Breakin’ Convention Showcases Hip Hop Theater Art, and Breaking Commercialized Connections
When Cardi B, with her trademark no-filter attitude, raps in her recent hit “Bodak Yellow” – Now I don’t got to dance/I make money move – she has something to sing about, with her smash hit No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100. Although Jonzi D, organizer of Breakin’ Convention – a festival of hip hop art forms descending on the Arsht Center Friday and Saturday – sees a landmark in Cardi B’s success, he also hears in the song the hip-hop arts again being hijacked by the American music industry.
In the journey from the Sugarhill Gang’s 1980 hit “Rapper’s Delight” to Cardi B’s “Bodak Yellow,” Jonzi worries something has been lost in the commercial success of American hip hop. For Jonzi that something is what he calls truth. Speaking with him in London by phone, Jonzi confessed: “Hip hop has been reshaped, and it is celebrating values that are ultimately capitalist and defamatory to black people.”
Breakin’ Convention aims to change that. Since 2004 Jonzi D has packed audiences at London’s Sadler’s Wells Theatre by showcasing scissor-legged gymnastics, raw MC-ing and a magic canvass made from urban cement by Europe’s top graffiti artists.
The youngest of six children, Jonzi D’s attraction to hip hop grew naturally from his Caribbean roots. “Hip hop felt like a mixture of reggae and soul. My older brother was the first one to play ‘Rapper’s Delight’ to me. It reminded me of reggae music because of the rapid chatting over the music that happens in rap as well.” Through that music, Jonzi D “saw a load of people who looked like me – non-white people – doing the most audacious things on the street.”
He thinks American hip-hop artists have lost track of their origins – something their European counterparts still champion. “The culture of hip hop is celebrated a lot more outside America than in America. Outside America those basic pillars of the culture — break dancing as an art form, DJ-ing as an art form, graffiti as art form – are developing at a rapid rate. In Europe we are free of the grip the American music industry has on hip hop. In Europe we are free to celebrate hip hop as an art form more.”
Jonzi D is quick to point out that it was thedance aspect of hip hop that compelled him to develop his whole idea of hip-hop theater: “Hip-hop theater is a vision I had in the late 1980s,” continued Jonzi.“I trained in the London Contemporary Dance School. I discovered in that school a fantastic attitude where people were looking for new movement and new ideas. In one theory class I asked, ‘why are we not studying hip hop?’”
The answer Jonzi got focused on preparing students for the market place, and in the eyes of his teachers there just was no market for hip-hop dance. “Breakin’ Convention is about hip-hop culture, where the dance is the main focus, and it always has been as far as I’m concerned.”
For that reason, the Miami version of Breakin’ Convention highlights, for instance, South Africa’s Soweto Skeleton Movers and their hip-hop adaptation of Pantsula, an energetic, jive-like step based on a 1950s Soweto dance style called isparapara.Isparapara grew out of movements commuters made as they jumped on and off buses.
Isparapara dancers later mixed in tap to shape the bouncy, energized choreographies that have made the Soweto Skeleton Movers famous. Think Plastic Man’s all-morphic stretchability mixed with a Fred Astaire smooth style and just a dab of Michael Jackson’s genius for making a photo moment out of the snap of the hips or cock of a shoulder – and you have some idea of what to expect.
Since its inception in 2004, an important part of Breakin’ Convention has been sharing the stage with both local legends and the home-town artists ready for a breakout.
One of Miami’s crews, the Flipside Kings, will be on that stage. Founded in Miami in 1994 as a b-boy crew, the Flipside Kingsis now one of Miami’s most successful collectives of graffiti and performance artists.
Asked what performing at Breakin’ Convention meant to his crew, founding member Rudi Goblen explained that they’re “excited to be part of this as there aren’t too many events that shine a light on the hip-hop culture and its many faces in Miami. To have the Arsht and Breakin’ Conventioncome together to make something like this happen, for us, is a beautiful thing.”
Breakin’ Convention: An International Festival of Hip-Hop Theatre, Adrienne Arsht Center’s Knight Concert Hall, 1300 Biscayne Blvd.; Friday and Saturday, 7:30 p.m., and a free block party on Sunday from 11 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. at the Arsht Center Campus. Info: Cost: $25-$60; 305-949-6722; www.arshtcenter.org/Tickets/Calendar/2017-2018-Season/Breakin-Convention/Breakin-Convention/