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


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

An emcee, beat­maker, film­maker and writer from Lon­don with Gren­adian roots, Apex Zero has spent his life learn­ing and liv­ing Hip Hop cul­ture, using it to inspire and affect change. Based in Beijing for a few years and reg­u­larly tour­ing the globe, Apex is well trav­elled, and uses the les­sons this provides to inform his art and out­look. He is a mem­ber of the Glob­al­Fac­tion digit­al pro­duc­tion house and the inter­na­tion­al Hip Hop col­lect­ive End of the Weak.

About Apex Zero

Apex Zero
An emcee, beatmaker, filmmaker and writer from London with Grenadian roots, Apex Zero has spent his life learning and living Hip Hop culture, using it to inspire and affect change. Based in Beijing for a few years and regularly touring the globe, Apex is well travelled, and uses the lessons this provides to inform his art and outlook. He is a member of the GlobalFaction digital production house and the international Hip Hop collective End of the Weak.

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