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 African (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.