Back in February, when Baltimore artists from a variety of disciplines came together for Art-Part’heid, a discussion on disparity in the arts community (moderated, in part, by City Paper Editor-at-Large Baynard Woods), Talbolt Johnson, a well-known popper in the Baltimore hip-hop dance scene, admitted to being nervous about speaking as a panelist.
“I’m not as, well, politically inclined as others,” he says now. “I don’t have the type of language you would usually hear in a type of discussion like this. What could I add to this incredible group of people here with this giant bulk of knowledge about what needs to be done for us? I see a lot of people with a lot of power who may not know right now that they have it and may be giving it away to someone else.”
The 27-year-old Johnson has a lean and lengthy figure that moves with fluidity and musicality in his dance, which is spiked with sharp, precise pops and a spiderlike swiftness. His dreadlocks fall on his face while he sits comfortably in orange and black sneakers and a zip-up sweater jacket, speaking eloquently and passionately about the power of choice.
Johnson was born in Baltimore City, but by age 4 he was living with his adoptive mother and sisters in the county. As a painting major at MICA, he first became interested in dance while studying various forms of self-expression. He started participating in MICA’s break-dancing club, but Joe Squared was the first public venue he performed in. He wanted to learn how to connect with people, and soon traded his painting homework for piano, poetry, acting, writing stories, and photography—and dance. He felt conflicted over what he wanted to do with himself, soon realized institutional learning was not for him, and left school in 2007.
Among other reasons for leaving, “I didn’t feel like I had to make art about being black in order for it to be credible art out of a black person,” he says. “I thought if I painted a cloud it was black art. It’s built up by my experience of my life, which has been part of this certain culture, so it’s black art.”
After Johnson left school, he spent almost two years with no home. But being young, able-bodied, educated, and supported by others, he didn’t feel homeless. If things got rough he could find a way around it—a safety net others didn’t have.
“During that time I recognized that I really wanted to use my—whatever it is I have, to not only be connected with other people, but to eat,” he laughs. “I recognized that that’s really important.”
He started doing dance gigs for bar and bat-mitzvahs the year he left school, and the next year, he joined Baltimore popping crew, Regulators, contracted to perform in front of the Aquarium. He also danced for free—for anyone who needed it.
“From a cultural view in terms of being in an urban community, I had found an identity in underground dance. And it built bridges. It made families,” he says.
He spent the next couple of years dancing, painting portraits at the Harbor, teaching after-school hip-hop programs at Baltimore City Schools, and holding private lessons and workshops. Eventually, he felt that he opened up spiritually and mentally, thanks in part to a few books he read. One of the most influential was a book about modern dance called “Acrobats of the Gods: Dance and Transformation” by Joan Dexter Blackmer, which referenced philosophy, psychology, and alchemy.
Johnson had also noticed a disconnect at the dance events, which led him to leave Regulators for another crew, G-Style, in late 2010.
“Some people in my crew really wanted to be popular with other dancers. I didn’t care about that,” he says. “I wanted to take it places where it’s not seen. I wanted to impact the community.”
He was inspired by how well his new crew’s leader, Slick Dogg, knew himself and never let the negativity of his surroundings affect him. He realized he wasn’t going to allow circumstances around him to define him, and eventually he felt confident that self-expression was the source of power in life.
“The reason why I love popping so much is it was born out of a cultural ‘creation story,’’’ he explains. “It was born out of the everyday experiences and the day-to-day rituals that a lot of people in different urban communities in the ’60s would take part in. These different modes of behavior, links to an identity, or a higher form of self-expression were created out of these rituals, and there’s a culture to it.”
Johnson uses his street dance to communicate universal ideas about experience. Even though people come from different walks of life, dance unifies them.
These experiences inspired him to devise a system of philosophical guidelines called Art of the Catalyst, which examines how we are shaped by our environment and offers ways in which we can take back the power of choice. According to Johnson, if we are unable to choose how to express ourselves, we are left with the identifiers society has chosen for us, and a way of living so focused on the individual that it forgets that the ability to be an individual is what makes us so similar.
“It’s almost so simple it’s like, ridiculously confusing,” he says of his philosophy.
When he first came up with it, he was selling perfume through a company called New Age Wholesale. Then his boss, Cory Evans, observed him taking notes on what would become Art of the Catalyst. Evans felt that Johnson wouldn’t get what he needed by working for him, so he eventually fired him and asked him to teach him the system.
Johnson began working on a practical application of the system, which he called Gifted Unity, which would take the concept of Art of the Catalyst and use it as a base for connecting artists with different talents as a way of unifying them. Looking ahead, he isn’t afraid to expand it into more of a business. He knows too well the struggle of making a living.
Right now, in addition to working at Red Emma’s, Johnson is a full-time father to his son, Lotus-Biko, alongside fiancee Nicola, and holds dance performances and workshops, as well as doing part-time contractual gigs as a stage tech. He eventually would like to use his multidisciplinary background to be a producer and facilitate others with their vision.
He realizes some of his ideas are not ready for the public, but he found the Art-Part’heid discussion inspirational, and he believes his own ideas will grow in community.
“I don’t have the answer to very large institutional structural issues, but I can help an individual find their way,” he says. “And I don’t think we’re gonna get an answer to these larger things until more and more people are starting to live like that, you know? So that’s what I can add to it all.”
Talbolt Johnson will be performing in “trans|n|dance,” a part of Labbodies’ “Borders, Boundaries, and Barricades” performance art showcase, at 7 p.m. on July 3 at La Bodega Gallery, 1501 Guilford Ave. A100.