Street Factory, Plymouth, June 2019
Jo is a professional actress with a Drama in the Community HND & Degree in Performing Arts. She has worked in New York, on projects using drama & hip hop to transform lives and at Los Angeles Film School.
Toby is dancer, choreographer, educator and speaker who has won numerous national awards for his work including an O2 Award, BBC and ITV community awards and an Honorary fellowship degree for his Outstanding, Innovative approach to Community work.
IA: This is the first time I’ve done a two-person interview and I'm interested in hearing two sides of a story. My opening question is around this idea of Hip Hop as alternate kinship, a family that you choose.
JG: I think Street Factory as a company has been running for 15 years and we’ve got some guys who were with us from the beginning - they are our family. Then we’ve got new family and it’s quite weird at first for the old family when the new family come in...but we’re all here to connect as human beings. What we find is that some people connect with us within an hour or within a minute of walking in the door. For others it takes six months or longer, it depends on what they’ve been through in life. I love that transformation bit...when you start building that trust, you realise ‘Oh you’re here for the long haul.’ This isn’t just a dance class, this isn’t just a Hip Hop session. When they realise I can call Jo or Toby up any day, I can just sit here and chill or I don’t have to be part of the class. If I’m in a bad mood I can sit with a cup of tea and be in a bad mood...and that’s OK. What we’ve found is that there’s people from all walks of life and people see us and say ‘You look like a group of misfits…how did you meet?’ We love that. Because in no other circumstances the people who we call family would we have met. Not through school or university and we’re not from the same areas or estates. We’re different ages...there’s people who are 65 and there’s people who are 10. We formed a true connection and that’s what we’re here for...we just find it in the space. And we just...get on. We love when we’re different and we say to each other ‘Let’s fit out not fit in.’ When we’re all going somewhere - especially if it’s a big posh event - we all walk in, and we’ve all gone over the top to stand out...you get people going ‘Is it a black tie event? Well then I’m spraying my suit. I’m gonna wear a top hat because everyone is wearing denim.’ I just love that because it’s about acceptance and this real, real love. I think a lot of people don’t want to say I love you, they’re scared of it and they’ve never said it. We hug everyone and at first some people don’t like that, they’re like ‘You’re hugging me...’ Then you see afterwards they’re waiting for the hug and you see that total acceptance; wanting to fit out but also to fit in with each other. I think it’s just a respect - you come in and if you can’t do a move and you fall over, there’s an understanding and respect for each other’s stories. It’s just created a real family environment and I’m blessed to be part of it to be honest.
TG: I think due to Hip Hop we had the opportunity to be part of it, and share it and just be real. It’s great when people hear the stories and the most beautiful thing is when they experience it. When you see it on the faces...they go...wow, this is real, it isn’t a fairy-tale it’s real. These people do what they say they do and that’s something that’s really important to us and our family. Anyone outside looking in can see our love and our support for one another and our whole love and unity which is really important to us. The family thing means a lot to every person in here because they don’t all have it outside...and it’s all created through Hip Hop.
IA: I’m interested in the relationship between self-care, mental health and Hip Hop. What you’re describing is a place where good things happen, but there may be bad things happening outside the space. What are your thoughts around self-care, mental health and Hip Hop?
JG: I think in relation to mental health, a lot of people walk through the door and they might have been through trauma. They might have been in care their whole life and maybe not even had a compliment. From day one they’ve been put down and what they’re given here is resilience; because what life’s given them...they can’t cope. You know you are going to go through things in life, when you leave this venue because you can’t stay here forever, but we help people bounce back quicker. So instead of 20 steps back you might take a moment. Toby runs a programme which he can tell you about which is called Creating Change; it’s about mentally changing your brain, the way it works and living the best you. Again in mental health people come through the door...some have been homeless, been on drugs or never believed in themselves, but they’re now living their dream and going to the jobs they wanna be at. It’s using Hip Hop but it’s also using a knowledge of yourself to build yourself up.
TG: One of our major elements of Hip Hop is knowledge of self; that is the true meaning and true seeing of it. You have to know it to see it, and then you have knowledge of it. Knowing that you can come from nothing and become something...knowledge of self is having all the elements and asking who you are, or who do you want to be? That’s the thing many people don’t teach at home or in education ‘Who do you want to be?’ Nobody asks that. When you’re a child people ask ‘Who do you want to be?’
IA: I wanna be an astronaut or...
JG: I wanna be a crocodile!
TG: ...and that’s a cool thing to be! But once you hit a certain age, no one asks you anymore. They tell you how to walk and how to behave. People tell you to be the bigger man when someone bullies you, to walk away. Everyone tells you but nobody asks you. That’s the big thing in Hip Hop, we ask you. What’s your flavour? What’s your style? What’s your creativity? Jo just said I wanna be a crocodile. If one of the kids say it. Dope! Dance like a crocodile, bring it! That’s when it’s beautiful, it’s real. It’s freedom and realness of who you want to be as human beings...and it can change. That’s the beauty. Learning and progressing. That was good for me when I started. I can cope with that now. Now I need something new and I need to move forward. That’s the great thing about self-recognition and self discovery on that journey; on that journey everyone starts when entering Hip Hop everyone is told ‘Be yourself don’t be like someone else. Show us who you are.’ That’s the most beautiful thing about Hip Hop, it’s truly individual.
JG: We call it ‘Discover your genius.’ We did a Ted Talk on that. What we really believe is everyone who walks through the door is a genius...you just haven’t discovered it yet. You could be a mechanic, you could be good with your hands, but you won’t know until you unlock that potential. Some of our guys are incredible performers and they’re off touring and doing that; others have discovered they’re an amazing gardener...or whatever it is they didn’t know. They thought they couldn’t be anything and it’s about discovering whatever IT is.
TG: Because of this we’ve had the opportunity to meet many, many different people and then you’ve got a Hip Hop gardener. We’ve got...what is his job is now - he was the head of something for Plymouth.
JG: The head of public health for Plymouth...he used to be a rapper and we met him and he started rapping to us.
TG: He said he started with Hip Hop and the only reason I do this job is because Hip Hop allowed me to become who I am now. It was Hip Hop that done that...allowed him to discover who he was, who he wanted to be and what he wanted in life. That’s why he’s in public health, because he wanted to help people from the knowledge gained from Hip Hop. That’s just beautiful that this guy who gained knowledge, the elements and a style living by Hip Hop...when you looked at him you wouldn’t know that he was a rapper or a dancer.
JG: There’s no limits and that’s what I love about it. For mental health I look at it and think it’s amazing, you find your own sense of belonging, but then you’re OK with yourself and you find your own solutions too. A lot of guys when they walk through the doors feel like there’s no light at the end of the tunnel...I don’t know anyone who has got a job, who works or anything. When they start discovering there’s another life out there, that’s amazing.
TG: It’s so easy to access, because the only thing you have to do is stand there and observe. It’s so beautiful because it doesn’t require you to do anything. Stand, observe and absorb until you decide ‘I want to try rapping, DJing, graffiti, breaking, music production, film, photography...’ There’s such a variety when it comes to Hip Hop; the most beautiful thing is sometimes you just stand and observe and sometimes you don’t have to do anything, just be in that environment. Absorbing it. All this creativity and positivity. It’s an explosion of colour, feelings, emotions and loads of different things at the same time. I know, I’ve experienced it going to different countries and experiencing different cultures at the same time, different sides of Hip Hop because everyone has got their own way that they do it. It’s beautiful when you’re just there and you stand and observe and take it in. I think for mental health it’s so important that you stand and observe...everyone has got a story to tell or a journey that we went through in our life and then that knowledge is shared, shared for free. I love that. My biggest feeling is that I have everything I have because Hip Hop gave me the opportunity to do so. I had Hip Hop for free and I’ve got to share it back for free. I’ve got to open my doors, my opportunity and my knowledge. So people can grow like I did.
IA: Jo mentioned Creative Change, tell me more about it...
TG: Creative Change is a programme for men and women, boys and girls. Starting at the age of 16 and there’s no age limit to it. It’s all about opening your mind and demolishing everything you know before. It gives you brand new foundations...but you have to lay them. You have to get down and get dirty...it’s mentally, physically and spiritually a time for you to work on yourself. All I do - and I tell everybody this - I give you 10% and you give yourself 90% of everything else you’re going to achieve and you are going to be proud when you achieve that. Because you’ll put the work in, you’ll sweat, you’ll bleed and you’ll cry...but you achieved it and you did it. The whole programme is about giving you the tools to achieve whatever it is that you want to be doing...if you’re not sure what, it’s my job to help you discover that. Some people might be...they just need a drivers licence, and want to be a white van man who drives the van, who drives white goods from shops to shops and that was your dream. I will do something, I will help you and support you to do that. Someone else might want to be one of the biggest performers in the world...I’ll help you to get there. With that journey it’s all about that journey and self-acknowledgement, it’s a very, very long and very hard road. It’s a 12-month programme and everyone who has been on it has succeeded and achieved amazing stuff. We’re nearly at the end of this programme, we’ve got another three to four months left. I only have five people left, because the rest already achieved their goals. The rest are doing and living and growing and succeeding and working on their lives. Those that are left will finish in a couple of months and will be ready for what we would call ‘normal life’ and the journey they’re gonna go on.
IA: It feels like you two give a lot. What are some of things you do for your own self-care?
JG: I’m a mother of six. Toby and I are married and we have six children; we spend a lot of time with our family and we home school. We both really love children otherwise we wouldn’t have had six [laughs] and we spend a lot of time with our families. We spend a lot of time with our children because I think it is really important. We’re best friends as well, so we also take time out together and spend time on ourselves; we’ve remained professionals in our own right too. I’m an actress, I’ve been in plays and I’ve just done something for ITV. For me to honour my own spirit, that’s important, that we’ve stayed artists in our own right showing the young people who walk through the door that we’re still in the industry, that I’m connecting with people and so is Toby. Spending time with your own family is important because we’ve ended up parents to a lot of young people...it’s about our children knowing they’re our number one. But they’re like mini youth workers themselves, they love spending time at Street Factory.
TG: Simple things like going to the gym every morning. Every morning we both go to the gym, we work out, have a swim, sauna and steam room. We have that time together and a couple of times a week we meet for lunch and we go out for dinner. We go out places and we do stuff. Whenever we get an opportunity to go around the country for work or whatever, we stay an extra day or two and relax. That’s how we look after ourselves. The main thing is when we come home, we’ve got each other. That’s how we get through our days. Some days when times are tough and people need extra help and attention, we have each other constantly to support, encourage and build. We communicate a lot and that’s really important. We have a laugh...it’s important that we have a lot of laughs, especially with family. Family is at the core of everything we do. To us as well it’s a way of life, it isn’t a job. It isn’t something we do because it pays the bills. We just live this way.
JG: We’ve had young people live with us. So it is part of our DNA to be honest. The good thing is we’re both really invested, so there’s never really a power struggle. We both met as best friends and we remained as best friends...we said there’s a need for this, and from that day we’ve never looked back. Our passion for it keeps us mentally, physically and spiritually well.
IA: How did you meet Hip Hop?
JG: The main thing was from clubbing at first. My friends weren’t as into it as I was, so when they were like ‘right we’re going to this club now’ I’d be like ‘Well I’m going to a Hip Hop club.’ I’d go, I’d walk in, on my own and dance all night. I loved it. Then when I did my degree in acting, I had to choose someone, an artist that I looked up to and had to study them for a year. I had to write a mini book and do my thesis on them...as part of it they said you can go to New York and visit a Hip Hop drama school that works in the projects. These projects. Well I cried nearly every day. These projects where they go out and work every day with young boys and girls who have literally seen their friends shot...what they do is bring them into City Kids. Lauryn Hill was actually a City Kid - she’s on the wall as you go in and she’s signed ‘Thank you to City Kids.’ They write all their own raps, all their own shows and perform once a year at these gala events. I was lucky enough that one was running while I was there. Basically, they’re self-sustaining and they get stars and celebrities to fund City Kids, when they run a gala evening three times a year. They pay like £1000s for their seats and so they never have to get outside funding. Mariah Carey and Michael Bolton are their main sponsors, and they then get other stars to come along. It was the most amazing experience ever...and when I came home - because I was studying in Salford - I got a job in the Theatre Royal, and in the first week of working, Toby walked through the door. I knew he was Hip Hop straight away because it was...this is Toby and this is his crew. I was like ‘I’ve just got back from City Kids in New York and I was like, I know we don’t call it the projects but there’s this place in Plymouth where we can do it, and I can do acting, I can write monologues, because I love to write...’ He was like ‘OK, let’s do it, let’s call it Street Factory.’ Me and Toby have never gone back...and we’re hoping this year to go back to New York because that’s where it started. It’s their 30 year anniversary and we’re gonna go back and go back to the roots to see what they’re doing. That would be our biggest dream, being sustainable like that.
TG: Being totally self-sustainable. I haven’t got no boxes to tick, I work with humans not robots. That’s my biggest thing, I don’t work with robots, I work with human beings. Everyone has got different stuff going on and one day they get up and get millions of stuffs done. The other days they can’t even get out of bed. That to me is human and giving them space to develop and grow.
JG: You might have two people, you might have 100...you don’t know who is going to turn up. You can’t say we’re going to work with this many people and if you say a project is this and then they come and go ‘But that’s not what I need, I need this...‘ we always change it.
TG: We work by the need of our people. We don’t work by our need.
JG: Imagine the big Hip Hop artists of the UK knowing about this. It’s called the Hip Hop Kingdom; Hip Hop transformed their lives and I feel like if we could just get in front of them...
TG: It’s about staying true to the core of Hip Hop, staying true to our people that love it and investing in their culture. One of the major things that always comes back to me is, I was given this for free. For free. Nobody ever asked me for any money. I never had to pay or train or do anything else. All I had to do was absorb. The rappers, the dancers, the music, the DJs, they did that for me. They shared their knowledge by performing and I had the opportunity to be there to absorb it. Now I’m giving back and that’s the message I want to share and hopefully get the country behind this. It’s time to invest back and give back.
IA: And how did you meet Hip Hop Toby?
TG: That would be my family. As I was growing up my older sister and brother used to listen to Tupac. Tupac was very big in Europe - I was born in Poland and Tupac was very big. Biggie wasn’t that big in Europe but Tupac was. That was the culture I was brought up with and for as long as I can remember, rapping, dancing, DJing was part of the whole city. The city I grew up in everyone did Hip Hop, rapping, DJing, breaking - it was in my face all the time and I couldn’t ignore it. My brother used to dress Hip Hop so I used to steal his clothes.
IA: ‘I wanna be like my big brother.’
TG: That’s it, that’s it. That’s what it grew from and it never went away. I did millions of other things, millions of other jobs, but Hip Hop was always there and became a thing that I love. I truly love Hip Hop for each and everything that it is. Music was my introduction. The rapping on stage with the dancers and stuff, the culture, the dress code.
JG: I loved the fashion and I love to customise my own clothes...this coat I’ve made myself. When we go out, we sew things on and rip things off. For me it was like the freedom again, of when I’d see Hip Hop artists and they’d have crazy hair and loads of jewellery and be really vibrant. The freedom of the dance, you’d see them and think they didn’t care about anything.
TG: I’m in the moment and I don’t care. Like enjoying your favourite chocolate. It’s so delicious and I am just indulging in it. I think that’s what Hip Hop does, it gives you that bit of indulgence. Because lots of times we do things for others, to prove things to others. It’s not often we go ‘That felt nice for me.’ That’s what Hip Hop does.
JG: When I went to City Kids that was my first introduction to performance. This is theatre and we can evoke all these feelings, just the same as Shakespeare, and we can tell our stories. We can have you in tears and the next minute we can have you laughing out loud. I’d never experienced that on stage. It’s not just rapping there was monologues...I think that’s why I got so emotional watching it.
IA: I’m gonna dig a little bit deeper, because that’s a key moment in your journey. Are there particular people or memories related to City Kids?
JG: There’s one thing that I tell people and they always laugh about. They do this thing called coalition evenings - which I’d never heard of - where they find out what the young people are really experiencing every month...this month it was domestic violence. This month there was a big rise in young people coming in with the horror stories of what they’d been seeing. So the main director Moses said to me ‘What you and me are going to do? You’re an actress and you can write. You’re going to write it from the female point of view and I’m going to write it from the male, we’re gonna perform it in front of the children who experience domestic violence. Then we’re going to sit on a seat and they’re going to ask us why we stay and why we do it. We’ve got a week to research.’ I was like ‘Oh my god you’re going to do that in front of young people?’ Do you know what I mean...it was really raw. He took me downstairs, to the basement where they rehearse - I’d only known him two days, imagine that - and he said we’re going to do an improvisation. I was happy with that, I’ve done improvisation all my life...we were dancing, gone for a meal and it went on for about 20 minutes...then he just turned and goes ‘You’ve cut your hair.’ I’ve never experienced domestic violence, but I just knew, and my blood just run cold. He grabbed my hair, he’s thrown me and he’s just running at me. I’m five foot and he’s six foot five...I’m screaming and I’m crying because I thought he’d lost it. And he’s like ‘Right, you know your emotion, you can start to write.’ I’ve never experienced anything in my life like that and it took me a while to calm down. But he knew that I had that emotion because he knew I’d never experienced it; then when we did it in front of the children they asked all these questions...that’s what they do. Everything over there was real and authentic, they never just touched the surface, it was always let's dig deep into it. It doesn’t matter that they’re young, let’s not patronise them, they know how they feel. To me it was quite dangerous because you’re getting all these emotions in the room...but for them it isn’t, because it’s what they do. Everything about the whole month was just real.
TG: That’s what we want to set up and push with Street Factory...being real, and going deep into things. Letting people go deep and ask the questions; a lot of children don’t understand why people do what they do and they never get the chance to ask the questions. Imagine being the child in that moment asking mum ‘Why do you stay?’ That actress has to explain the best way she can and imagine being in that situation. Being able to ask that question you never could and having them be able to understand, if someone else could give you a percentage, an inkling of what it could have been like for them.
IA: ‘I hadn’t thought that mum might stay there because of this...’
TG: They just think that you’re weak or afraid...but you might be there because you really love him and can’t think of being without him.
JG: We’re saying was he weak or was he strong? It was talking about a power struggle...a lot of people think he’s this big bad bully, but what is he going through? A lot of people didn’t want to talk about it because he’s just wrong...but we wanted to talk about it from all different sides and because we’re all human beings. It was one of the first times I’d seen Hip Hop theatre and it blew my mind. As an actress I’d thought ‘It’s Hip Hop, I can see his rapping and I can do my acting.’ I never thought of putting them together.
IA: Who are the three people who are most important to you? Who do you want to give props to and shout out?
TG: That’s a tough one. One thing I’ve always been taught ever since I was a child, is that no one is ever above me. I respect people when they achieved something...I believe you and me are on par. If I met the Queen...I’d say we’re on par, I never believe someone is above me. I’m a human and you’re a human. The only person I would say right now that has made a huge difference to me, my life and Hip Hop is my wife Jo. She has been vital to everything I have experienced and everything I have achieved. I was given the opportunity and the platform to actually live my dream; it’s like me telling someone my dream and them going ‘OK let’s do it.’ You’re like ‘What?’ The someone who has been there the whole way...that’s my wife. From my childhood, my friends and family...people are in and people are out. Family life was very tough; you know from where we come from, there’s nobody I would be like ‘That person needs the props.’ It was a tough journey to get where we are now in my family; I think one of the major changes in my life was meeting my wife and having the opportunity to love for the first time. To experience real family life for the first time and share the same love for Hip Hop for the very first time. It’s everything I dreamed of for the first time and it would be with my wife.
IA: What about for you Jo?
JG: It’s not actually people, it’s moments. The New York thing to me, is a knock on effect of why we run Street Factory. The New York thing is why I run up to Toby and go ‘OH MY GOD.’ It feels like it was a changing point in my life, before any of this happened. Before that I’d always seen everything as separate, that’s Hip Hop, that’s how you dress, that’s acting...I’d just been Lady Macbeth in the Lowry in Manchester and I thought they all had to be separate. You go there in the day and there in the evening. Then meeting Toby, it was like, that was a major thing in my life. Another major thing that happened, was when Breakin’ Convention came to Plymouth...
TG: I was just about to say that. One person I would say, was Jonzi D...when he invited me to do Back To The Lab...he asked me to be the Plymouth rep for Breakin’ Convention; that was a big moment for me because suddenly I got recognised for my Hip Hop. I think that was major. I think my two would be my wife and Jonzi for recognising me for my Hip Hop. There was lots of other people who wanted that spot, he didn’t know me and I didn’t know the dude. We’d never met. He’d done his research, asked around and lots of people were throwing my name in. That was nice people recognised me for Hip Hop.
JG: What he said to Street Factory was ‘You’re the rep and I want you to do a piece, I want it to be Hip Hop street theatre.’ Again, all the pieces come back together. We said to our dancers who were off the wall in battles, winning everywhere, we had to say ‘Now you need to take that and you need to make a story out of it.’ We were chuffed because that was our first piece and we won best community piece up and down the country...it’s called Hip Hop Virus. We were saying everybody can be affected by Hip Hop and we had elderly people and kids, it was us all dressed up - but the old guy ends up doing flips and there loads of comedy in it as well. Our guys still love the battle scene, but from that point on we did Hip Hop theatre...that was the first time we were recognised.
IA: What year was that?
JG: 2010. The first time they came down to Plymouth and the first time they had the reps; then the year after Jonzi asked Toby to be in Back To The Lab, to spend two weeks up in London and he said ‘There’s London dancers up here...’ Toby said no, I’d like to bring my own dancers up from Plymouth because they’d never have the chance.
TG: For me it was really important to bring my people up, to open the door, bring opportunities and open the platform. London dancers are gonna get the opportunity anyway, there were six other choreographers and I knew I had to give my dancers the opportunity to come to London. To stay for two weeks, to get paid for what they do...it was just amazing - for me personally as a dancer and as a maker to creatively to be in that environment. And to get paid for what we do.
JG: Toby worked with Jasmin Vardimon as part of it, and when he came back he was like ‘Right we all have to try contemporary.’ He got a ballet teacher in and now all our dancers learn all styles.
TG: In Hip Hop we have so many styles and what we do is say stick in your styles. No, you’re just a popper, so stay in your little box, you're a B-Boy stick to your box. I think it’s about I like that popping move I’m gonna take it, I like that breaking move I’m gonna take it, it’s about picking up the juicy and beautiful things you like. Through that experience we had a chance to explore that and all my dancers now know how to perform and how to be on stage. They’re all rounders.
IA: Is there anyone/thing else Jo?
JG: It wasn’t a person, but it was a thing. About three years ago I went to a thing and I met a girl called Eleanor Eton and she said to me ‘You’re an amazing businesswoman.’ I was like ‘Am I?’ I’ve always classed myself as an artist, practitioner or whatever you wanna call me. She called me an amazing businesswoman and said we should go out for coffee...and now we’re really good friends, she’s on our board and she told me I need to take it to businesses because businesses will love it. Businesses are in this corporate world, you’re so authentic and real; you need to stand in front of them and tell them what you do. Everything changed...it was a game changer. I went to the Plymouth Chamber of Commerce and I just went to every network business meeting everywhere. That’s how we got our TED Talk, because every time someone said does anyone want to talk, I put my hand up. I looked different, I talked different, I walked different. I was me, I dressed the way I dressed, I remained Jo. Through that we got our architectural drawings worth £50,000 and they did it for £2,000. We’ve got people donating their time, we’ve got a board who meet up to get this building up and running. They’re all experts in project management and things, they’ll share cash flows with us, and basically they’re opening up our minds because this is going to be a massive business - five businesses in one space. It massively opened our minds up when they said we are a community business...and now we’ve just won the Community Business Award. The business community has gone ‘We know what they do.’ We’ve got so much help out of it and everyone knows this is Hip Hop.
IA: You’re spreading knowledge...
JG: Yeah and you’re breaking down stereotypes, because people thought Hip Hop was like MTV. People go you’re living by the five elements: respect, peace, love, unity and fun. Even if you’re three years old and you come in this room, you know those elements, but they didn’t know about them.
TG: It is a beautiful culture. What was really beautiful was people saying ‘So I can be Hip Hop?’ Anyone can and it’s simple to be part of it.
JG: We started as part of the Hip Hop community in Plymouth and through that it ended up regional and national, then our young guy Max has just won BBC Young Dancer. Jonzi D was there that day and I went up to him and said you don’t know what you did for us inviting us in that day. I don’t know if you watched the dancing but everyone’s was amazing and Max’s was Hip Hop theatre. I was so proud when I watched it because it was...we felt like proud parents. I screamed so much I lost my voice for three days. It was such an emotional experience. Seeing Jonzi there, it also opened this door to magical connections; now we know like Tony Adigun, BirdGang and Simeon - who we met through our journey with Breakin’ Convention. It was a real connecting thing for us and they’ve ended up good friends of ours. We’d never have got to see all those international acts and get so inspired without Breakin’ Convention.
IA: So. BBC Young Dancer. Talk to me about that.
IA: The first Hip Hop winner and he’s come through Street Factory.
JG: So. Max. He’s been with us 11 years now? We did this thing with the local community and the local church, getting young people off the streets and giving them something to do. Max was one of the kids. Then we went back to Plymouth and continued the work...every week he was travelling to us, just to dance, just to learn. Then we moved from the church into the first venue and that’s where Max started growing. He’d come four or five times a week to dance. He was always a quirky little thing.
TG: He’s home educated. Sometimes he’d come in with a top hat or something and do the whole lesson with it on for no reason. He always stood out...in his dancing as well. But because of the support he was given at Street Factory, the love and encouragement, it enabled him to really try the water, to see how far he could push this. I remember when he wore the top hat and it was too big for him, so he poked his ears out the top hat so that it could stay there. Everyone gave him so much love for being different, whereas somewhere else he would have got picked on for being different.
JG: The thing with Max as well is, when we did the ballet, tap and contemporary...he just wanted to try everything. Then he was like ‘Right I’m gonna go on a course and learn a bit of tap, a bit of ballet and bit of contemporary.’ I know he would class himself as a popper in a way, but if Toby was giving a class he’d always give it a go. He’d give everything 100%. If you come to class he’d be there three hours before training.
TG: He’d always be early to class, train during and stay after.
JG: He went for an audition when he was 17 and he said to Toby I wanna go to uni, but I wanna go to Northern School for Contemporary Dance; Toby said that’s the hardest place to go in for contemporary in the whole country and you haven’t done contemporary (laughs). He went for his audition didn’t he?
TG: He said to me ‘Should I do it?’ I said dude there’s nothing stopping you, go and do it. He said I need to have a CV and so Jo helped him with his CV and stuff, and when he went to the interview he said the guy behind the desk was blown away that a 17 year old has done so much in his life. He was like ‘When did you do this?’ With me, every one of my dancers can come with me and share all my knowledge, because I know it helps everybody else. Max took every opportunity we offered, he was one of those kids who was like ‘Yeah OK.’
JG: Because we had the deaf society, we had one of the only deaf crews in the country and they won an award. He was one of the teachers for that. We had another young man - Wayne - he was blind and if Toby was away, Max would teach him. Obviously he can’t see you and you have to have a certain way of teaching, it’s all on his CV. You’ve taught and worked in special needs schools and...
TG: Pupil referral units, special needs school, normal schools, performances...it’s incredible. When he went there and showed the guy his CV he was just blown away. He was offered a place straight away. They said, we love what you did already and they wanted to see what else he could do.
JG: They loved his style. When he got his place in the finals we all went up to watch him in Manchester; then he got the wild card and we went up to Birmingham. We’re watching and obviously you want him to get through to the top five but we’re all watching going ‘I think he’s gonna get the wild card.’ You just go home and then you get this phone call saying you’ve got the wild card. When we went up to watch the final...his pieces...
TG: They were just beautiful.
JG: I was screaming. I was videoing on my phone but everyone can’t watch it because all you can hear is me screaming. It was one of those beautiful moments, because most of the people who audition for BBC Young Dancer go to a dance school, they audition, they’ve got a sprung dance floor...we used to train in the park and down the bus stop. Now we’ve got this venue...Max was himself. Max was Max. He didn’t go ‘I’m going on this show now and I’ve gotta be a certain way’ and that I LOVED. He was Max to the core.
TG: Another thing as well was how humble, how respectful, kind and how he truly represented Hip Hop. To me that’s what Hip Hop is - you want to say you represent Hip Hop, you show me you have peace, respect, unity love and fun. Those elements give you the licence to go out and say ‘I am Hip Hop.’ Being part of Hip Hop is another thing but being Hip Hop is another thing. Max was and is Hip Hop. All the other parents were like ‘Oh my god, he’s amazing, he’s so kind, my daughter told me all about him.’ I just stood there like a proud parent when someone told me my child is so kind and so respectful. That was important to us.
IA: Can you tell me a bit more about the deaf Hip Hop crew?
JG: Yeah we got funded for about two years, then the manager left and they all went off to do different things...they were aged 14-16 and we worked with them for about two to three years. This lady walked in, part of the Deaf Society and was not very happy at all...
TG: It was an inclusive training programme giving people opportunities, stuff like this.
JG: This manager walked in saying ‘You’re all here on this training, nobody will work with a deaf crew, they’ve all been playing ping-pong for three years and they’re teenagers.’ I put my hand up and said ‘Well I will.’ She said ‘Well who are you?’ I said ‘We’re Street Factory, we never say no to anybody and we’d love to.’ I go home to Toby and said we’re going to work with a deaf group and he was like ‘How are we going to communicate?’ It was exciting but you were like...
TG: It was exciting but nerve wracking at the same time. How are you going to communicate as a teacher. How do I give you this. I think my first one I was really worried and nervous, because you want to give them the best; always when I go to teach I want to give my children the best - so the way I speak, the way I communicate, how loud I have the music, how fast I move around the space...I consider everything. To think now, you might have a learning disability, or the music might be too loud, or the scent I’m wearing might really effect you. I’m always trying to consider the class I’m working with before I walk in. Working with children who are deaf, that’s another level. Me as a hearing person, I’m probably very ignorant to many things, so how do I learn how to do this? I just thought do it, go in, be yourself, be Hip Hop and bring it.
JG: They said we had really large and old fashioned speakers - because we didn’t have no funding - and they could feel the music. So Toby put the speakers upside down and with a really big bass track they could like feel it...their parents were there and they said you can still go ‘5, 6, 7, 8’ and count you in because they can see that. They just thrived off it.
TG: As part of that I did Makaton training...I always want to learn, develop and be a better me. That was funny as hell because I tried using it with the little ones and that was fine...I tried using it with the bigger ones and they laughed at me because they were like why are you using the baby stuff. Then they tried teaching me stuff, some of the stuff wasn’t very good...so I had to always check with the parents what they were teaching me.
JG: You ended up really good friends; when they first came they had no confidence.
TG: I mean when they first came their confidence was shot through. It felt like they were another species of the human race - they were told and trained that way by their family and friends. I understand why, but it didn’t work for them. I told them it won’t work because when you turn 18 you’ve got a million things to deal with...I’d rather you do it now because when you’re kids you’re resilient. You’re so much more resilient than when you’re an adult. So we invited our dancers into the classes. They were specific that they wanted a separate class and I started off like that to make them happy. But in Hip Hop we don’t do that because everybody is equal. We did it for several months and then I was like ‘My dancers want to meet you.’ They were shocked, and were like ‘Why do they want to meet us?’ ‘Because you’re part of the family, you’re part of Street Factory, you’re their cousins and you’ve never met.’ ‘But why?’ they said.
JG: ‘We’re deaf.’ they said
TG: The deafness was so major. It was like we’re scarred, we’re bad, we’re damaged, all this negative feeling they had. When I brought my dancers in I told them ‘Loads of love, loads of respect, make them part of the family like anybody else.’ My kids did me PROUD that day. It was the most beautiful day. I brought the dancers in for an hour - I had 2 hours with them and I had time to work with everyone and talk with everyone. I didn’t give them time to consider it. It was like boom, this is happening, let’s go get on with it. Then my dancers left and I sat the kids down and said ‘How did that feel?’ They said ‘I was sort of scared terrified, I was almost having a panic attack, but when it happened they were so nice and we were having a discussion and talking about it and it was so nice.’ It was just crazy how chuffed they were that other kids accepted them for who they are. Suddenly this whole thing opened up, and the parents relaxed a bit - because they’d been so hung up - and I understand why, but it was so good for the kids. I said to the parents ‘You don’t understand what you’re creating for these kids now - the damage you’re creating for them later, they need to fall over now and you are there to pick them up. You’re not going to be picking them up when they’re 20, 25, 30 you’re going to be living your own life. If we don’t get them ready now, what are we going to do?’
JG: Then they performed locally.
TG: That was scary. We had a local performance in the city centre for the Lord Mayor’s day. 1000s of people. I said bring your kids down and you can leave, they said ‘We don’t leave our children.’ I said that’s what’s happening ‘Yeah but I can’t, I don’t leave my child with anyone.’ Parents cried, parents got in arguments with me...everything. I said ‘Put it this way, if I don’t allow your child to do what I’m allowing the other children to do I’m excluding your child. I don’t exclude children. They’re part of one dance community they are part of one - it’s not those kids and these kids, they’re all part of one. So they’re gonna meet before, have some food, have a laugh, have a joke, play some music, mess around. Then we walk together, they perform, then we celebrate that we done a great performance, walk back together, hype, then we get back to the studio, have some food, have a little celebration and then they go home.’ They were like ‘But...’ They just couldn’t understand, but when it happened, the kids performed and all the parents were crying. When they walked back all the kids were so hype, they didn’t have their parents and they didn’t have no one talking for them. Because as parents, you’re always talking for your child. ‘Oh he’s a bit shy because...’ All of this...but it’s constant. This was beautiful because it gave everyone a few good life lessons; all the other children, who were before those kids in Street Factory learned so much respect for children who are deaf and children with other disabilities, because they’d never experienced that. Those kids were introduced to those kids, and it became normal.
JG: We find now at Street Factory we get so many kids with disabilities that parents say they were turned away from so many other places saying they can’t communicate with them and to us it’s just normal.
TG: We learn as you learn. Me as a human I’ve learned so much, all the kids learned so much. None of them were afraid any more about anyone with any disabilities. Anyone comes in with any disabilities or we spot something, OK I’m gonna assist them today, as the kid is learning, we are learning.
IA: When I came in you talked about the kingdom. What is the Hip Hop Kingdom and why are you doing it?
JG: We’re opening up the Hip Hop Kingdom very soon and why we want to do it is most of the young people say they want a home. It’s for the next generation of Hip Hop people; most of them are saying I haven’t got WiFi at home; one of my needs is I need a film suite and good software so I can edit. Another thing is lots of them are saying I haven’t eaten all day, so we need a community café where we can socialise over food. Then the theatre side of it, we need our own venue for Hip Hop theatre. We’re talking to people all around the world and to our national Hip Hop heads; we’re saying we want to create a place where we can create Hip Hop and send it all around the world. We want to take over our city, we were talking about IBE in Plymouth where we just take over the city. It’s coming to a point - we know its timely - we’ve been in other people’s homes, schools, rented halls, we’ve been in other people’s theatres. It’s time to have our own home.
TG: There’s the saying, there’s no place like home and Hip Hop feels like it never got a home. It’s everywhere, but it’s never got a home. Hip Hop becomes the heart of any place we go to. But wouldn’t it be amazing as a child to go...this is a Hip Hop organisation, a building, this is a Hip Hop home. Ballet, contemporary, theatre, everyone else has got a place they belong to. In Hip Hop we don’t have that.
JG: We’re trying to get this message out to big PR people; there’s people all over the world who love Hip Hop and they’re in broken down garages and unused buildings like this where they could be getting their community together. A lot of people we’ve been talking to have never been in a professional environment, so they don’t understand lighting etc. What Toby is saying is I want you to understand everything. It’s about them having and deserving a professional stage. That’s what they’ll have here.
TG: It was always a make do. But we’re passed that now. Hip Hop. Us. We’re passed that. We need to stand on our own and fly our own. We’re never going to show people what we’re made of by using hand me down stuff, we’re never going to show people who we truly are and who we can truly become until we have a professional platform.
JG: We can have a factory within a factory. So if an artist comes and they’ve done amazing work, hang it up in our café. People can start off their businesses and start off their creativity.
TG: Working with all different artists gives back. If you’re gonna come to me and say Toby can I hire the building, then you have to give back. That’ll be part of the law of the building to hire. What do you mean I have to give back? Well you’ve got a choice. You can invite people to come for free from the community who wouldn’t normally afford to see what you’re doing. You can do a Q&A, you can sponsor certain children for workshops etc. That’ll be something that’s really important to us. This will be an amazing home and place. I have people who do a job 9-5 and they hate their job, but they can’t give it up, it pays the bills and they need to survive. But when they finish they would love to come and train for four hours in the evening. That’s what that building is going to be. While your grafting, while your hustling...you can come here when it shuts at 10pm until 6 in the morning and do what you do - if you’re a dancer you train, if you’re music producer you write, if you’re a designer you got the best equipment. There will be beds here so once you’ve worked for 4 hours, you can get a couple of hours for kip. Get up and go.
JG: We’ve found so many people...just because you haven’t got any money doesn’t mean you’ve got no talent. 80% of Street Factory people - through no fault of their own - can’t pay for activities, so this is gonna be a place where they can have a professional environment. People who can pay will pay, and they’re happy to pay. All the businesses in this building will bring in enough sustainability to sponsor those kids.
TG: This is going to be a commercial building, but it’s going to invest in itself and that’s what I love about this. We make our own money and we invest our own money where it's needed. We haven’t got no boxes to tick or targets to hit. If it’s ‘Bob needs new shoes, he’s been dancing in those broken shoes for a month now because he can’t afford new shoes. Guess what, let’s buy him new shoes, because that’s gonna help him a lot.’ It’s that simple gesture.
JG: There was a young lady on our Creating Change programme and she wanted to become a nurse but she couldn’t afford the laptop. OK we could give you a laptop. It’s as simple as that, but sometimes you can’t even become a nurse because you can’t afford the gear. It’s not a lot of money and Street Factory will give back whatever that is. If you’re an accountant - you’ve got these apps now on your phone - they can come and do a week’s training with young dancers so they can understand their book keeping. It’s those simple things. We will become that platform to give people a real chance.
IA: I’ve got a few more questions, but I want to ask, is there anything we’ve not spoken about that you want recorded or documented as part of this?
JG: To me me the only thing would be our legacy. A lot of people talk about legacy. All we ask is each one teach one. When you turn your life around wherever you are in the world...when someone who was like you walks in the door; I think that’s what has happened for us over the last 15 years...it’s that ripple effect. Like Toby says ‘I hold the door open and keep my foot there and everyone can run through.’ We don’t have ladders, we put it over and everyone runs across. It’s important we say that as well so they know what we need from them.
TG: We’re committed to giving everyone what they need. We only ask one thing in return - one day when you find or see somebody else in the situation you started, be the person who opens the door, be the person who buys the shoes, be the person who says ‘Good morning, I see you.’ Be the person who lifts them up because we lifted you up. Don’t become a person who judges or discards, give that person a belief. That’s the only payback we ask from anyone. Give back to the next person and pass that on.
IA: I want to talk about awards, MBEs and awards...you guys hoover them up! There’s nobody in the Hip Hop or dance world that has as success or recognition in that arena...Can you talk about that?
JG: Well...Toby obviously got the MBE, that was a funny story. He was sat on the couch watching a Sunday movie with the kids and I started screaming because I didn’t bother with the post the day before...
TG: I said I’ll get the movie ready and we’ll wait for you. She said she’d go and make a cup of tea and when she did, she picked up all the post and she always opens it downstairs. I’m sat on the couch and Jo is jumping around and screaming. I’m thinking ‘What is it?’ For Jo to jump around and scream, we won something big. Did I win the postcode lottery? £300k?! Then Jo comes upstairs...
JG: It says ‘Her Majesty’ on the stamp outside, and you think ‘What she’s wrote us a letter?’ Then you open that letter and you’re awarded an MBE...but you can’t tell anyone because you’ve got to wait for the list, and if you do tell you won’t get the award. So now we’re having three months where we’re having meetings and we can’t tell anyone...
TG: That was a difficult time because it felt like we weren’t getting anywhere with lots of things; this didn’t come through, that didn’t come through or that person didn’t deliver. It was just a mad moment when that happened, it was just whirlwind crazy, everyone in the house was jumping around. I said to my wife ‘What does this MEAN?’ I didn’t get it, I didn’t understand it.
JG: I think being a part of the business community and being part of people who talk to newspapers - we’ve got a lot of support from our local Herald - they started talking to people and said ‘If someone interesting comes to Plymouth nationally or internationally can we bring them to Street Factory to talk to you too?’ We ended up being where they’d bring people to show Plymouth which was great. It was great for us, but as that grew, rewards would come from this...because they would talk to someone else...
TG: Imagine, we’ve been doing this for a very, very long time. We got our heads down doing what we love. Many times we’d seen other people receive awards and stuff, but for now we love what we do, let’s keep doing what we’re doing. Once we received that award, it certified us as a company, as people. These guys are real. All these people who have been watching us for years are like ‘They’re legit.’ Suddenly we were important to them. It was a great platform to launch Hip Hop from and what we do here. Before it was very difficult to explain what we do because as soon as you say Hip Hop, there’s a stigma to it. But then you said MBE and then Hip Hop...if the Queen gives you a stamp it must be dope.
IA: Tell me about the day...
TG: The whole day. Even my outfit, everybody told me ‘Toby don’t change.’ Now come on it’s me. My wife picked a really, really cool suit and I had a bandana in my pocket and a bandana on my head. I had my brown Nikes - they were super super sick - and when we were outside the gate my wife was like ‘They better let us in with your trainers or I’m gonna kill you.’ They were amazing. Nobody batted an eyelid and everyone was really, really kind...but it’s another world. That’s all I got to say dude, it’s another world. By the time we walked in and chatted to everyone else, we went down and Prince William was there, he give me the medal, they pin it on you and you have a bit of a chat. We had a bit of a laugh; we talked about my hair and stuff and I invited him to come down to the opening. It was incredible. Then when we left you stand there, you look outside the gate and think ‘Was I just in there? Did that really happen to me?’ It was a breath-taking moment. I took my wife and my mother in law to share this amazing experience.
IA: Can you tell me about the work you were doing in Newport recently?
TG: Because I’m a Romani Gypsy...it’s something I’m really proud of, we teach our children our culture and our history; what me and my wife did was we took the best out of British culture and the best of the Romani culture...Hip Hop is very very much a part of it as well. We call it the Gorniaks, that’s our surname and a way of being. We say ‘You gotta be Gorniak.’ That was a major thing for us. Where was I going?
TG: Right. Part of that was being Romani Gypsy and lots of Romani Gypsies feel embarrassed, feel ashamed and feel hated by the entire world. I have a chance to make a change within minutes. I can change kids and adults attitudes and their opinion about their own worth. That’s something I can do with anyone I work with but with Romani, it’s different. I understand where they’re coming from. I know where I started with my beliefs - that I was a dirty gypsy and that would never change...no matter what car I had, how much money I had, I’d still be a dirty gypsy to everyone else. That was my belief and lots of these young people have these same beliefs. To go to Newport and share that with them, it gave them honour. They became somebody. They became important. It gave them pride and self-belief in who they are. After me being there, there was a huge shift in things - kids running their own art clubs and football clubs - now they’re doing a performance for a festival this month. I’m going to attend and watch them perform. Suddenly parents are involved, communicating with teachers...it’s a massive shift after being there for only a week.
JG: There was a lot of tears. Teachers and headteachers, a lot of kids who had been there for a long time, who wouldn’t speak or anything held their head up high and engaged with their teachers.
TG: It was a very important moment for me knowing I could engage with Romani children. For me it’s important to engage with all children but in particular Romani children. I’m a Romani child and I never had that. Something really special for me was I had a whole hour where I was able to teach in Romani and I never had that before. I was teaching in the Romani language and I’ve never heard of any Romani Gypsy doing that before...it was incredible to experience that whole hour in my own language. Newport was fantastic. I loved the people and loved the schools for what they were doing for the Romani Gypsies. They were up against it because the Romani community keep themselves to themselves, hopefully those children will come out of it one day in the future and be something amazing, whatever that may be. It was an amazing experience for me and for them and something I’ll remember for a very long time.
IA: What are your thoughts on race and class in your work and Hip Hop?
TG: I think for us it doesn’t exist. We don’t believe in race, class, disability...none of it exists once you enter Hip Hop. We have this universal language. You love music, I love music, great now we’re best friends. The amazing thing about Hip Hop is that it allows you to be one once you’re inside, nothing else matters. When they’re here none of it matters. We teach them the importance of being nice and being kind - that’s the important things we should be teaching children. Not the difference between culture, skin colour, class, money, no money. I think that’s the important thing we’re missing in the world. We get 200 people today and we have no problems because our expectations are so high, we have no problems. It’s real.
JG: I would say that we lead by example. So you know a lot people go ‘Oh there’s no judgement in the room.’ But there really isn’t. If you treat people with real, authentic respect, which we do.
TG: Talent is not shown by how much money you got. You still got to train as hard as me.
JG: If you dress a certain way because it’s part of your culture. It wouldn’t be judged.
TG: It wouldn’t be judged because we don’t judge you in that way. Like we said we’ve got a kid who comes in with a top hat because he wants to, he won’t be judged. If we got a kid who comes in with a whole outfit they wear due to their culture, they won’t be judged. It’s does not make a difference. Because in Hip Hop we become one.
JG: If someone is from another culture and we don’t understand it, this is a safe environment to ask questions. If people want to ask about Romani, if they want to ask how you as a Romani are finding being with Jo, they can ask. If some young people in the room have to wear some ear things because the music is too loud...we can ask him is the music too loud. Nobody makes a thing of it.
TG: We will make sure nobody makes a fuss. Sometimes I’m teaching 100 kids and you get one that runs around nuts, around everybody else. It’s teaching them respect for the little child. What were you like as a little child? You were running around crazy, would you want someone telling you off every five seconds? No! So don’t do it to that kid! Because I have a laugh with it, it’s OK Toby’s laughing his head off. Nobody’s stressed and nobody’s tense. I haven’t got to keep my kid in line, because they might not let me back in again. Some kids come in and jump on these couches and it’s like they’re really nice couches don’t jump. And I’m like ‘Nah let the kids be kids.’ My kids are nuts! Because I let my kids be kids, I was a kid once and I know what it feels like. I feel it’s important to let kids be free and explore. Because in these days we live in now, kids aren’t free to do nothing. They can’t go to the park on their own, the parents take them here and there. They can’t do nothing and they are constantly cocooned. When was the last time your child climbed a tree? Here it’s a space for them to go nuts.
IA: Final question. You’re a stick of rock, if we were to break you in half, what would be the single defining word that runs through you?
JG: I want to say kindness.
TG: I got something deeper. Pure love...because the love you have for every person. Because of that love they learn and have a belief in themselves. What you give is that pure love without judgement.
IA: What about you Toby?
TG: For me...Jo said something once about every time I help someone. I never understood why I did what I did, but Jo explained it to me. Every time I help someone it’s like you heal and help that inner child in you. Every time you help a child, you help yourself. Every time I do or give to another child I am giving that to myself at the same time.
JG: It’s crazy. I’d say the same thing. Love. That’s what everyone says they get from Toby, it’s just love that goes on and on and on. The word that come to mind, is big heart. Which isn’t one word but it’s the same thing. That’s what you get from Street Factory...then you pass it on and on and on from one person to the next.
IA: It’s contagious.
TG: And it grows so fast. I remember one kid who came in, head down, hat on. He really wanted to be here but he just didn’t know how to. After five minutes I walked up, sat down next to him and said ‘What’s up? What do you think of everybody?' ‘Yeah alright.’ I said. ‘Do you want to get up and do some work with me?’ ‘I don’t know’ I said ‘You know what, you and me we have a cup of tea first. Do you like a cup of tea?’ ‘Yeah.’ We had a cup of tea and after that cup of tea he got on that dance floor and never left. That’s the important thing and that’s showing love through many different shapes and forms. It is that simple thing, that kid is everywhere now because he was given love just by entering that space.
JG: And you don’t talk about love at work ‘What’s your secret ingredient? Love.’ It’s so important.
TG: We all want to be respected, appreciated and part of something. All of that goes back to love. If we haven’t got love, we can’t cope. Especially Hip Hop it gives you that love so fast.
Hip Hop Dance Almanac Interview with Jo & Toby Gorniak MBE PDF