I was thinking about the many version of a name or a label or tribal identification. I was thinking about the phrasing of fireworks, and processes of cultural appropriation. Of shiny brilliance re-positioned constantly – at the core of someone’s life, on the periphery of someone else’s. About the trailing off of popularity, about keeping things burning.
“We all know the industry sells sexism, drug abuse, homophobia, greed, and gang violence as if these problems are the heart of hip-hop culture…Hip Hop stems from the roots of artistic, creative, and militant demands for justice and the acceptance of diversity in all its forms. In this way, Hip Hop is what we as individuals want it to be” www.hiphopforchange.org
I wonder what the D stands for. Today I make it stand for Deft, for deft Jonzi D is at handling the multiples of strands connecting him: to his past, his present, his and mine, hip hop’s history, present, history’s histories and stories. Monday night at the Lilian Baylis explicated essences and wrangles of stature.
In the spirit of sharing and hip hop, Jonzi D uses his position as artistic director of Breakin’ Convention to introduce other artists he likes and wants to support to audiences. The familiar curating-inside-of-curating serves Lilian Baylis theatre well. Over the three nights of this re-scheduled outing in London of Jonzi D’s work, the first offering of the bill is different each night. Monday night’s prelude was three thought-provoking poems written and performed by musician/spoken work artist Yomi ‘GREEdS’ Sode. This triptych spanned an arc of memory, voyaging and responsibility through GREEdS recounting first sensory pleasures and sourness in My Childhood tastes like…. After greeting us audience directly, On My Travels gave a personal glimpse at his anticipations and discoveries on a trip to his birth place Oyo State Nigeria for the first time in 21 years. These two lend even greater sharpness of both the content, and the man who speaks it, in Open Letter to Mrs Jonathan, the wife of Nigerian President, Goodluck Jonathan. Horrorstruck by a proposed change to legalise marriage to under-aged girls, GREEdS looks to how he could help oppose this with a sensitive, strong and vivid open letter to Patience Jonathan.
The political in the performative through an individual voice continues the spirit of hip hop – and surprises me. I must admit I was somewhat anticipating the divergent image of hip hop as only the breaking, beats and hollow hollering. Is this pure hip hop because it tells me so? Or when communication and expression of personal insight is so crafted and clear, does it require this extra label of hip hop at all? What’s so wrong with calling it art? Or has that label become so denigrated that other titles are preferred? The human desire to identify and, to an extent, capture and suspend meaning through language is of course fraught and in dynamic flux. I consider the emanation of my thoughts from this one man standing on a stage talking, to me musing over ownership of a collective identity, sets of philosophies and symbolic representations. Of religion, fashions, belonging and the potency of direct live communication. Again, of theatre as communion.
GREEdS seems to be performing all over the place, but if you don’t generally move in hip hop circles you might miss him. I know I would have.
Contemporary dance rarely includes verbal introductions, name-checks or distinct vocalisations of who it is you’re about to watch or meet prior to or during a performance event. I am reminded of codes and conventions that perpetuate the act of silencing dancers, not deliberately or maliciously, but with a particular effect that engenders perhaps a too-easy assumption of tacit cooperation and subordination that has a knock-on effect when it comes to limiting greater understanding of their job, needs and skills. And whilst I appreciate and work myself with the realm of the non-verbal, I can’t help but enjoy actually hearing voices, adding to my sense of meeting more of the individuals facing me through inclusion of another act of movement – vocal production. I’m also reminded that these verbal introductions and crediting overrides insistence on reading a bit of paper. I love the bit of paper with the words on; not everyone does, cares or wants. I like the economy of this brief naming, its presentation wholly lacking irony or self-consciousness. Instead, it feels respectful, deferential almost, with the essence of gratitude creating immediate warmth. It brings the audience into the other stuff we don’t see so much – the nature of the relationship, or a version of it, which is somehow unique to the process of choosing one artist over another to work with, to present, to curate, to essentially celebrate.
Broken Lineage by Jonzi D and Ivan Blackstock explores the struggles of form, representation, honouring sources, and distaste for changes that typify moving away from core ideals. It reveals the desire to push against something; a developmental need. I think about defining by doing, and the many ways we learn and identify with or against something. I wonder at rites of passage in 21st Century clothing; acts of entry or exclusion as powerful markers of status. I think about sustaining passion, desire and drive to interrogate the potential within an essence. I see the sadness of the loss of the icon, the image that is filched and re-sold, soiled somehow from the ideals it had, or maybe re-born to be met by other people. Periphery becomes core, then periphery again. And I reflect on conflict as maybe actually necessary for growth. Okay maybe not out-and-out conflict; but struggle and rebellion, finding something out for oneself rather than taking the histories fed to you as gospel, as vital in the evolution of practices and the evolution of the individual.
Jonzi D gave a workshop at Laban when I was studying there in 2004. He will have passed in the corridor or in a meeting somewhere along the line at that time faculty member Andreja Jelicic, who has now succeeded in establishing the first BA in Dance in Zagreb. And it is from her that I recall the process of establishing something in order to provide a foundation to grow more from, or push against. This was in part some of her motivation to establish the BA. I think about Macarena Campbell in Chile, part of the new faculty at the University in Santiago where the student body overturned the structure of their dance training to demand a new curriculum and new teachers several years ago. I think about the new building for Parkour training in London being established by Parkour Generations, which will offer increased opportunity for finesse, yet seems on the surface quite funny given Parkour’s insistence on using already existing built environments.
Change is inevitable. Art requires something to push against for growth, maybe as dynamic recuperation from the previous (or current) fashions. Though empty juxtaposition as novelty can be boring and facile, Broken Lineage deftly reminded me of the processes of change and accommodation of it, for better or worse, for richer or poor depending on your position: who gets usurped, who or what gets consolidated. This is literally, beautifully, represented in Jonzi D coaching Ivan Blackstock in a particular movement from the Electric Boogaloo crew. As he pops a Fresno, we see it unpop, become painful, become tedious, become aggressive and aggressed. A genesis of change and growth of not only hip hop as a socio-cultural movement, but of societies, religions, cults and tribes distilled in one action.
Lastly, Jonzi D’s The Letter is hip hop dance theatre serving a poignant and raucous reflection and physicalisation of the struggle with a particular letter – of nomination for an MBE. From his voice, and the voices of those around him from various points of his own history (a friend’s mum in Bow being a particularly memorable one), he plays out the decision-making process and its implications for his position. The mechanic, the flirting lady, the voices in his own conscious are funny, awkward and personal. The dancing sometimes is a bit repetitive. Sometimes it is apposite and effective in punctuating episodes. Ultimately, the accumulation of weighing up these strands and acts of locating himself results in his family Christmas gathering with the reveal of his rejection coupled with his unexpected surprise and delight at his elder sister’s opinion. Hip hop: the personal within the group.
Jonzi D’s beatific expression closed the performance leaving me with the joy of hearing and seeing a glorious personal story. With warmth and generosity this artist sprang back to bow, thanked us for being there and said he’d be out in the bar soon to say hello.