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Flash Review Journal, 7-6: The Soul
Returns to Hip-Hop
Jonzi D at NYC's Hip-Hop Theater Festival
By Josephine Leask
Copyright 2001 Josephine Leask
As a Londoner, I was really excited
about the Hip-Hop Theater Festival which ran for three weeks in June at P.S. 122,
because of the opportunity to see Hip-Hop in its place of origin, New York. Hip-Hop
theater, a genre that has hardly emerged in the UK, is contemporary theater that
is performed through words, beats and rhythm that is relevant to black audiences
who have grown up within Hip-Hop and know it as a way of life. Another person
who was equally excited was London-based Hip-Hop artist Jonzi D, who crossed the
Atlantic to be part of this festival. For Jonzi D, bringing Hip-Hop to New York
was like "dragging coals to Newcastle," to use a rather hackneyed English expression.
Jonzi is a MC, dancer, choreographer,
poet and rapper from East London. He bridges the world of Hip-Hop and contemporary
dance, and is highly respected in both camps. With a two-year fellowship awarded
to him by the Arts Council of England (ACE) and a touring schedule which takes
him around the world, he has become a prolific artist. But it has taken years
of hard work, working within a community that has been ignored and ghettoized,
that has gotten Jonzi to where he is today. His background was unusual in that
while he was rapping and being a B-boy on the streets and in clubs he decided
to train at London Contemporary Dance School, keeping it a secret from his rapper
colleagues at the time, who associated contemporary dance with white sissies in
tights. Jonzi abandoned the tights, but used his training and crafted it into
his unique brand of Hip-Hop theater, which draws on an extensive repertoire of
The show that Jonzi brought to New
York, Lyrikal Fearta, consists of a series of acts, or ballads, which draw on
the experience of a young black working class male in London. In several lyrically
poetic and revealing solos, Jonzi gives his perspective on issues such as the
English education system, which teaches history from a white colonial perspective,
the racism inherent in the police, politicians and the white British establishment,
and the feelings of displacement felt by people of color in the UK. In another
solo he tells a dramatic and humorous tale of inner conflict -- of whether to
play by the rules or violently break them in unleashed self expression. He raps
about temptations that come his way such as his best mate's 'fit' girlfriend,
or being given a fat joint to smoke in the street, or committing acts of vandalism
at a concert. In a sinister duet about police brutality, Jonzi partners a dancer
who is dressed as a cop and has the body language of a fascist skin head. In another
piece which is a comment about black on black violence and lack of trust among
black males, he is joined by other members of his company. In a series of walks
and postures, they check each other out with hostility and confusion, mirroring
each other's moves, or getting into fights. While Jonzi celebrates his black brothers
and sisters, he also comments on the rifts within the world of Hip-Hop, as well
as its capitalization and the 'whitening' of its image.
A charismatic performer, Jonzi recounts
his ballads in a mixture of cockney rhyming-slang and rap which reference an eclectic
range of subjects such as Shakespeare, politics, black history and popular culture.
Words pour from his mouth in rhythmical phrases, each one more expressive than
the last, and are complimented by movement and sound -- an artistic array of sampling
and scratching by Jonzi's in-house DJ. While "Lyrikal Fearta" is not
primarily about dance, it is theater in which dance and movement play a very large
part. Jonzi‰s choreography is based on a mixture of gestures, postures, breaking
and popping, and rather than performing isolated break dance tricks, he integrates
them into his unique movement style, which follows his text in a spontaneous flow.
In his final sketch, Jonzi recounts
a graphic tale of cultural displacement. He searches to find his homeland, where
he will escape the racist's hostility of East London, stopping off in various
countries in which he imagines his roots to be Granada, then Jamaica, America
(as the home of Hip-Hop) and Africa. Each country is wittily depicted through
dance, music and local dialects. However each is equally hostile to him because
he is culturally 'the other'. Finally he comes to the realization that just because
he is black and his ancestors and family originated in those countries, it doesn't
mean to say that he, essentially an English boy, is welcome in them.
Some of Jonzi's references and language
are lost on the New York audience, and it made me aware of the cultural differences
on either side of the Atlantic, which runs through mainstream society as well
as that of Hip-Hop. However Jonzi gets his agenda across so forcibly through his
communicative performance style that he could be understood by any racial group.
What was revealing in the light of the work of the other American Hip-Hop artists
was that Jonzi‰s work, which was representative of London Hip-Hop, seemed more
politically edgy, more provocative, ironic and in your face. He doesn‰t soften
up his act, or pander to a white audience, but is as explicit and direct as he
needs to be.
Half way through the show, Jonzi‰s
MC walks on stage, to check out the audience and warm-them up with a bit of 'freestyle'
improvised rapping. Likewise, the end of the performance becomes a freestyle arena,
with the company and members of the audience taking turns to display their skills,
thus melting boundaries between the spectator and performer. Hip-Hop theater erases
many of the boundaries which white traditional theater imposes, as so much of
it has been devised outside the restraints and conventions of the theater.
Like many rap artists, Jonzi is a
commentator on style, politics and culture, and especially on Hip-Hop culture.
Much of Hip-Hop is self referential as that is a way of keeping it alive. He criticizes
the violence within Hip-Hop, takes the piss out of the macho trigger-happy man,
and also bemoans the lack of solidarity amongst black brothers. Jonzi is an artist
who is trying to keep his art form underground, and trying to keep it black. As
he questions during one of his acts, what has become of Hip-Hop when "Niggers
call their black brothers and sisters niggers, whites call themselves niggers,
and children have guns". Jonzi aims to spend his ACE fellowship money on broadening
links with Hip-Hop theater around the world and bringing it to many more audiences.
He is also committed to expanding the black presence within the dance world, which,
certainly in Europe, is painfully white.
From what I saw of the other performances
at the Festival, each one carried a very clear message, as well as defining what
Hip-Hop theater was, and displaying the integration of Hip-Hop techniques break-dancing,
sampling, graffiti art, rapping, and Hip-Hop style within theater conventions.
For example, Hip-Hop Theater Junction's "Rhyme Deferred", directed by
Kamilah Forbes, was a play about the underground versus the commercialization
of Hip-Hop. The story adopts the form of a Cain and Able parable, the downfall
of a Puff Daddy type, who had made it big with a record label, but can‰t make
it any longer as he has lost his roots, and forgotten what 'freestyle' is. His
impoverished brother, however is far more spiritually connected with the soul
of Hip-Hop, and struggles against its capitalization. An intelligent comment on
the danger of Hip-Hop being appropriated by the commodity market and loosing its
black authenticity and spiritual identity, this play was brilliantly performed,
again with an exuberant energy that I found with all the events in the festival.
Full Circle presented a refreshing
work by a group of feisty young performers with heaps of attitude and energy,
who investigated the overlap between Latino and Hip-Hop culture. While this was
more a light-hearted display of skill rather than a politically thought provoking
play, the company nevertheless got its view across on matters such as police brutality
and solidarity between cultural communities in the urban jungle. Much to the delight
of many women in the audience, Full Circle's B-girls proved their feminine strengths
in the dance arena, addressing the male dominance of this area of Hip-Hop.
This evolving Hip-Hop theater makes
for fluid theater that integrates movement, rhythm and language seamlessly and
which is both self-referential and outward looking. It is theater that challenges
traditional techniques, broadens the horizons of Hip-Hop without selling out,
and makes it accessible without making it bland. It teaches Hip-Hop audiences
to expect more than just the macho athletic headspins, which while impressive
don‰t tell us as much about this rich and wonderful art form as when it is integrated
into theater which explores political, economic and gender issues of the society
which produces it. Hip-Hop theater includes the audience, asking them to be active
rather than passive, in a way that 'white' theatre rarely does. It is electrically
charged as it is about contemporary themes and the elements of free style and
improvisation keep it fresh, and extremely engaging for young audiences. Hip-Hop
theater teaches us a lot about the world we live in, and if you are not from the
Hip-Hop world you need to be educated.
Josephine Leask is a dance writer
and performer. She recently moved to New York from London, and is currently working
at the Village Voice and free-lancing for other NY and European publications.
She is a correspondent for Dance Theatre Journal (London) and Ballet-Tanz International
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