also wanted to show people what Memphis jookin' is. It is a beautiful dance style and it deserves to be recognized as such. It is like a diamond in the rough. When I watched dancers on TV as a kid, I was like, "that could easily be my friends and I. We are so much more talented than some of them." That is how big my dream was -- I just wanted to be a background dancer. But seeing me evolve so far beyond that and taking my craft to heights I would have never imagined as a kid is amazing.
I think that my biggest accomplishment is still in the works. I want to inspire everyone back at home and show them that they exist through movement. It does not have to be just a hobby; dancing is something that you can actually do in life. And we can show the world what we are all about in Memphis.
What is next for Lil Buck now?
A lot. I am always evolving. I am always working on myself. As an artist, I am working on a lot of different projects, including television and movies. I really enjoy acting and I think that it is one of the biggest tools I can use to reach a lot of people back at home and around the world. I hope that if people see me on TV, something will spark in them so that they will get off that couch and do something. If I can do it as a dancer, they can do it as well. They can make their own dreams come true.
You can watch Lil Buck's short film for Chanel's "Celebrity By" campaign here .