Artist Jon Boogz Explains How He Creates Art And Lives Without Boundaries
Boogz shares how he has committed to live and work with no limitations.
February 06, 2020 at 5:06 pm
Movement artist, choreographer and director Jon Boogz lives his life without limitations. As a result of his unapologetic and resilient mindset, his dance career has lived up to the expectation of his imagination.
As a visionary artist, Boogz creates art through the power of movement as a form of expression to advocate for important cultural issues like racial equality, social justice, climate change and more. This Black History Month, we are honoring young innovators like Boogz who use their talent to inspire other Black millennials to live and work with no boundaries.
From living in a one-bedroom apartment with four other people to getting his big break working for Cirque du Soleil, Boogz has used his unique talent to create the career of his dreams. The multi-talented artist spoke with Blavity CEO, Morgan Debaun, about his journey of becoming a successful artist and how legendary artists in the past helped paved the way for him to become who he is today. He shares how he hopes to do the same for the next generation of dancers too. Read how he inspires us all to reshape how and where we want to work.
In partnership with Banana Republic.
This interview has been condensed, arranged and edited for clarity.
Morgan: Can you tell us about the path that led you to where you are professionally today?
Boogz: I’ve been dancing since I was a kid. I was first inspired by MJ [Michael Jackson] and then later studied the legends of street dance like The Lockers, Electric Boogaloo, etc. I became obsessed with the art form. I started competing locally and internationally before I landed my first real dance gig with Carnival. After doing a year of dancing on Carnival cruise line, I moved to L.A. in 2009. I wasn’t booking any work for the first year or so. I started street performing on 3rd Street Promenade in Santa Monica and Venice Beach until 2014. Those were the grind days. Sleeping in a one-bedroom apartment with four people and working 10-hour days dancing on the concrete to hopefully make $60-$75 bucks.
While street performing, my friend told me about a video audition for Cirque du Soleil. I submitted my video and got offered a full contract for the Michael Jackson ONE show at Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas. That opportunity changed my life. That gave me the money I needed to start producing my own art. I started creating short films and eventually left Cirque and created my own touring show, Love Heals All Wounds. I’m currently touring for that show and I’m in the process of commercializing that for Broadway and working on my first feature film with [independent entertainment company], A24.
Morgan: Tell us how you create your art and live without limits personally.
Boogz: I try to create from a place of honesty. Whether I’m creating a film or choreographing a show. It all starts with, ‘what do I want to say?’ I believe film and dance have no limitations artistically. I’m a firm believer that you can tell any story you want through the mediums of film and dance. I try to stretch the boundaries of what people think is possible with dance and film. I’ve done dance film pieces on police brutality to climate change. Whatever moves me, I’ll create based on that.
Morgan: Do you try to stay away from career “labels” for fear of being boxed in?
Boogz: I’m an artist, period. I direct, choreograph, produce, act, perform, etc., so I think if there was a label it would be movement artist or just an artist. I wear many hats and I never want to limit my possibilities so those titles work for me.
Morgan: Was there a time when you weren’t able to express your full self in a work environment? Tell us about that.
Boogz: When I used to street perform in Venice Beach and Santa Monica for years I got to dance and express to some degree, but I had so many bigger ideas I wanted to share with the world but couldn’t because I was poor. Certain types of shows work on the street in order to make money. It’s a formula to street performing. Not much storytelling or in-depth artistry happening. I mean I got to practice my skills in the dance and as a performer, but not having proper income didn’t allow me to express the creativity I had inside. My L.A. chapter of my life was difficult because of living in poverty. It made me the artist I am today though. It was a gift and a curse.
Morgan: How do you feel like you are breaking boundaries through your work?
Boogz: For me, I feel like I’ve broken boundaries in a lot of ways. I try to change people’s perception of what street dancers do. Street dance is a Black art form. It comes from Black and Brown communities and a lot of times people tend to put that genre of dance kind of in a box. I’ve always thrived on pushing the boundaries of that. There weren’t many people seven, eight years ago in my genre that were talking about police brutality, mass incarceration, climate change, sex trafficking, and addiction. I was talking about a lot of these topics through my art and through my work and through my pieces when it kind of wasn’t really a popular thing to do. It was kind of like, ‘alright, what’s the latest Drake song,’ and everybody wanted to make choreography off of whatever the top song is on the Billboard charts at the time. And that trend still tends to happen, because everybody’s got their lane. I’m not knocking any of the lanes, you know.
And I also feel like myself and my company have been able to branch into the fine arts space. It’s funny how certain people determine what fine arts is. But, we’ve been able to kind of take street dance and put it into Carnegie Hall and put it into places where it’s hasn’t necessarily gotten its fair share of looks and have people kind of admire what we’re doing.
I think just from a storytelling perspective, from being able to dance to any kind of music and not really putting that in a bubble, to me, the style of dance that I do is just a tool to illustrate music. I can flip it on classical music. I can do it on rock music. I can do it on hip-hop music. I can do it on funk music. You know, stretching the boundaries musically, artistically, cinematically, and having the ability to tell any kind of story that I want to tell through that art form. I think that’s probably the biggest boundary that I can say that I’ve been helping stretch out.
Morgan: What does it mean to you to be a Black visionary/artist?
Boogz: I mean it feels like you’ve got to work hard because you want to carry that lineage of all the artists of color that came before you. There was an era in The Harlem Renaissance when people would go in there and dance in these clubs and as soon as they’re done performing, they had to leave out the back. They weren’t even allowed to stay inside the club. They were just there to entertain people, and then because they were Black, they couldn’t even stay inside the place. So, I think about the Nicholas Brothers. I think about Earl “Snake Hips” Tucker. I think about Gregory Hines. I think about The Lockers, the Electric Boogaloos, all of these dancers you know from Soul Train and The Harlem Renaissance era, and the eras before that kind of paved the way for me to be a successful artist. I just feel like you’ve got to work hard.
But for me, I feel like I have to just take advantage of those opportunities that I’ve been given. I look at some of the dudes who created pop and a lot of these dudes come from Oakland. They come from Compton. They come from a lot of rough places. Back when they were doing it, it was just something they were doing to cope with the environment, you know with the social climate of the environment. No one was expecting to make money off of it or have the ability to work on movies or films. I’m just thinking of some of the minor accomplishments that I’ve been able to have—and major accomplishments, and I think like man, they didn’t have these opportunities. But, if it wasn’t for them pushing these dances that come out of the ghettos of America, I wouldn’t be where I am today. So I feel honored, but I also feel like I'm not ever content at all. I always feel like I have to keep it going and think bigger and dream bigger.
Morgan: Why do you find it important to live life on your own terms as a Black artist?
Boogz: I think it’s very important to kind of be your own boss and kind of control your art because there are so many places where you’re not in control of the art. I think that’s shifting now and everybody has social media and they’re having their own platforms. They’re able to say what they want to say, put the art out at any time, whenever they want to and how they want to. I think there’s a beauty in that. Like how many Black-owned television networks are there, truly? I can think of how we’re still kind of behind in a sense. We don’t own a lot of the major networks or big things and stuff like that. Instagram and all of these platforms have given us almost to some degree, in a small way, our own channel and having our own set of eyes to watch the work. I think it’s a beautiful thing and I’m seeing so many people from just all walks of life, not even just dance, people who are stylists, who are doing hair, who are designing clothes, now they have their own platform to make money on their own time and make their own schedules. Of course, it’s hard work, you’ve still got to wake up like you’re going to work every day. You can’t just sleep. You have to kind of get up and make sure whatever it is you’re pursuing, you’re putting a lot of effort and time into it. The beauty of being an entrepreneur is you get to do it on your own terms, but it’s also ain't nobody giving you anything so to speak. You have to kind of create your opportunity. I think there’s a beauty in that, of being able to create your own opportunities, but also you have to work hard.
Morgan: How does it feel to inspire other Black creatives to use their talents to make the world a better place?
Boogz: I mean, that’s what you hope to do. You hope that you create work that will inspire people. At least for me, that’s why I create art and film and shows. Anything I create, I get like that happy feeling inside where I’m like I can’t wait for somebody to see this and see how they’re going to react to it and see how it makes them feel. I get a thrill off of that kind of stuff. For me, I want people, especially from my community, to see that it’s possible. I feel like a lot of times we're conditioned to be jealous of each other and not celebrate each other. I know it’s said a lot, even from my own community, but it’s alright. If you can inspire one or two people to see what you’re doing, it doesn’t mean if you’re inspiring hundreds and thousands or even just a few people in your community. That next kid to be the next Gregory Hines. The next kid could be the next Beyoncé or whoever. So you’ve got to keep pushing to create and to inspire because that’s really what it’s all about. All those artists I told you about, they inspired me. To some degree, they created me and then now you want to be the next generation of artists that creates these new Black visionaries and artists that are going to take the work we’re doing now and take it to a whole nother level.
Morgan: Why do you think it’s important to celebrate Black visionaries and artists during Black History Month—both past and present?
Boogz: For me, the way I was raised, Black History is American history. It’s not just one month, you know I mean I’m glad we have Black History Month. It’s amazing, but I study Black History year-round, every day of my life. So, I think it’s important to honor them, but specifically for Black History Month, it's important to recognize. These brothers and sisters have paved the way through the social inequality that they had to deal with to the lack of economic equality, getting paid less, you know all of these things they’ve been through as entertainers in the past that kind of allowed for people like myself to be successful. It’s like a simple recognition and just honoring them, whether it’s through your movement or when you’re talking about your artistry. Mentioning these people is just respect. You can’t really know where you’re going until you know where you've been and I've always been a history buff my whole life. Anything I've ever done, I’ve always wanted to know who pioneered it.
You know it’s funny you learn a lot of things full circle. There was a group in Oakland that did a style of dance that I do in the late ’60s, early ’70s called The Black Messengers. They would pop and boogaloo and draw a crowd for Huey Newton before he would do his speeches with the Black Panthers and I thought that was a trip because you think, ‘I’m one of the first people to do street dance and attach social justice to it.’ In my mind—I was naive with it. You think you’re creating something new, but in reality, they’ve been doing it. It’s just, we have different mediums and different platforms to express some of the same messages, but in reality, those dudes have already used their dance for the greater good of the culture and the people. So it was just crazy when I started learning more and studying more, how much I saw so many similarities and things coming a little bit more full circle with my own artistry.
Morgan: How can Black Millennials pay homage to our ancestors? Do you think sharing our true gifts and talents are making a significant difference in leaving a legacy for our generation?
Boogz: There are many ways to pay homage to our ancestors. I think just acknowledging their existence period and honoring that is step one. Being a filmmaker, I’ve touched on topics of social justice and racial equality. Our ancestors fought hard for that. I feel like continuing to shine light on those topics through my art is honoring them as well. All the dues they paid for me and others to succeed. Also, me being a dancer first I try to put the traditional steps from the legends of the past. Gregory Hines, Earl “Snake Hips” Tucker, the Nicholas Brothers, MJ (Michael Jackson), etc.—as far back as Harlem Renaissance days. Carrying those movement traditions are very important as well. It keeps the lineage of artistry going from past to present.
Morgan: What do you want your legacy to be when you look back on your life?
Boogz: I want to be someone who took Black dance and dance film to new heights. There once was an era of Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly, etc., dancers were household names. I want to bring that prestige back and even take it further. Movement artists deserve to be honored on the same pedestal as any other art form: singing, rapping, acting, etc. I think there is a huge void that is waiting to be filled with dance. There is no reason there shouldn’t be Oscar-quality dance films represented every year at the Academy. It’s time for the shift and I want my legacy to be someone who helped push that shift.
Boogz is all about moving the culture forward one movement at a time and he wants to empower Black millennials to do the same. It’s woven in our DNA.
Check out how Boogz lives his life with no boundaries below:
Learn more about how Banana Republic is honoring Black History Month and shop the Bold Vision collection.