How were you introduced to the arts?
I was born an artist. I was born into a family of artists, so growing up it was normal, it was all I knew. I was also exposed to the arts throughout secondary school. It was part of the curriculum for every child, so I didn’t necessarily feel special. After secondary school I had more of a choice in the classes I took, so I chose dance. After that, I attended the London Contemporary Dance School. I studied ballet, modern and choreography for three years, but eventually I began to feel stifled. I saw myself as a dancer, an instrument for choreography, but I had a lot more to say.
Describe a moment that solidified for you what you would do for the rest of your life?
I had this need to make my mom happy, and contemplated going to law school. I signed up to study sociology, economics and politics, but right after I started, I realized that’s not what I wanted to do, yet I still had a strong desire to confront social issues, so that became reflected in my work as a dance artist. After I left my mom died and I honestly floundered for a while. One day I found myself walking down a street in East London, where there was a lot of sketchy activity, drugs, etc., and I had to make a choice - do this or do what I love. I loved dance, so that’s what I did.
How do you balance performing, choreographing and being an artistic director?
I don’t dance that much. I did it a lot more when I was training, but I think my strongest performance quality was always rap. It was very easy to blend my dance and choreography with text, and I started to develop a form that I called choreopoetry or lyrically motivated movement. What became more difficult was balancing that out with being an artistic director. Because I developed writers block about 10 years into my career, I was quite happy to focus my energy on helping other hip hop artists create work.
The artistic director job is much more about traveling, seeing work, having conversations with artists, seeing venues and developing collaborations. Sometimes it’s tricky balancing all of these things but through the vehicle of Breakin’ Convention, I’m able to.
How would you describe your artistic process in programming Breakin’ Convention?
My blueprint is to acknowledge the history, the future and the universality of hip hop culture. I do that by putting old-school artists on the bill, because they have a classic quality that I like to incorporate.
When it comes to the future, I look at hip hop artists in countries I haven’t yet featured, that really try to pitch their theatrical practice in an interesting way. Breakin’ is international, which is in a sense a political statement. In hip hop we embrace diversity. It’s a language that kids all over the world respond to. It’s where you can come as you are.
Describe your introduction into hip hop culture?
I discovered breakin’ from the hip hop documentary called “Beat This” around the time I turned 13. It excited me because it looked impossible, but it was the impossibility of it that made it exciting. Back then you had to embrace every aspect of the culture, you had to break, rap, DJ and beat box. The culture was so underdeveloped and innocent back then, it seemed like we had access to every part of it, and we consumed it wholeheartedly.
How has your experience been working with The Apollo?
It’s dreamlike; the fact that the Apollo asked us. If any other theater had asked us, I would have chosen the Apollo. It is the most famous theater in the word and very close to the birthplace of hip hop. It’s a remarkable brand to be associated with and the fact that they are partnering with us for a third time shows a real commitment. They are smart to have us because we are bringing this almost high art approach to the culture. If you look at the history of the black artists in America, some of them had to travel to Europe for their art to be recognized, Dizzy Gillespie, Josephine Baker, etc. I think that the way in which hip hop has grown around the world is an example of this.
Honestly, I feel that the American media has failed the hip hop culture, and the introduction of gangster rap made me feel like hip hop started to fail me. I needed to feel that love, that peace that was so prevalent in the formation of hip hop. Now it’s so much about money and cars. It’s sad. Hip hop made me feel cool without the money. It’s about the culture not the commerce.
How has Breakin’ Convention grown?
It’s a full demonstration of the culture. Our programming has expanded to include workshops, master classes, film screenings, and a graffiti wall. We have grown our professional development side with Open Art Surgery, which is where I offer hip hop dancers, musicians, emcees and visual artists the opportunity to develop and experiment with new ideas, share their work, and receive feedback over a span of five days. We present the work-in-progress and have a Q&A with the audience. I think it’s about bridging the gap when it comes to hip hop theater development. I wanted to create a space that allowed these artists to purely focus on theatrical development.
What can audiences expect?
The most innovative, interactive, inclusive hip hop dance theater experience of their lives.
What other projects are you working on?
I’m still booking shows for my MBE solo project. I play six different characters, all of them speaking to me about whether or not I should take the MBE or Member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire award of not. I play three female characters and now feel a bit closer to my feminine side. It was quite eye-opening. I advise all men to get in touch with that side.