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Breaking out of constraints

Photo: Paul Hampartsoumian

Jonzi D chuckles. “Oh, my word,” he says. “The tights.”

The b-boy from Bow in East London turned darling of the establishment is scoffing quiche in a Sadler’s Wells backroom and recalling his initiation into the world of contemporary dance. “I was like, ‘Why do we have to wear these? That’s some perverted shit’.”

It was the late 1980s, at a dance foundation course at Lewisham College, south-east London, and the ballet gear wasn’t a hit. “I remember their justification, ‘We can see how the muscles work’,” he recalls. “And I said, ‘Bull, you don’t see that in flipping kung fu’. When my mates saw me, they were, ‘Jonz, put some clothes on, man’.”

He wasn’t mad on the curriculum, either. “One teacher said to us, ‘You’ll never learn street dance here. We want to prepare you for a career in dance’. I thought, ‘That’s wrong, man. I’m gonna change that shit’.”

And change it Jonzi D – “David Jones… Jonesy… Jonzi” – categorically has. Associate artist of Sadler’s Wells, and for the past ten years the man behind the Islington venue’s Breakin’ Convention hip hop festival, he is hailed by its artistic director, Alistair Spalding, for “raising the profile of hip hop dance theatre to a whole new level”.

Jonzi d
Photo: Antonio Zazueta Olmos

He returns to his roots this month, when, for the first time in 18 years, he performs solo in a new self-penned show. The Letter is a typical Jonzi D-style theatrical rumpus – one body, many voices, a blend of rhyme, beats, wit, passion and hip hop dance. Its genesis was a letter he received last Christmas, offering the 43 year-old an MBE.

“My head fell into my hands,” says the man who describes himself as a “true Cockney” but whose parents hailed from Grenada. “For me, it’s obvious. I am not going to accept a badge that says I’m a member of the British Empire. My forefathers were victims of the British Empire. I am diametrically opposed to the idea of empire. Man, I’m a Star Wars fan – empire is bad.”

This may be clear in Jonzi’s mind, but “what’s tricky”, he says, “is explaining it to other people”.

“One person who really got to me was all, ‘Boy, Jonzi, do you know what that means for them black kids in the area? To know you got an MBE? Because if you was to accept that, you’d make a lot of young black boys feel like they’ve got value’.

“Also,” he adds, “there are people in my place of work that worked really hard in making sure my name was high on the list and I don’t want to disrespect them.”

This complex argument made theatrical is The Letter, the second part of a double bill running over two weeks. The first is a redux of his seminal debut hip hop theatre show, an album-like collection of pieces called Lyrikal Fearta. The title is a play on ‘physical theatre’ – “changed to show how I play with rhymes”. The ‘Fearta’ bit is “because I’m Cockney and I like the term ‘fear’ in there. It’s not an easy show. There’s a lot of racism, violent stuff”.

It’s one in the eye for the dance teacher who insisted he could never make a career out of hip hop. But how did the East End b-boy get here? He comes, he says, from an “amazing lineage of dancers”. His earliest memories are of his dad and uncle’s African-style dance battles in the front room.

Then, aged 12, “I first saw someone spinning on their head and I knew that was for me”. By the next year, he and his mates had started breaking. “It was about not fighting. We’d go down the next school and fight. That’s what we did. But 1983 was the first year it was a dance battle – no one got beaten down but, trust me, egos were bruised.”

As a black kid growing up in the 1970s, when the National Front was in its heyday, “identity was always an issue and a struggle”, he says. “To be valued you had to fight for it. Hip hop became my mode of doing that”.

Still, Lewisham College only came about after his mother died. He was midway through A levels “and I just thought, ‘Sod this’. I’d only been doing it for Mum. I wanted to make her happy”.

He quit and made cash touting nightclub tickets to tourists. Then a friend appeared with a proposition. “He came round to the house – ‘Jonzi, this is making money’ – and showed me six crack rocks,” he recalls.

“I realised I’m either going to go this way or I sort my life out. I didn’t know where I was going, I had to re-remember my passion. And I thought – dance.”[pullquote]Hip hop is not that 50 Cent thing of ‘I’ve got money and I’m gonna shoot you, bitch’. Original hip hop values are education, empowerment, peace, love and unity[/pullquote]

After Lewisham, Jonzi landed a place at the London Contemporary Dance School, excelling in choreography. But his mates were still suspicious. “They said, ‘Jonz, respect, but you’re doing someone else’s dance form and it’s not you’. I thought, ‘Wow, I’ve submitted to that. I’m not doing it no more’.”

So he turned back to hip hop, working with acclaimed Battersea rapper MC Mell‘O’, collaborating with US band The Roots, setting up his own emceeing night, Apricot Jam, and becoming something of a British hip hop pioneer. “For me, hip hop was relevant, he says. “It built communities.”

Around the mid-1990s, he joined an urban poets’ collective, turning his raps into spoken word pieces. From there sprang Lyrikal Fearta, premiered at the Ovalhouse in 1995. And Jonzi’s unique blend of rhyme, mime, monologue and movement – his hip hop theatre – was born.

These days, he sheepishly confesses, he’s pretty establishment, but he still sees himself as a quiet militant keen to bash down the “ivory tower of so-called ‘high art’ ” – tights and all – and the hijacking of his beloved hip hop by the forces of gangsta and bling.

“Hip hop is not that 50 Cent thing of ‘I’ve got money and I’m gonna shoot you, bitch’,” he insists. “Original hip hop values are education, empowerment, peace, love and unity. Real hip hop lives. And it still means something to people.”

Lyrikal Fearta – Redux is at Sadler’s Wells’ Lilian Baylis Studio, London, from October 18-20. The Letter and Other Works premieres at the same venue on October 25-27. For details, see www.sadlerswells.com

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