How Compton’s Charm La’Donna found the courage to go from star choreographer to hip-hop MC
Star choreographer-turned-rapper Charm La’Donna was only a senior at the Los Angeles County High School for the Arts when she was scouted to dance backup for Madonna on her 2006 “Confessions” world tour.
“I had never left the United States before. Then suddenly, it was eight months with Madonna,” says La’Donna. The “Confessions” tour transported the then-17-year-old from her mother’s house in Compton to dozens of cities in Europe, Russia and Japan; those months spent globetrotting with Madonna’s crew provided her with a master class in translating music to movement.
“From the time I was a kid, everything about me has been interdisciplinary,” she says. “I don’t have a dance chapter, I don’t have a music chapter. My experiences can be broken down into chapters, but my gifts cannot.”
On her debut EP “La’Donna,” she’s transfigured the ultra-feminine swagger she brings to dance into sinuous, R&B-inflected hip-hop, reflecting on her ascent from an ambitious young girl in Compton to a jet-setting choreographer for Dua Lipa, Selena Gomez, Kendrick Lamar and Rosalía. La’Donna’s clever fusion of flamenco and hip-hop moves for Rosalía’s hit with J Balvin, “Con Altura,” won her the MTV Video Music Award for best choreography in 2019. “Having that platform sparked something in me,” says La’Donna of the VMA. “That’s when I began to see myself as an artist.”
Born Charmaine Jordan, La’Donna credits her success to her mother and grandmother, as well as the village of women in Compton, all connected by blood, friendship or simply proximity.
“I am a proud product of my environment,” she says. “I’ve been all over the world, but I carry the Westside with me wherever I go.”
She describes this matriarchy, and the safety net it provided during times of financial hardship, amid the sun-soaked trap bounce of “Palm Trees” — where, “if I ain’t got it, sister got it, cousin got it, auntie say she got me.” In the music video, her little cousin emulates both her verses and dance moves with childlike gusto. Other neighborhood girls surface in her video for “Westside,” a feel-good composite of pop, soul and hip-hop with an ‘80s sheen, on which La’Donna bids farewell to fair-weather friends.
“We filmed all my videos in three days — my cousins, aunties all came through. The girl who braids my hair? She’s been braiding my hair since we were 12 years old,” she says about her childhood friend Twy Bernal, who runs her own business called the Braid Bar.
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“I was raised to be a strong, self-sufficient Black woman,” “La’Donna says. “But I needed that community support in my life. There’s grace and hope in that.”
La’Donna’s mother drove the city bus across the Gardena route before shuttling young Charm to dance class, which she attended from the time she was 3 years old. On an afternoon together in her hometown, we cruise past the old Compton Fashion Center, former home of the swap meet that La’Donna used to frequent with her friends; to her disappointment, it has been replaced by a Walmart. She also takes us past a fast-food joint, Tam’s Burgers on Rosecrans, where she would grab a cheeseburger and fries with the girls. (Hip-hop heads may know it as the site where YG bought “AKs and handguns” on 2013’s “Bompton” and where Suge Knight mowed down two men in his truck in 2015.)
“There was a disconnect because I went to art school in the city,” La’Donna says of her youth in Compton. “I had to catch three buses and two trains to get to school and back. I still had the homies, but my life was school. I was so focused on making it in the arts.”
Tam’s is not far from where she used to shadow her older brother, a rapper and songwriter named Yki (pronounced “eye-key”) who let her kick it in his studio after school. “I started writing my own songs at 11 or 12,” she says, recalling one of her very first rhymes in the meter of a slam poet. “Ain’t li’l mama pretty? / She’s living in the city / Lemonade, she got it made / Ain’t li’l mama pretty?’”
La’Donna recorded in her brother’s studio throughout her teens, and for a spell, she played “the Left Eye” in a TLC-inspired girl group, teasing out a similarly playful flow as the late MC. But her dreams of becoming a recording artist fell to the wayside after her brother was arrested and sentenced for 75 years to life in prison. (La’Donna would not disclose the circumstances of his arrest.)
“The trauma of losing my brother made me stay away from music for a while,” she says. “[Music] was something I did with him.”
At the behest of her longtime mentor, famed Aaliyah choreographer Fatima Robinson, La’Donna connected with fellow Compton native Kendrick Lamar in 2017. He recruited La’Donna to be the lone woman on stage for his 2017 world tour, in support of his Pulitzer Prize-winning album, “Damn.”
“On my dressing room door, it said ‘Charm LaDonna DanceHer,’” she recalls with a laugh.
Those several months of touring with Lamar culminated in a chilling performance with U2 and Dave Chappelle at the 2018 Grammys, where Lamar’s dance crew collapsed under simulated gunshots, evoking the memory of slain teen Trayvon Martin. La’Donna fiercely beat a taiko drum onstage. “I felt like I could connect to the story because we come from the same place,” she says of their collaboration.
Later that year, La’Donna would have a pivotal phone conversation with her incarcerated brother — and began to write preliminary verses to the songs that comprised her EP. “He convinced me to come back and tell my story,” she says. It is the warm bass of Yki’s voice that opens the first track on the EP, a jazz-laden trap number named “Hallelujah,” which was sourced from that very call. “God has a special place for you,” he assures La’Donna in the clip.
Word soon spread of La’Donna’s other talent. “I kept hearing about this dope choreographer-slash-creative director [who] Kendrick Lamar trusted as the only female [dancer] on the ‘Damn’ tour,” says Ericka Coulter, vice president of A&R at Epic Records. By February 2020, La’Donna secured a record deal.
“Charm works with today’s biggest stars,” says Coulter. “But she also has a clear vision and direction on who she is.”
Back at La’Donna’s home in Sherman Oaks, she keeps her MTV Moon Man statue in her living room, next to her quartz crystals. She’s due to perform at this year’s Lollapalooza in August — one of many festival appearances she hopes to make. She plans to follow her EP with a full-length album, which she’s determined to finish before year’s end.
“There will be more of these,” guarantees La’Donna, clutching the hefty silver Moon Man. “You just keep an eye out for me.”
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