Jonzi D is in his lounge, in matching grey trackies and a top, roll up in hand, relaxed and open. The last time I saw Jonzi D, I stood next to him at a concert; pillar high hat and a faux-fur jacket, his swagger often makes him stand out. Our vista then, the iconic Saul Williams crowned in a velvet cloak with political slogans projected on the back wall as he performed poetry and music. Even prior to sharing space with them both, the parallels between these two game-changing artists are interesting. Jonzi’s triad is lyricism, dance and activism (his notorious refusal of an OBE comes to mind and his dedication to Hip-hop theatre as a genre through his own work, and the Breakin’ Convention – a platform for others from across the globe.
Now we sit in the central London home he has built with wife, Jane Sekonya, a South African born dancer and choreographer. Their human-sized TV is synced to an iPad which becomes the stage tonight as Jonzi shows me what he considers to be the new wave of “the dopest Hip-hop talent”. Adjacent to us is a stack of Jonzi’s travel-ready t-shirts. At the top of the pile, tees plastered with ‘Zulu Nation’, ‘Free Form’ and ‘Breakin’ Convention’ logos. Tomorrow, he goes to Amsterdam and a few weeks later to New York. He tells me that there is rarely a month in the year that he does not leave the country, often because of his infamous solo show, ‘Aeroplane Man’.
I tell him how the musical incarnation of the show made me claim my desire to write. Over a decade ago, I sat front row at the Theatre Royal Stratford East, mesmerized by a style of spoken word I’d never seen. I promised myself I would be on that stage. Months previously, Jonzi had judged an Urban Griots poetry slam (run by MCs Ty, Breis and poet Fatimah Kelleher); my first ever slam performance. I placed second amongst some poetic heavyweights and veterans and he signed my scribing book with “Your poetry is some of the realest I’ve ever heard…Jonzi x”. How that sentence soothed me as I navigated what was then a brand new world. A year later, I would tread the boards at Theatre Royal as part of a groundbreaking poetry show, Ten Poet Jam, alongside others including Kat Francois, Nikesh Suklah, Carl Ramsey (of the legendary 3 plus 1 that shaped Natalie Stewart of Floetry) and now theatre director, Matthew Xia (then DJ Excalibah).
Pleased by my history lesson, Jonzi leads me into one of his own. We both have the impulse that this interview is more than a piece on the highly anticipated Breakin’ Convention festival. This man is a library of knowledge when it comes to spoken word and Hip-hop over the last 3 decades. I’m keen for the lesson to commence…
How did Hip-hop grab you?
Sugarhill Gang… I didn’t know it was Hip-Hop; it was a new arena with a futuristic nature… graffiti looked out of this world and breaking…the way it flowed on the beat. It was new, fresh; the people that made it, I looked like them, they were from similar concrete jungles.
Was your first love lyricism or dancing?
Dancing. I’ve always liked movement. The lyricism came quite soon afterwards when we first got Hip-Hop. Back then, we tried to do all of them [5 elements] and then verged to the ones we were good at. Lyricism I felt I was better at.
Tell me more about how you experienced the 5 elements [Graffiti, B-Boying, Emcee, DJing, knowledge] …
Graffiti, I used to write my name around Bow and Popular [East London]. I liked getting up and seeing my name, so I did tagging for a year or two. I’m the last of six brothers, they all danced, parents sang… Rap was always going to be in there. In terms of knowledge, it was intrinsic like Gary Byrd’s ‘The Crown’ being inspired by Public Enemy, KRS1… DJing, I just couldn’t [laughs] my DJ was Davy D/Davy Diamond. At the time, the DJ was the leader, there was an equilibrium, he was the responsible one, and back then came with the boxes; the records and speakers. My role was to grab the mic and keep the party going. The DJ was on another level! Beatboxing, everybody did it, any rapper…if there was a cipher, you made your own music [shrugs]. I’d have a go.
When did the Hip-hop theatre come about?
I started making Hip-hop theatre in 1995 driven by the concept. I always felt strongly that we had to call it Hip-Hop, the Hip-Hop head pricks his ears up. A commitment to create theatre using the technical skills of Hip-Hop; breaking as narrative, graffiti as set design, DJjing as musical. Benji Reid, Frank Wilson, Mo-Ideas, Mark Walsh, B-boy Little Tim, B-boy Banksy – these were the first, I tried out the concept with ‘Lyrikal Fearta’. I approached Alistair Spalding at the South Bank with the idea. Using Hip-Hop disciplines beyond a battle and in conceptual spaces, the intention was political; I wanted to prove that this is a genre that deserves to be acknowledged.
My brother Pete, amazing dancer killing clubs in the late 70s, early 80s. Seeing him practice, I wanted to do what he did. James Brown as a dancer, but his music and dance intrinsically linked. Michael Jackson, one of the most distinct dancers ever; you see someone does his move, you know it’s his. The Nicholas Brothers. The London Contemporary Dance Theatre circa 1980’s. At dance college, a teacher called Victoria Marks; while I was training, she was so encouraging in terms of Hip-Hop theatre. She is actually at UCLA [University of California, Los Angeles] now and I’m hoping to work with her while I’m in LA.
Phoenix Dance Theatre, the image of Black men doing contemporary dance but working with reggae music was very powerful; great technicians. Wim Vandekeybus, Belgian choreographer – aggressive physical risky work. Storme Webber, a poet, used movement in her poetry back in 1994. It was a light bulb moment, taking two polarised entities and bringing them together, which is what I committed to do.
Tell me about the spoken word scene back then…
I was invited by Charlie Dark to the Urban Poets Society; they were just ridiculously cool, with concepts like abstract as fact…a real black intelligentsia mid 90s; it was an incredible time. Khefri Riley was part of it, a model and MC from LA very well connected, as well as Remi Abbas, Roger Robinson, others. By 1995, I was at the Ovalhouse Theatre working with Urban Poets Society, so I tried out ‘Aeroplane Man’ as a solo with no music, no dance, just lyrics and one character directed by Benji Reid. Next development was doing it with a band and the whole dance aspect, then the full musical with other characters. We ended that tour at the QEH. The crew was still there – it was important – from Urban Poets Society – then became Manifest.
Six years or so after I started hearing about Black Pepper and Urban Griots. What we did then was advanced. I’m disappointed. I don’t think poetry has developed and pushed as much as it should have, maybe it’s a generational thing. I look at artists like Saul Williams doing a lot more music and acting, and myself included, I’m doing some other shit now. Charlie Dark [founder of Run Dem Crew] is now an athlete. Khefri Riley is a doula. Roger Robinson [Malika’s Kitchen] … it didn’t survive. We wanted to do more, but the idea of the collective resonates in all our stuff.
Jonzi plays tracks from ‘One Hell of a Storm’ released in 1995 which features the Urban Poets Society as well as Patience Agbabi, Malika Booker (then Malika B), Ife Piankhi and Lemn Sissay. I hear enough to immediately add it to my Amazon wish list…
I’d say that the early to mid 90’s period was a renaissance [in spoken word]; it was around the time when gangsta rap first started to get big. I remember that this was the first option, culturally, that came out of the acknowledgment that Hip-Hop had been hijacked. I peeped that in the early 90’s…this movement (spoken word) contained a lot of the Hip-hop heads who were central to those developments. It was a really good time and in that time, I was inspired to create Lyrikal Fearta. I wanted to call it Hip-Hop theatre because I wanted a distancing with poetry at the time because Hip-Hop was getting a raw deal with gangsta rap, forgetting about all the elements, and the music industry had let us down at this point…
I was doing a lot of work with Mc Mell’O’ at the time and I saw firsthand how a record company can suck the life out of an artist, so I thought ‘I ain’t going that way’ – the theatrical route was an option because I understood how the theatre scene and industry worked; how you can get money to develop. Also Hip-Hop needed to get back to creativity. I could see there were formulaic approaches that were being thrust down our throat by the media. I had a conscious desire to work against that to find another way of expressing this culture.
Where do you see things in 5 years’ time?
Aeroplane Man touring more internationally. In Harlem, I was described as being like Clark Kent in Superman. What is exciting is I’m here, there and everywhere in the show. I always wanted to perform Aeroplane Man in all the places I go to – England, Grenada, Jamaica, New York, South Africa and film it.
At this point, Jonzi suddenly realises he will be visiting all those countries in the coming year and calls out to his wifee. They have an impromptu brainstorm on ways to utilise this opportunity. It’s clear that their union has several dimensions and the ease at which they formulate a plan is joyful to watch. 30 minutes and some tea and biscuits later, our interview reconvenes…
Breakin’ Convention will exist in franchise; it is already so in demand. Its USP is the development of Hip-Hop artists with no theatre training who can learn about theatre without compromising their technique and therefore really commit to it. We are 13 this year [Breakin’ Convention]. We have done 8 national tours and a date at the Harlem Apollo was the first international one. This year, we have dates in North Carolina, Florida, Colorado, Denver, L.A and Canada, with always at least one UK act. Luxembourg is calling too.
Who are your Hip-Hop hopes?
I feel really humbled seeing young kids dancing their heart out…presenting their truth in an artistic way. In terms of dope artists [Jonzi pulls up some YouTube videos] …MF Doom always gets a mention, the marmite. I like Odd Future – they’re an energy even if my ears are defiled. I like Georgia Anne Muldrow – she does some nice shit, super talented. I’m thinking about dancers now… Storyboard P from Brooklyn, B-boy Cheerito (Russia), Antoinette Gomis from France and she is doing Breakin’ Convention.
Why should people come to Breakin’ Convention?
For the uninitiated, because it is energising, it’s a carnival-like atmosphere; we fill the theatre with colour and sound. You are invited to participate. There is something for everyone including our [hesitates] ‘secret’ free park jam… We have a diverse program with Hip-Hop dance styles; breaking, locking, popping, whacking and some house. I like to make sure there is a reflection with gender and race. I don’t really have to worry too much because Hip-Hop already has that, and the best work is not from one area or one history, ‘it’s not where you’re from, it’s where you’re at!’ So that and committing to the ideas in Hip-Hop that are about having a voice…distinct voices.
The 13th Breakin’ Convention, London takes place at Sadler’s Wells Theatre:
- 30th April – 1st May 2016
- Official After Party is at the O2 Academy, Islington: 1st May
- Park Jam is at Spa Fields Park, Islington: 2nd May
Breakin’ Convention UK Tour:
- Doncaster – 7th May
- Bristol – 10th May
- Whitely Bay – 14th May
- Nottingham – 17th-18th May
- Blackpool – 21st May
- Kings Lynn – 24th May
- Canterbury – 28th-29th May
- Bournemouth – 1st June
For more information about the tour go to the Breakin’ Convention website