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Eliza Rose in Dalston
Eliza Rose in DalstonPhotography by James Greig. Courtesy Polaroid

How Eliza Rose made the song of the summer

The ‘B.O.T.A’ singer takes us on a tour of Dalston to talk gentrification, the importance of reclaiming dance music as a Black genre, and her early days as a DJ

Future historians will look back on this as the summer of rail strikes, Elf Bars, climate breakdown, spiralling living costs, and “B.O.T.A (Baddest of Them All)”, a dance track by Eliza Rose and Interplanetary Criminal. If you still haven’t heard it, I have some upsetting news about your grasp on the cultural zeitgeist. But you probably have done, at some point: on the radio, at a festival, blaring out of a passing car on a sultry evening, the soundtrack to any number of TikToks where people lip-sync the lyrics while clearly feeling themselves (and good for them!) Now hovering at number two in the charts, “B.O.T.A” marks the long-awaited end of the “song of the summer” recession we’ve been suffering for years. 

“B.O.T.A” first gained traction in London’s club scene, but it wasn’t until Glastonbury that it really took off. Soon, it was everywhere, achieving a level of ubiquity which Rose hadn’t anticipated. “I thought the underground scene would love it, and I knew that it was quite a special song,” she tells me, as we begin our white wine-fuelled stroll through Dalston, the area she grew up. “But never in a million years did I think it would get into the charts. For it now to be at number two is insane.”

The song’s title and central refrain is inspired by Coffy, a 1973 Blaxploitation film which stars Pam Grier as a woman vigilante. The tagline reads: “the baddest one chick hit squad which ever hit town.” “She’s the ultimate figure of female empowerment for me,” says Rose, “and even if it’s not an obvious reference, I think some of that strength permeated the song.” It makes her happy that the song has resonated so much among young women, Black and queer communities; in her words, “people living themselves authentically, doing what they want that makes them happy and going against norms.” Anyone who enjoys the song, and feels empowered while listening to it, instantly becomes “the baddest of them all.”

“B.O.T.A” has elements of UK garage, which remains one of Rose’s biggest inspirations, and maybe a little dash of PC Music, but really it’s a tribute to 90s dance. “It’s a little bit trashy, a little bit Euro,” says Rose. The song is extremely catchy, which no doubt has contributed to its success, but there’s also something deeply evocative about it. “How I write is very image-led,” Rose says. When she first heard the instrumental (she wrote the lyrics and top-line melody, Interplanetary Criminal wrote the music), she imagined it being played at an arcade in the 90s: fairground rides, cheap candy floss, throwing up, being 14 years old and kissing a boy. The song is intended to be nostalgic, but it’s a nostalgia anyone can relate to, whether they’re an older person reflecting on another era, or an 18-year-old reminiscing about the previous summer.

As well as being a DJ, Rose is a fiction writer who has just finished her first novel – What Happens in Dreamland – which portrays a friendship between two women who are both, in their own ways, in bad situations. “Female friendship runs through everything I do,” she says. “Friendship is just as important as the notion of romantic love. You learn about yourself through how your friends see you.” The video for “B.O.T.A” – an Alice in Wonderland-style descent into Hackney’s queer scene which features a starry cast of drag and performance artists – is itself a testament to friendship: filmed on a minuscule budget, it was directed by one of Rose’s best friends, Jeanie Crystal, the founder of Faboo TV, and she knows everyone who took part, even if only through conversations in club smoking areas. Her interest in literature also bleeds into her songwriting. “Jean Rhys is the love of my life; I adore her, I’m obsessed,” she says. “This is getting neeky now, but her book Wide Sargasso Sea is a big inspiration for me. It’s a reimagining of the story of Jane Eyre, told from the perspective of the madwoman in the attic, and that element of re-imagining things in new contexts has really influenced what I try to do. So for example, I wrote a song that was inspired by ‘Minnie the Moocher’, a famous blues song by Cab Calloway, which tells her side of the story.”

“B.O.T.A” is a relatively rare instance of an underground song breaking out of its original context and seeping through to the mainstream. But Rose’s journey to the top has been anything other than meteoric. In recent years, she has steadily risen to become a star of both the London scene and festival circuit, but this has been a long time in the making: she has been plugging away at DJing for years, something which for the most part hasn't been glamorous. I first met her back in 2016, and my defining memory is running into her in various parts of London, dragging an enormous suitcase of vinyls on the way to play some badly paid gig in a pub. “You have to work hard,” she says. “Not a lot of people just fly to the top. You have to do it for the love and not just because you want to look cool, because that wears thin very quickly. There have been so many times where I’ve been like ‘this is long, nobody knows who I am’.”

When it comes to records, Rose is also kind of an anorak; a genuine, dyed-in-the-wool muso. “I’m a bit of a hoarder, I’m a bit obsessive,” she says. “I find it really interesting to find some track that nobody else is going to have.” It all started with a fluke. When she was 15, she did a work experience placement at a record shop, but this only happened because her original plan fell through at the last minute. “All the good placements were taken and my two options were working in a nursery or a record shop. I was like, ‘I'm not changing nappies or looking after screaming children,’ so I went to the record shop.” But she was bitter about this, telling her friends, “oh my god, guys, I’m going to have to work with a bunch of old white men.” 

At the time, the idea that vinyl culture might be an accessible interest for someone like her seemed laughable. “As a 15-year-old Black girl, for me, record shops were just old white men’s things. It wasn’t something that I had any connection to – at all,” she says. But the experience ended up being life-changing. “I was really into Amy Winehouse at the time,” she says, “and through her I started getting into soul, jazz and disco. When I realised that all of this was Black culture, and I was able to hold this physical thing in my hand that represented Black culture, that’s when I started getting into records.” She spent the following decade working for Flashback, one of London’s most respected vinyl stores, and eventually started DJing in 2014.

In light of the revelations against Tim Westwood which emerged this year, there has recently been a lot of discussions about the experiences of women – and particularly women of colour – in the dance music industry. For Eliza, trying to make it in a scene which remained dominated by white men was challenging at times. “It often felt like an uphill battle,” she says. “There wasn’t the same community that is there now. For a long time, I felt like I was ticking off a ‘Black woman’ box and was only getting booked for that reason. But I needed to pay my rent. I knew I was being used as a token, essentially, but I decided to take that and build myself to the next step.” Even now that she has proven her talent beyond all doubt, and become a hugely respected figure within the scene, she still feels a sense of imposter syndrome derived from those early experiences. “I always wondered if I only got gigs because of my race, and that still has a knock-on effect. You get stuck in the narrative that you’re not good enough to be here, even though you are. Whereas if you’re a white man you’d just be like ‘I’m sick. I’ve got this gig, big up me and my bad self!’ You wouldn’t even think about it like that.”

Today, it’s important to Rose to reclaim dance music as part of a Black cultural legacy. “I want to be part of a movement where we say, ‘this is ours.’ You may enjoy it too. But this is ours,” she says. It took her a while to arrive at this realisation: to begin with, she assumed that house and techno were firmly within the domain of white culture. “I did see UK garage as more of a Black genre, but I didn’t see it as electronic music, I saw it as sped up R&B,” she says. “But when you start doing your history, you quickly learn that whole scenes were whitewashed.” It’s notable that “B.O.T.A” took off in the same year that both Drake and Beyonce released house-inspired albums, two events which have led to a wider cultural conversation about the Black roots of dance music. “Even UK garage, which became something a lot of white boys played, was born from South London and its Black community,” she says. “Yes, it was mixed from the beginning, but UKG became completely whitewashed, as did house and techno. It’s only now we’re clawing back our own spaces. We’re still having to fight for it, but we are slowly getting there. We’re not saying so you can’t have your time too. But you do need to move out of the way!”

“I always wondered if I only got gigs because of my race, and that still has a knock-on effect. You get stuck in the narrative that you’re not good enough to be here... Whereas if you’re a white man you’d just be like ‘I’m sick’”

As we walk through Gillett Square, we pass by a Caribbean takeaway that was closed down earlier this year after incoming residents complained about the smell. Rose tells me this was the moment she decided to stop getting so upset by gentrification: not because she realised her anger was misplaced, but simply because maintaining it had become too exhausting. “It’s really awful how much it has changed,” she says. “When it first got really white – around the time of the Olympics [in 2012] – I started experiencing all kinds of racism. People would look at me like, ‘Oh, my God,” she says, affecting a look of prim horror. “It’s like they were scared of me, in my own area, on my own street, where I’d lived all of my life. I’d think, ‘you've moved in here, and you're looking at me like that?’” 

Even though she’s made an effort to be less bitter about the fate of Hackney, she is determined to support whatever creative spirit has yet to be priced out. “I try to choose to see the things that are good, because there are still these different spaces going against the grain and refusing to be removed, and there are still people who continue to push the creativity which used to define Hackney,” she says. “It makes those things even more special.”

If you’re someone who cares about London's nightlife, there can be a tension between wanting to champion it for what it actually is, today, while still acknowledging the fact that it’s under threat (“the higher powers don't give it as much respect as it deserves,” says Rose.) It’s true that London is a city far more amenable to property development than it is to raves, and that venues are closing all the time. But this summer, Rose has felt a sense of rebirth. However embattled London’s club scene might be, the fact that it’s still capable of giving rise to cultural moments as exciting as “B.O.T.A” shows that its spirit hasn’t been crushed just yet.