Review: Jonzi D (@Jonzid) ‘The Letter’ To Be, Or To MBE…?

jletter

Nearly 2 years ago, IAM­HIPHOP asked me to go see and review ‘The Let­ter’, a one man dance, music, theatre fusion by the trail­blaz­ing pion­eer of this form of Hip Hop expres­sion, the man dem call Jonzi D. The emcee, artist, b-boy, act­or, com­munity organ­izer – gen­er­al spread­er of blessed vibes, ori­gin­al­ity and cre­ativ­ity – craf­ted this show in a respon­se to a let­ter he had received some time before; the offer of an MBE. After dec­ades of innov­a­tion and grind, the brit­ish estab­lish­ment had decided to offer a con­tro­ver­sial (some might even say offens­ive) recog­ni­tion of his works and achieve­ments; they offered him the chance to become a recog­nized mem­ber of their empire. Hmmm.

Unfor­tu­nately, at the time I couldn’t make it, and figured I’d lost the chance to see it, think­ing the show would only be on for a few nights, months at most, and a short while after I left the UK for Beijing. I returned this sum­mer, liv­ing in Scot­land for a few months and, being so close, I made time to hit the Edin­burgh Fest­ival. After walk­ing out of the Nath­an Caton show ‘Straight Out­ta Middle­sex’ (it’s dope too, go see it), with my brother OMeza, I saw a famil­i­ar fig­ure roll straight past me. “Aint that Jonzi D!?…AYO!”. The brother greets me, humble as ever, tells me I need to check the video of last years Park Jam where you see me us mov­ing cop­ies of IAM­HIPHOP and tells me he’s per­form­ing ‘The Let­ter’ nearly every day for the rest of the fest­ival! I made sure I was back the next week­end and what I saw was even bet­ter than anti­cip­ated.

The show is incred­ible. Mov­ing flaw­lessly between ele­ments and char­ac­ters, spit­tin’ bars, bus­sin’ moves, act­ing, male, female, young, old, Afric­an – con­tin­ent­al and dia­spora – road man, mother, mech­an­ic, vari­ous mem­bers of his fam­ily, Jonzi cap­tures, bet­ter than any­thing I’ve pre­vi­ously seen, the ten­sions that exist both between the Afric­anjletter2 (or Black brit­ish) com­munity and ‘the estab­lish­ment’, and with­in our com­munity in regard to this strained rela­tion­ship. Through dis­play­ing the emo­tions, con­flict and con­ver­sa­tions pro­duced in respon­se to his MBE offer, Jonzi high­lights the struggle between opin­ions, exper­i­ences and defin­i­tions of race, racism, empire, pro­gress, achieve­ment, con­form­ism, profit, repu­ta­tion, oppres­sion, rebel­lion, freedom, eth­ni­city, class, pride, shame and many oth­er social, polit­ic­al, per­son­al, even national(ist) per­spect­ives that mem­bers of our com­munity, and ones with sim­il­ar colo­ni­al his­tor­ies, live and deal with con­stantly, intern­ally and extern­ally, indi­vidu­ally and col­lect­ively. As ‘The Let­ter’ tells, this struggle is amp­li­fied the more ‘suc­cess­ful’ you become, which for bet­ter or worse is often meas­ured from many people’s per­spect­ives by your prox­im­ity to ‘the estab­lish­ment’; the ‘main­stream’, ‘accep­ted’, ‘cel­eb­rated’ insti­tu­tions and the largely bet­ter fun­ded, higher pay­ing plat­forms – espe­cially in the arts. By tak­ing on each of his per­sonas, Jonzi engages the audi­ences (some lit­er­ally) and shows them a blen­ded, inter­act­ive, snap­shot of these oppos­ing, inter­con­nec­ted points of ten­sion by voicing the opin­ions of a cross-sec­tion of the com­munity on wheth­er he should or shouldn’t accept the…accolade…disrespect…million pound meal tick­et. ‘Of course you should’; ‘why wouldn’t you?’; ‘how could you?’; ‘you bet­ter not’; ‘you aint gon­na?’. These are some of the responses, at least one, although prob­ably more of which the audi­ence will be think­ing themselves…I know I was.

Hil­ari­ously, at times, emotively at oth­ers, Jonzi moves through the decision pro­cess. Through doing so, he emphas­ises the con­flict that we have all lived through on some level. Do you integ­rate fur­ther into ‘the estab­lish­ment’ to earn respect, or res­ist it, move away from and bey­ond it…to earn respect. Do you work hard in school, do as you are told, do what’s neces­sary to go to uni­ver­sity, get respect of your fam­ily and com­munity, or par the teach­er, bun school, get expelled and get the respect of the man dem and gal dem…your fam­ily and your com­munity? Do you work a 9–5, get mugged off by some man­ager, may­be start a legit busi­ness, grind­ing 24 hours for min­im­al profits, but have rel­at­ive safety and presti­ge, or work the roads, risk jail and death, but poten­tially earn big money, status and notori­ety quickly? Do you strive to get signed, give up own­er­ship of your art but sell more units, or remain inde­pend­ent and forever under­ground, fully in con­trol but nev­er full time? Do you rep­res­ent England and play in World Cups or play for Con­go or Gren­ada and nev­er achieve your dream? Do you bide your time, sur­vive, and improve the situ­ation for your chil­dren or rebel, rise up, risk death but aim to take your freedom with your own hands. Mar­tin or Mal­colm? Which do you, which should we, choose?

It is this on-going, con­flict­ing dual­ism that has seemed in so many ways to cat­egor­ise and restrict the oppor­tun­it­ies and choices laid out in front of so many of us, and those like us, since the era of colo­ni­al­ism. Situ­ations and cir­cum­stances may change, or (be per­ceived to) improve, but this dual­ism has been a main­stay, a pro­duct of racism, oppres­sion and white suprem­acist power struc­tures, some­thing that we feel inher­ently and exper­i­ence first hand, some­thing that even our allies in white com­munit­ies can nev­er fully over­stand, nev­er mind those who gov­ern ‘the estab­lish­ment’, itself estab­lished through the same pro­cess. This is a fact shown as clearly by the nature of our lim­ited, cat­egor­ised, intergen­er­a­tion­al exper­i­ence and that we have to live this, as it is in the nam­ing of ‘accol­ades’ still bar­ing the name ‘empire’, as if gen­o­cide, pil­lage, dehu­man­isa­tion, exploit­a­tion and repres­sion were things to be proud of. These ‘awards’ are still presen­ted as if being a mem­ber of a club that cel­eb­rates these crimes again­st human­ity is some­thing people should want to be part of, regard­less of wheth­er or not you are someone whose fam­ily mem­bers were, and are, dir­ect vic­tims of such atro­cit­ies, and have been for cen­tur­ies. Some people would and do accept such ‘awards’ with little second thought. How­ever, that decision is easi­er to make when you are not one of those vic­tims. For those of us who are, as ‘The Let­ter’ depicts so adeptly, mak­ing that decision, with all the con­nec­ted con­sequence and fal­lout, is not so sim­ple.

‘That’s why we need more of us in there, mak­ing decisions, chan­ging it from the inside’ or ‘that’s why we should be nowhere near it and need to build up our own ‘estab­lish­ment’ in and on our own lands’. Whatever your respon­se, and wherever it lies in respect to these two per­ceived oppos­ites, we are all asked the ques­tion, and it is this key dis­cus­sion that is cent­ral to ‘The Let­ter’. So…what did Jonzi D do? How did he respond when faced with the latest stage of this dilem­ma? Go see the show and find out.

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Apex Zero

Apex Zero

Apex Zero is an emcee and beat maker who has been express­ing his anti-polit­ic­al views and extend­ing his work towards defin­ing, inspir­ing and cre­at­ing last­ing change through Hip Hop for over a dec­ade. Apex has been work­ing with grass­roots and mil­it­ant organ­isa­tions, edu­cat­ing him­self and oth­ers, organ­ising and build­ing towards over­turn­ing the oppress­ive mech­an­ism at large since his mid-teens, around the same time that he entered London’s under­ground Hip Hop scene as part of his crew, First and Last with his brother OMeza Omni­scient. Years of earn­ing respect and enhan­cing their repu­ta­tion, which lead to col­lab­or­a­tions and work­ing rela­tion­ships with many of the scenes most prom­in­ent artists and organ­isa­tions, mani­fes­ted in the Octo­ber 2013 release of Apex’s debut solo album ‘Real­ity Pro­vok­ing Lib­er­a­tion’. The 15 tracks of self-described ‘Neo-Hard­core Hip Hop’ gathered inter­na­tion­al acclaim from both fans and crit­ics, fur­ther enhan­cing Apex’s repu­ta­tion as one of the strongest and clearest voices in anti-polit­ic­al, ‘revolu­tion­ary’ Hip Hop in the UK. Based in Beijing, China since 2014, Apex has been trav­el­ling out­side of the UK, seek­ing new per­spect­ives and aim­ing at enhan­cing his out­look, explor­ing dif­fer­ent soci­et­ies, con­nect­ing with Hip Hop heads, act­iv­ists and schol­ars world­wide. Like his music, his writ­ing is often an exten­sion of his ideas and efforts to effect change in the world whil­st enhan­cing and elev­at­ing both the cul­ture of Hip Hop and the people who embody it.

About Apex Zero

Apex Zero
Apex Zero is an emcee and beat maker who has been expressing his anti-political views and extending his work towards defining, inspiring and creating lasting change through Hip Hop for over a decade. Apex has been working with grassroots and militant organisations, educating himself and others, organising and building towards overturning the oppressive mechanism at large since his mid-teens, around the same time that he entered London’s underground Hip Hop scene as part of his crew, First and Last with his brother OMeza Omniscient. Years of earning respect and enhancing their reputation, which lead to collaborations and working relationships with many of the scenes most prominent artists and organisations, manifested in the October 2013 release of Apex’s debut solo album ‘Reality Provoking Liberation’. The 15 tracks of self-described ‘Neo-Hardcore Hip Hop’ gathered international acclaim from both fans and critics, further enhancing Apex’s reputation as one of the strongest and clearest voices in anti-political, ‘revolutionary’ Hip Hop in the UK. Based in Beijing, China since 2014, Apex has been travelling outside of the UK, seeking new perspectives and aiming at enhancing his outlook, exploring different societies, connecting with Hip Hop heads, activists and scholars worldwide. Like his music, his writing is often an extension of his ideas and efforts to effect change in the world whilst enhancing and elevating both the culture of Hip Hop and the people who embody it.

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