MC, dancer, spoken word artist and director, Jonzi D is an Associate Artist of Sadler's Wells and the Artistic Director of Breakin' Convention, the annual celebration of hip hip dance theatre. Indisputably, Jonzi is hip hop's foremost advocate in this country and has been central to changing the profile of the art form and influencing its development in the UK. He's also very happy to be a frequent visitor to Dorset.
Jonzi, for those who don’t know please give us a flavour of Breakin’ Convention: What is it? Who’s it for? What happens?
Breakin’ Convention is the international festival of hip hop dance theatre. We call it Breakin’ Convention because not only do you see breakers, breakdancers, b-boys and b-girls dancing, but also we are breaking the convention of what we normally see in these artistic centres. I guess, I feel like they’re almost like churches of the Arts, but I also see that some of these ‘churches’ are not for all Art because not all Art in the same. In urban culture, street art, hip hop we challenge the social position in which art is in these spaces by presenting Art that ultimately comes from the working classes.
How does it work in Poole?
So, if you come to Breakin’ Convention, first of all you’ll hear music blaring out of the doors because we have DJs on the Mezzanine and graffiti exhibitions with local artists putting work up around the space. We also have Cyphers, which is an improvisational circle of dancers jumping in and out – and this is all from the local community by the way, so there’s a really festive quality and it’s very unlike what is normally seen in theatres.
As well as that, on the main stage we will be showing three pieces of work from international artists. From Korea, we have a crew by the name of MOVER that feature world champions. We also have a group called Ghetto Funk Collective coming in from Holland, they specialise in a dance form called Locking technique and they’re very colourful, very happy.
We’ve also got something a little bit different on the stage, which is a soloist using a pole. Her name is Yvonne Smink and she too is Dutch. For me this is interesting because it is breaking another convention. What I love about her work is that it’s crafted in a way that is about the exploration of dance movement on the pole, as opposed to a focus on simple sexuality. It’s suitable for kids!
One of the things that’s really important about the programme this year is happiness. We’ve been doing this for 20 years and we tend to challenge a lot of political things, but I think right how it’s about the politics of joy. We’re seeing a lot of negativity so right now it’s about focussing on peace, love, unity and having fun, which is the mantra of hip hop culture.
Poole and Bournemouth might not seem like an obvious hotbed of hip hop theatre and street dance, yet it played a significant role in the evolution of UK breakdancing with the Second To None crew, what is their legacy?
Those guys paved the way for breakdancing across world, I’d say.
What Second To None did was that after the initial hype about hip hop culture that happened around 1982, ’83, it kind went out of fashion around ’86, but they kept going. Even though it was out of fashion they did a lot of travelling around Europe looking for other breakdancers that were still doing it in spite of what the media was trying to say about the culture.
So, for me, Second To None have got a lot to do with the resurgence of hip hop culture since the golden era of the early 80s. And they still do it, man, They do an event called Vile Style in Bournemouth every summer and they always ask me to come down and host it. I’ve got a really good relationship with the Second To None guys.
Breakin’ Convention has been to Poole several times and people look forward to it. Is hip hop mainstream these days?
Hip hop pioneer Fab Five Freddy was in London just last week at an amazing graffiti exhibition going on at the Saatchi Gallery. That’s pretty mainstream. With what we’re doing with Breakin’ Convention at Sadler’s Wells it’s quite clear that this underground, urban, revolutionary culture is now being seen as a valid and very important part of culture generally.
I’ve been making hip hop theatre since 1994 and the piece I did at the very first Breakin’ Convention was littered with swear words and really aggressive violent imagery because that reminded me of the state of hip hop at the time when there was a real focus on gangsta energy. So, I made that thinking that was the audience and they could handle it, but when we did Sadler’s Wells there was loads of families in the audience and I turned up talking my stuff and got boo-ed off my own stage!
It was then that I realised that we can’t go down this route, we have to keep the innocence of the culture alive. That could have been the last one we ever did, but instead it was the genesis of this idea of how hip hop could be presented in these high art establishments – 20 years on we’ve never looked back.
It’s a weird juxtaposition of this image of hip hop being criminal when it is actually the opposite. We’re not representing the media attitude that hip hop is a naughty thing to do, a key to gang violence that uses bad words. There is a part of that rebellious nature of young people, but equally I think that the media does try to portray young Black men as criminals, yet it’s the young Black and Latino communities in America that created this culture.
The whole purpose of the culture was conflict resolution. There was gang violence in those areas before hip hop that was a result of poverty, not race, but poverty. The communities decided they were not having violence and created a culture with values based upon unity, peace, love and having fun. And it worked, it saved a lot of people’s lives, a lot of people around the world would say hip hop saved their lives.
On a personal note, I understand you’re particularly fond of Dorset, what do you love about it?
I love Dorset. I guess Bournemouth Beach has got to be the best in England, it’s my favourite one. And there is hip hop culture there thanks to Second To None. It’s quite a diverse community as well. I didn’t expect to see so many people of colour in the area, which is really important considering that’s what I grew up in in London. To be honest, I’d love to move there; it’s beautiful.
I get down there when I can, when I’m not so busy. I’ll be back in summer hosting Vile Style with Second To None and I’ve got a good relationship with Pavilion Dance – just last year we did an event called Emerge+See.
I also remember the first time I performed in Poole. I directed a piece called Tag, which was all about graffiti art. We had these massive graffiti sculptures that breakdancers interacted with, and we had the lead character who was a graffiti artist and he rapped all of his text. So, man, that must have been 2008, 2009, good memories.
What’s next for Breakin’ Convention?
We’re celebrating the 20-year anniversary of Breakin’ Convention all year with other events and collaborations. While we’re on tour we’ve got The Ruggeds at Sadler’s Wells and we have our development project coming up called Open Art Surgery around the country.
Next year is the big one, the opening of the Hip Hop Theatre Academy in the new space, Sadler’s Wells East on the Olympic Park in London. It wil be mainly a performance space, but there’s quite a few studios in the building so there’s a choreographic school being developed, as well as the Hip Hop Academy with an accredited course for 16′ to 19-year-olds.
You know, a lot of hip hoppers don’t train in institutions, they are peer trained, but now it’s a full time course in which they not only study dance, but they also study rap, graffiti, and the music. They’ll be really well equipped, rounded hip hoppers!
It sounds like a giant step forward – the realisation of a dream?
Honestly, when I was in dance school having just left school in the late 1980s, I was on a foundation course and I put my hand up very early on to ask about if we were going to study hip hop, The teacher really diplomatically explained that as a result of the school preparing students for the marketplace in the theatre we were not going to learn any hip hop because there was no hip hop in the marketplace. Se, even though I’d seen it on music videos and was aware there was an economy that was developing around hip hop, the mainstream institutions were not on it.
I was inspired by doubt so when she said that to me I remember that was the initial spark that lead me to where we are today. Right then I thought that we have to change the marketplace.