Jonzi D, a British hip-hop legend, talks about the genre, semantics and ‘The Letter’


Jonzi D. (Paul Hampartsoumian)
April 4

Has hip-hop culture become mainstream? And if it is mainstream, is that a good thing? The Kennedy Center is in the midst of a three-week festival celebrating all forms of street art, and as b-boys, rappers and graffiti artists head to the operatic temple on the Potomac, some featured performers may still be asking themselves existential questions about joining the establishment.

Nagging doubts about who’s embracing hip-hop and why are the subject of Jonzi D’s “The Letter,” a 45-minute dance theater work that the British artist was scheduled to perform Friday at the Kennedy Center’s Millennium Stage. In 2011, Jonzi (real name David Jones) received a letter from Buckingham Palace offering him what’s known as an M.B.E., the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire. The designation would welcome him to an elite group of artists, athletes, diplomats and armed service members, and put him on the path to joining the ranks of Britain’s knights and dames.

He’d get to meet the queen! And yet . . . Jonzi struggled with whether to accept.

In “The Letter,” he portrays dozens of characters, including his proud sister, his cynical mates and his exasperated boss. Jonzi is artistic director of Breakin’ Convention, the hip-hop division at London’s venerable dance venue Sadler’s Wells, and in that capacity, he has toured Britain and the world as a presenter, speaker and performer. On Sunday night, he will dance and serve as emcee for a ticketed showcase that will also feature performers from France, South Korea and Brazil.

In advance of the trip, Jonzi D. spoke to The Washington Post about various hip-hop styles, the global growth of the culture, and why semantics may be keeping street dance from getting presented more on the American stage.

The Kennedy Center is calling “One Mic: Hip-Hop Culture Worldwide” a global celebration of “a distinctly American art form.” As a Brit, do you agree with that designation?

I would say hip-hop is distinctly New York. I would argue that, in America, there’s popping and locking that another part of the country has developed, but that when it comes to hip-hop — as in breaking, graf, DJing and emceeing — I think that’s distinctly New York.

One of the things I love about hip-hop is that it makes references to regional styles. You go to France, and you’ll see a specific style; you go to Brazil, and you’ll see a specific style. As the culture is growing, we are also seeing it diversify.

We saw a great example of that last month, when the Paris-based Compagnie Kafig performed Brazilian-influenced street dance at the Kennedy Center. I loved that the choreographer didn’t try to turn those guys into contemporary dancers.

Hip-hop theater, as a form, needs to learn that there have been great developments created by contemporary dance but that actually we are contemporary dancers. The term “contemporary dance” is a bit confusing. Hip-hop is clearly more contemporary than a lot of the styles that have roots in [Martha] Graham technique and [Merce] Cunningham technique.

How much distinction do you like to see dancers make between the different forms of hip-hop — for example, some people might call themselves “breakers” and others “pop and lockers”?

It is interesting with the label thing. I call myself a hip-hopper and a b-boy, but in the ’80s, anyone who was into hip-hop was a b-boy. Recently, people have started referring to b-boying as “the break dance” part of the culture. I refer to myself as a performer, first and foremost. I use rap in my performance, I use some hip-hop dance styles.

So you encourage dancers not to box themselves in when it comes to labels?

Yeah. We’ve got to be fluid with the terminology, but accurate as well. If you refer to yourself as a breaker, then I expect you to break. If you refer to yourself as a popper, I expect you to pop. But if you refer to yourself as a dancer, that’s a slightly freer title to give yourself.

We’ve had some interesting hip-hop dance forms coming out of the American South, like the Memphis jook and a New Orleans jive dance called the skip. Are any of those turning up overseas?

Memphis jookin’ is a style that I’m really excited about. We have something similar called turfing. At my festival in the U.K., Breakin’ Convention, we look for new street dance forms that are developing, and we try to present them and show them to the world. That’s very important for us.

In your solo work “The Letter,” you refer to “street dance” in a derogatory manner. Is that you speaking, or one of the many characters you play in the piece?

I’m okay with the term “street dance,” but that’s me responding to someone who said “street dance?” Some people hear the term “street dance” and think that means it’s a community venture, and don’t acknowledge the amount of work that goes into the art form. There’s a critique that some people think hip-hop is not right for the theater, but I’m pretty sure they said that about tap dance in the early 1990s.

How have you dealt with those negative responses?

Just by pushing forward, to be honest. It’s about having the support, even if it is just one person who’s got power within the arts. If you have that, then we’re able to show the rest of the world just how artistic and sophisticated and theatrical hip-hop is.

One Mic: Breaking Form: global urban contemporary dance At the Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater. Sunday, 8 p.m. Featuring Project Soul (South Korea), Sébastien Ramirez and Honji Wang (France) and Companhia Urbana (Brazil). www.kennedy-center.org

Ritzel is a freelance writer.

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