Even if one is familiar with street artistry and performance, encountering dancer, playwright, street performer, and singer Jason Duval Hunter plying his trade on the streets of New York City is something ridiculously unique. It’s 11:30 on a Thursday night in Times Square and he’s striking a slim, tall figure as he strides through the crowds, boom box around neck, brazenly singing. This is someone who has every right to be defensive — he’s an artist throwing himself on the mercy of the city mob and quarrelsome tourists up too late — but instead he radiates an articulate and potent joy.
Whether someone dances along with him to his new single, “Ignore”, or sidles away in disgust and confusion, he responds with the same tranquil smile. One could say that his enthusiasm is guarded and aloof, but that would be a horrible misnaming of the contentment he epitomizes. He’s the eye of the hurricane that is the city that never sleeps: above it all because he truly is. One can meet him and his passion on his turf, but if you come with hate or fear in your heart he won’t stoop to your level. Once you step into his orbit of jubilance, you can either choose to be swept along with his playful spirit or find your own way out. There’s no bringing Jason Duval Hunter down to earth, not when he’s ecstatically spreading his joie de vivre and crusading against the silence that all too often binds us to the least human portions of ourselves.
Speaking to the artist is as much a joy as is seeing him at work: his passion and determination radiate through even the most static-ridden phone connection. “When I go out, I have a joyous existence,” he said. “I am a man-child because I do what I love to do for a living. People don’t get to do what they love to do or pursue art as a career, so when they see me acting, singing, and performing in New York City, they don’t know what to do. They ask me ‘What the hell are you on? Who told you that you could do this?’ They’re perplexed by the fact that I’m happy.”
Despite any questions that cynical masses of New Yorkers might throw at him, Duval doesn’t do drugs — in fact, anyone who spoke to him and truly listened for more than a few seconds would see that he loves the way he perceives the world too much to monkey about with chemicals and anthropogenic filters to his sight and thought. “I’m high on life,” he said — not with the flux and flow that might be found in a flower child’s voice but with a joyous conviction matched by little else. If you aren’t put in mind of Rumi when you see Hunter at work, you’re doing it wrong: this is art as ecstatic monkhood. This is a spreading of simple happiness in a world all too dominated by the sense of how things are supposed to be. “Nothing can stop or kill my joy,” he said. “If you stand in light and continue to do what you do, they will back down.”
“Don’t try to fit me into your comprehension of what normal is [by calling me a druggie]. Don’t sit there catatonic in this unconscious state of silence,” Hunter said. Silence is something which motivates his art in more ways than one. Whether it’s reaching out to those who’ve slipped into the consuming quietude of unhealthy maturity and normalcy or dealing with another, larger silence — that of stigma spawned by childhood sexual abuse, something he has personal experience with — the way he interacts with others and creates for himself is suffused with the encouragement of speech.
He sees those who have been silenced by trauma or the banality of ‘real life’ all the time. But “they need to understand that there is joy on the other side of silence,” he said. “Bad, horrible things happen. But I speak from a place of understanding when I say that silence is deadly. You’re not looking at what the options are for getting you out when you’re silent. Write it in a journal, go to a group, talk with a therapist. Deal with pain or trauma. It can be dealt with.”
He himself comes “from a place of therapy. There were a lot of psychological issues and trauma from the abuse. There was a lot of pain and anger about who I was and how I became what I became. I had to learn how to forgive those who trespassed against me and forgive myself for what I thought I was guilty of. We all do the most that we can do. If you pray to a higher power or if it’s just a matter of coming to terms with this yourself, forgive yourself, forgive those around you, forgive the situation and move forward.”
And he has moved forward, in a big way. Not only did he work with the O’Brien Dennis Foundation to help survivors of childhood sexual abuse — he’s founded an offshoot support group called The Conversation — he creates and pushes to new ground using his experiences as a catalyst. “I’ve turned my pain into passion,” he proclaimed. “It’s not something which I’m glad happened — I’m constantly dealing with the ramifications — but I’ve chosen to express myself through art. I’m able to put it in a script and be open about it: I’m blessed with the ability to use that experience. So many people, though, get stuck in that silence.”
Hunter extends a hand to help people clamber out of that silence, however. Through his work with The Conversation, “people get together and discuss their issues. We’ve even created some YouTube videos about the stories of men who’ve survived childhood sexual abuse. This is all to reduce the silence stigma. When you see other people sharing their stories, you get comfort and, maybe, the strength to put your own out there. I love that: people see what I’ve done and tell me that I’ve awakened them out of their silence.”
That’s what he does during his midnight performances as well. An anti-silence crusade is just as much at home in performance art as in group therapy: after all, as Hunter noted, “Artists help people reconnect to their humanity: people are unconscious because they have lost touch with their nature of being human. Even if you can’t relate to other people to recover that, you can relate to a character [in a performance] in a way that you might not be able to do for someone in your own life.”
Hunter steps out the door each morning for one simple mission. “I try to free the spirit,” he said. “I try to spread love and positivity. When I walk out of my house, I say I’ll do x, y, and z but with 100% of my effort. People are attracted to that positivity.” He’s mastered the long-lost art of asking questions on the subway or in line at Starbucks: “Hi, how are you?” or “How’s your day going?”. People are distressed, people are perplexed — Hunter’s take on the matter is that “they’re not capable of receiving love because they can’t love themselves. They look at me loving myself and see it as abnormal” — but “when they try to twist my words around and use semantics to make me and my art fit into their supposed way of being, it’s a form of silence,” and silence is a thing which he is most adept at combating.
Once, Hunter “stepped into darkness; I argued and screamed. I did what they wanted to do, what they dragged me into. But that’s not what you need to do: you need to stand in the light. I kill them with kindness and stand in the light. I continue to project love: L-O-V-E. Eventually they get nullified. They stop the crap and start the smile. I love when I win them over.” And that’s what is most powerful about Jason Duval Hunter. He is in the world but not of the world. He affects those around him on an incredibly potent and visceral level, but his mission and passion are more than what earthly things attempt to break them.
This is his legacy: to exist in the world without fear or scorn.
To find a home in places where the stones of others cannot reach.
To teach others that, even if they cannot or will not be nexuses of art, they can at least appreciate it.
To remind us of the serenity at the center of our humanity, however difficult it may be to access.