I was given the great opportunity of meeting with Jonzi D, during his rehearsal of ‘The Letter’ part of Lyrikal Fearta at Sadler’s Wells, to find out more about the show as well as him as an artist. Jonzi’s approachable attitude turned the experience more into a catch up conversation with an old friend who you’ve not seen for years but feels like you’ve not spent much time apart. Maybe because we both shared that same passion for theatre and dissected the lyrical content and accuracy of the interesting characterisations he personifies. I found myself immediately engage with his lyrical rhyming and artistic expression as he intrinsically mastered each movement following his words. This interview only captures a mere glimpse into Jonzi the Artist.
Q. Let’s start with your show. Tell us about your latest production ‘Lyrikal Fearta’ and what we can expect?
The term Lyrikal Fearta has become an umbrella term for all my shows. And within it there are three shows.
The first will be performing with a guest artist between GREEds, Zena Edwards and OneNess Sankara, which is really nice because I’ve worked with these musicians in the past. Doing a show is always about sharing the skill.
The second is called Broken lineage which is a duet with Ivan Blackstock. We’ve worked together on a piece about old skool and new skool values of Hip Hop and there are also elements of abandonment issues.
And the third part is The Letter – this is a solo performance about Jonzi’s MBE award.
Q. You’ve been in UK Hip Hop from the early 80s, tell us a bit about your involvement in the scene?
When you say ‘Scene’ I associate that with when I first became known which was in the late 80’s when I worked with MC Mell’O’. I always practiced most parts of hip hop in my area of bow and grew up there and learnt a lot about being a man. I actually first began exploring Hip Hop through dance, where I was also doing contemporary dancing – there is such a connection between the two even though they were kept so separated back in the day but I always had a dream of combining the two in theatre. But I rapped too. It was all relevant in my understanding of Hip hop — I see it all as performance so it’s a combined thing. African tribes for example all danced and sang.
Q. How has UK Hip Hop changed and evolved over the years? Would you say that it has lost its true essence of bringing a voice to the voiceless and become overly commercial?
In the early days of hip hop there was an innocence about what we were doing because there seemed to be no boundaries of what we could say. It was exciting to hear what rappers were talking about in their albums. Covering topics from School to talking about being a pimp so there no value judgement. But it all came down to what KRS1 said:
‘You could be a mack, a pimp, hustler or player but make sure live you is a dope rhyme sayer’
What has happened since the early 90’s In terms of the commercial side of Hip Hop, it started to bubble into this one dimensional voice of gangsterism – being tough, selling drugs, being rich and wearing bling – And Hip Hop’s nature just isn’t like that. This form is a branding that’s been created because most MC’s I know don’t rap about those topics only commercial rappers do. Record companies definitely have something to do with this.
Q. And are most of these rappers underground?
They all are yes.
Q. Do you think then that there’s a hypocrisy that these underground MC’s feel when considering approaching bigger record labels. Are these artists trying to reach that level of success and would they accept?
I think most of them would take the opportunity. I can’t see why not.
Q. But you’ve also rejected your MBE for those reasons…
AN MBE is very different from signing a record deal which is an income. The MBE don’t pay you. Its a badge which suggests how good you are – it feel like a branding saying ‘you’re good and you’re a member of the British Empire and you wouldn’t be good if it wasn’t for us because we know what good is’. There’s a lot of baggage which comes with that badge.
Q. Hip Hop is one of the most powerful and diverse forms of artistic expression, which is why it works so well in theatre. Was it hard trying to bring the culture to a mainstream theatre audience? Did you ever face any setbacks or find yourself having to play the culture down slightly so that it appeals to a wider audience?
When I first created Lyrikal Fearta I was really excited about presenting the culture and I used dance to express that fusion between Hip Hop and Contemporary. But audiences were used to hardcore political information. When I first performed at the place theatre in 1995 – a contemporary dance theatre where I trained — people were shocked because I was swearing on stage.
Q. What was the demographic of audiences at the time?
I have an audience which was developed in the mid 90’s. The theatre hadn’t seen so many young black people before and they even spoke about getting security even though there weren’t any fights. Those of the types of stereotypes we had to deal with as being members of the Hip Hop community because we’re not often seen in that environment.
That was 15 years ago but right now Hip Hop is one of the most commercial vehicles. Its presenting this image of nihilistic young black males going crazy like Kanye or being obsessive like Jay Z and this corporate image of success. Whereas Hip Hop is revolutionary and what happened to that voice? Rappers are doing it but why don’t we hear from them.
Q. You don’t ever hear about big commercial artists getting involved with revolutionary political movements . Mainly because the majority public don’t want to hear about it. Do you then think they’re being controlled and shunned away from it or that its a decision they’ve made themselves?
They’re shunned away from it and encouraged down another route.
Q. Tell us a bit about the history of Breakin’ Convention, why did you feel there was a need for it? And what is the aim of it?
It started as a tour in theatre’s around the world after seeing other examples of hip hop theatre. I hadn’t seen that in England and that bridge hadn’t yet been made. I approached Alistair Spalding (now Artistic Director of Sadlers Wells) at a time when he was presenting my show ‘Aeroplan Man’ and I mentioned the idea of doing an International Hip Hop Dance Theatre festival. Then when got the job as Chief Executive here at Sadlers Wells he asked me to try it out. All I needed was someone to believe in Hip Hop. Someone who trusts the artist with what they’re doing and its amazing how the Hip Hop culture has been able to thrive because of that trust.
Q. What do you look for in break dancers? Do you ever scout for dancers on the streets?
I interpret Hip Hop dance as being a very wide thing with many different types. Dancers who can explore theatrical devices and not necessarily routines interest me. I’m always looking for something new maybe because of the contemporary background I’ve had. But understanding breaking in particular is also important – those are the fundamental foundations to this festival. But those two ideas help me to think of something fresh.
I’ve found dancers in clubs in the past but now I’m constantly inundated with dancers. And I get great chances to travel the world and watch so many shows. Breakin’ convention will be going on a national tour next year using the mantra : From local to Global. Using the best dancers from around the world and around the corner.
Q. How do you respond to being offered an MBE? Do you think this is a move forward in your work or a step backwards away from your roots?
Come and watch the show to find out more!
Q. Tell us about Jonzi D the rapper; have you had a lot of time to make music? What subjects do you feel need to be exposed and explored in UK Hip Hop?
I feel embarrassed about answering that. I’d like to think of myself as an MC by trade but i haven’t recorded anything for 15 years. I’ve never given myself that time. Theatre has taken over and really excites me so I’m happy with what I’m doing at the moment. There will always be a side of me that says ‘Jonzi, you’re an MC too’.
Join Jonzi D and special guests at Sadler’s Wells from Monday 9 December — Wednesday 11 December 2013!
Monday 9 December – GREEdS
Tuesday 10 December – Zena Edwards
Wednesday 11 December – OneNess Sankara
By Subika Anwar
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