Monday, 27 January 2014

What Shakespeare Would Be Doing If He Was Born Now

I am a very lucky journo indeed. Cos I freelance, I get to choose the shows I go to, so only choose the ones I think I will enjoy. Do I seem to always give positive reviews? Well, this is the reason why that is :-)

Tomorrow, I will be going to see Jonzi D in Lyrikal Fearta, a triple bill that includes Jonzi's acclaimed solo work The Letter, which explores the responses to Jonzi being offered - and refusing - an MBE, as well as Broken Lineage, which looks at the differences between the old skool and new skool hip hop generations. Personally, I don't know very much about these two 'skools' - but, being a very lucky journo indeed, I got the chance to speak to Jonzi directly about all of this, and found him to be a very friendly and good-humoured sort, despite being super-busy, and always working and travelling, and probably always inundated with inane questions from don't-know-much-about-hip-hop journos such as myself...

In any case, we still managed to have a lovely chat, and I, of course, wanted to know more about him famously saying no to that prestigious MBE...

Jonzi: First and foremost, it wasn’t interesting for me to just tell the audience my reasons for not taking it. What was much more interesting were the voices in my head, forcing me left or right. Some of these voices were actual people; some of the voices were ideas in my head that I created characters from. ‘Jonzi’ doesn’t actually speak in the piece until the very end but, up until then, I present conversations with Jonzi, just with me playing the other people as well.

Me: Can you tell us a bit more about these other people?

Jonzi: I play 6 different characters. One of them is somebody I work with at Sadler’s Wells, and they’re giving me more of a corporate perspective on it. I speak to a local kid who lives in Bow, which is where I’m from, and the effect I have on him, regardless of whether I take it or not. I play that kid’s mum. I also play a very middle class African woman. And I play a very militant guy, called Darren. And yeah, it’s a variety of voices all sharing their opinion on me. 

Me: Is there a comedy element to proceedings? Do you – wear a dress?

Jonzi: (laughs) Who says I’ll be wearing a dress! That’s a huge assumption…

Me: Okay, so, maybe you’ll be naked. 

Jonzi: No, I’m not naked either! My goodness. You’re obviously a blogger! (laughs) I play two women in the piece, but I’m still wearing black t-shirt and black trousers. Although the poster, which you might have seen, shows an image of me holding a cigar, wearing make-up… That was added by Photoshop. i.e. by me!

Me: Okay, cool. So, can I ask you now about the MBE thing... Recently, a lot of poets got invited to Buckingham Palace, and it seemed to me that a lot of people's masks kind of slipped because, you know, some people were invited and some people weren't... So, this kind of seems like a timely reflection of that, as a poet myself...

Jonzi: It’s interesting, because I’ve been invited to the Houses of Parliament, and no 10 Downing Street, and there’s no way I’d refuse that. That’s a brilliant chance of getting into these places of power and to talk my piece, really. I think the MBE is a very different perspective. I think to accept an MBE is also an acceptance of the legacy and the history of the British Empire. More importantly, I think it really compromises our voices as poets who want to talk about justice, you know what I mean? So, for me, it was always difficult. I knew before I was offered an MBE that I would not take an MBE.

Me: I totally agree. I think I would be the same... I'm really interested in seeing you look at all this, but I have to admit, for the other piece in the show, 'The Legacy', I'm a bit, well, ignorant. It's about the differences between the old skool and new skool in hip hop. I don't know if you can tell by my voice, but I'm a chubby Welsh woman wearing a cardigan... I don't know a lot about hip hip. Please can you tell me a bit about this?

Jonzi: (laughs) Okay, let me give you an intro… There’s old skool hip hop which I see as relatively innocent at the time. A lot of old skoolers in the early 80s, in England, it was a great idea – ‘hip hop’ – 'though we didn’t necessarily see it lasting for 40 plus years… So… At the time there was an innocence about it, that was purely based on community, love, sharing, battling, and all those kinds of things. But now it’s a multi-million dollar industry, so there’s a lot of, shall we say, compromise that has been made of and by the culture, and there are lots of images of hip hop that original old skoolers would probably look at and say “that’s not hip hop”. So, it’s more the character of the old skool guy, versus the character of the new skool guy - what influences the new skool guy, what value they have. A lot of the piece is based on my own experience, seeing old skoolers who have just come out of the woodwork, and are claiming the culture again, mainly because these younger kids are the ones that have taken it a little bit further. So, for me, there’s bitterness that I have discovered with a lot of old skool attitudes, and I wanted to explore that within this particular work.

Me: The bitterness, the different generations... It sounds very Shakespearian to me. So, can I just ask you, who your own influences are? Which musicians you like, in both the old skool and the new skool?

Jonzi: Old skool influences – I’d say Rock Steady Crew, as a group, are just completely amazing. I’d definitely say Melle Mel from the FuriousFive. KRS-one from the original Boogie Down Productions, great influence politically. But also, in relation to hip hop, I don’t know, I’d put Malcolm X in there, I’d put Louis Farrakhan in there, mainly because I discovered a lot of the work of these guys through listening to rap. So there was a very strong political agenda in 87, 88, that kind of period of time. Nowadays, I’d say who influences me… Odd Future. I like Odd Future. Tyler, The Creator, Earl Sweatshirt, those guys are really cool. I also like Madlib. And MF Doom. Although, he’s old skool, I first heard him in 1988, as part of a group called KMD, he also did a track with 3rd Bass, one of the first legitimate white groups in hip hop. It’s interesting, I do struggle a bit when asked about the new skool, and I’m embarrassed to say that bitter old character that I play in Broken Lineage, there’s a part of me that relates to him.

Me: Do you know a musician called Akala? Me and the boyfriend went to see him recently... I think he's amazing.

Jonzi: Akala is amazing. He is brilliant, so clever. 

Me: We are going to see the Hip Hop Shakespeare Company in the South Bank in March. Do you like them?

Jonzi: I do. I think they’re excellent. I’m hoping to work with them one day. Me and Akala met up three or four years ago, and he asked me to direct one of his pieces. Since then, he’s been working with a much better theatre director than me…! But, he was a pleasure to hang out with. He’s great.

Me: And, I was just wondering - it sounds as if you travel a fair amount with your work. Have you been to Wales before?

Jonzi: Of all of the countries I’ve been to, I can’t get a visa to get into Wales (laughs)… But I smuggled myself in one day, and I went to Cardiff, to the Millennium Centre, and we did Breakin' Convention there.

Me: Do you have a favourite place that you've been to? I know you have many to choose from...

Jonzi: Fave country... I’d say South Africa. The first time I went to South Africa in 1987 was a revelation. I’d say that one… I mean… I’ve just got back from Brazil, and that was huge. It was a very serious danger to South Africa being the top place, but I think, in balance, it’s South Africa still.

Me: What made that your favourite visit?

Jonzi: The spirit of the people, the understanding of hip hop culture, the rappers... My wife.

Me: Ah! Romance...

Jonzi: Yes. I found my wife there.

Me: And, finally, can you just tell me what you've got lined up after this particular tour, which I think end in the first week of February?

Jonzi: After that, I’ve got lots of development work with Breakin' Convention. We’re going to do something called Back to the Lab where we work with choreographers and bring them back to the laboratory to start exploring some stuff with a very experienced theatre maker, Jonathan Burrows, then after that I’ll be going out to do the Open Arts Surgery in Toronto. Then I’ll be performing as part of the Washington DC Hip Hop Theatre Festival. Then, after that, I’m going to be going straight to the Harlem Apollo to start working with Soweto Kinch and some artists from New York to develop a piece that’s going to be performed in London in 2015. Then when I get back we do Breakin' Convention the National Tour.

Me: And will this be coming to Wales?

Jonzi: No.

Me: Oh....

Jonzi: (laughs) You’re just going to have to travel a bit, love, that’s it!

Me: Ha ha! Well that's about it from me.... Last thing, I guess, is - is there anything, like, any final words, you would like to say, about hip hop theatre?

Jonzi: (pause) What I will say is that I think that hip hop theatre is what Shakespeare would be doing if he was born now.

Wow! Great final words, and great interview, I think you'll agree, and a very interesting, erudite man we have in Mr Jonzi D. You can catch his highly acclaimed Lyrikal Fearta production at Sherman Cymru tomorrow from 8pm. And I, my dearest blog buddies, will see you there x