‘Traplord’: A journey through Black masculinity
The award-winning dance artist and cultural innovator’s latest piece of work is an immersive performance meditating on life, death, and rebirth
Monday 11 April 2022 By Jason Okundaye
On the roof of 180 House, at a live breakfast event being streamed to members across the world, Ivan M Blackstock is speaking to Zezi Ifore, narrating his stormy career journey – from early big breaks and great heights to sudden periods of plateauing.
As a dancer and multidisciplinary artist, Blackstock speaks about a global career, including his first dance job for grime artist J2K at the age of 16, touring Asia with the Pet Shop Boys at 19, and choreographing for Beyoncé’s afrofuturist musical film, Black Is King. But south London has always been his stomping ground. Restlessness as a child meant that he channelled his energy into dance and other creative outputs.
From his family home in Peckham, south London, to living with his grandmother in Brixton, Blackstock, now 35, speaks of immersing himself in a creative oasis among working-class south London youth; ‘kids that were dreaming, made ideas, stories, dance groups’, even forming a group called ‘Kids With Attitude’ (KWA) inspired by the artistry of Michael Jackson, Bobby Brown, MC Hammer, and Usher.
Speaking through each stage of his life and career, he is constantly moving and gesticulating, as though forming shadow puppets with his hands to project images that move us from scene to scene. Even though he doesn’t leave his seat, the gusto with which he tells the story of his life means that he’s animated and kinetic, his energy lifting the entire room, beyond the roof of the House as if we’re skimming the clouds.
While Blackstock is on the rooftop recounting his story so far, preparations are being made at 180’s event space downstairs for the premiere of his new show, ‘Traplord’. Best described as an ‘immersive dance performance’, it’s a visual and audible collage of theatre, hip-hop, and poetry. And it’s nearly a decade in the making, born from his desire to disrupt the confinements of contemporary dance.
He first envisioned ‘Traplord’ way back in 2013. ‘It was this rough idea; I was getting bored of the dance scene and wanted so much more,’ he says. ‘I was like, why can’t we have a trap, hip-hop Pina Bausch? So that’s where the energy was bubbling. And I already had my hand in a few things – I was doing mime shows and backing dancing for artists – but I needed a new form of show with live music and expression through dance.
When Blackstock returned from touring the States in 2015, it was time to make the show. Gathering a number of young Black men in an abandoned leisure centre, he began to strategise – ‘we just spoke and thought for days, weeks, and so much emerged out of that, and this new language started to form.’ His first production of ‘Traplord’, then called ‘Traplord of the Flyz’, was in 2015 in a small theatre in Essex. After the show, he remembers Black men in the audience being brought to tears. ‘All the mandem were there, I had guys crying in my arms. I cried, too. That first show was like an exorcism for us, and with “Traplord” we’ve been able to release and express,‘ he explains.
‘Traplord’ is a meditation on Blackness, masculinity, and mental health. Its artistic influences are broad and wide-ranging. ‘It’s inspired by internet culture, but also by books and novels that we’re fans of – Peter Pan and the Lost Boys, William Golding, Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis,’ he explains. Blackstock sees a direct lineage between his work as a meditation on Black manhood and the pressures that shape it and the films of Spike Lee, or John Singleton’s Boyz N The Hood. His creative process means taking what he likes wherever he finds it to create an authentic project. ‘Sometimes I take something from hip-hop culture and sample it. I sample everything. This 808 in this music, I’m gonna throw that in,’ he says. ‘Themes of philosophy, too. Some of the ideas we implemented, like Dante’s Divine Comedy, I haven’t read all of that, but I’ve seen the themes in other iterations, so I thought, “OK, I kind of understand what this is” and brought that.’
‘Traplord’ is also born as an articulation of the collective injuries of Black manhood. He speaks soberly about an early experience of being racially profiled by police in Elephant and Castle, south-east London, at the age of 10 when they claimed he matched the description of a bank robber. ‘At one point I wrote down all of the traumas I feel have impacted me in some shape or form, either big or small – getting knocked over by a car, going through abuse, losing my teeth from eating too many sweets – it’s very much me looking at moments of authenticity, and some of that’s coming from deep events.’
Authenticity is everything to Blackstock. ‘I can’t do a random alien performance because I haven’t studied UFOs,’ he says, chuckling through a wide, bright smile. ‘I can only look at myself and what I’ve gone through, use it as a bedrock, and see how people have shared or witnessed these experiences.’ And in building this picture, he embraces ‘Traplord’ as a show that’s pleasantly nebulous, jumbled, and indescribable. ‘People will see flowers and BMWs, as well as guys in hoodies, blackface, a rabbit smiling, a pig mask – all of these contrasting ideas, and it’s very much that collage. A lot of people have asked me what it’s about – I don’t know what it’s about, but I know what it feels about.’
As artistic director of 180 Studios, Blackstock has stepped into the role by creating opportunities for Black youth, wanting to nurture artists from backgrounds like his. ‘I did an engagement project here in Soho House; it was upskilling young Black film-makers and content creators. During the pandemic, we would have online sessions for two months. And then we got different professionals within the industry to provide virtual lectures.’
But he’s pushing for further institutional change, noting that his role is only just the beginning for engaging large sections of disenfranchised society and supporting artistic talent. ‘To bring new audiences into the building, you need to build a certain level of trust. You can’t just throw money at them. If you want more energy, you need to put things in place, and these things won’t happen overnight. You need to be patient.’