The Ring

Humanities brings Baba back to UVic

Mon, 2012-11-05 14:44

The Canterbury Tales Remixed: Baba Brinkman
Baba Brinkman on stage off-Broadway in NYC | Photo: Dixie Sheridan
Brinkman off-Broadway in NYC: Rap Guide to Evolution | Photo: Yuval Binur
Brinkman on stage at UVic: Canterbury Tales Remixed | Photo: Beth Doman
Brinkman on stage at UVic - with DJ Jamie Simmonds | Photo: Beth Doman
Brinkman on stage at UVic: Rap Guide to Evolution | Photo: Beth Doman
Brinkman at UVic | Photo: Beth Doman

Rap troubadour and celebrated UVic grad Baba Brinkman (MA ’03, English) captivates his listeners like the bards of old.

And if you were lucky enough to see Brinkman on stage at UVic’s Farquhar Auditorium in October 2012, you might never listen to rap music the same way again.

A New York Times reviewer calls him a “latter-day wandering minstrel.” From Huffington Post: "He turns dusty old works that torture adolescents in classrooms into remarkably current and vivid stories." And Scotland on Sunday says his “blinding barrage of rhymes [finds] the missing link between Eminem and Richard Dawkins.”

Click here for the UVic-produced video interview of Brinkman, now on UVic's YouTube channel.

Also online is a curated ‘Storify’ cache of Twitter and news feeds surrounding Brinkman’s double-bill performance. It was the first time he’d done both shows in one day.

On Oct. 24, UVic’s Faculty of Humanities as part of the university’s 50th anniversary celebrations brought Brinkman (now based in NYC) back to his alma mater to perform his two off-Broadway hits. The Victoria Poetry Project helped host this exclusive engagement.

Canterbury Tales Remixed (with music and turntablism by DJ Jamie Simmonds) With more than 300 people in the audience, primarily school students from Victoria plus a contingent from Salt Spring Island, the 2pm show begins with the DJ’s right hand moving over the turntable in a blur.

The stage is sparely set—a stool, a screen and the soundboard. Brinkman starts in shadow but is soon on his feet to lead the audience through The Epic of Gilgamesh and Beowulf to The Canterbury Tales. He chases down 5,000-year-old words and sounds out Chaucer’s Middle English with ease, commanding the stage using the rhythms of rap, with visual effects and modern music as his accompaniments:

This is a story about stories…
We got some new tricks these days.

Maybe rap is just literature
in its adolescence.

Some of the words are probably the most raw that the auditorium rafters have received in a while. “Hoe” and “insatiably shagging” are possibly the mildest of these.

It’s clear it’s the kids he’s especially reaching out to, and his message is there are parallels between the worlds of literature and hip-hop music, that being literary and (street)smart is cool. He is “just the vessel for the original author.”

The promo material for the show sums it up perfectly: “Just like the most heart-wrenching songs by Eminem or Kanye West, these ancient Tales are infused with lust, betrayal, infidelity, greed, jealousy, ambition…[it’s] a rich theatrical experience filled with laugh-out-loud hilarity and riveting storytelling, tracing a thread from Chaucer's venal Merchant and sensuous Wife of Bath to the muscular heroes of ancient lore, so similar to today's hip hop stars in their perpetual quest for glory.”

Brinkman exhorts his audience:

If you really want to know how it ends
You’re gonna have to read it.

Don’t listen to me
Go read!

The Canterbury Tales Remixed ran off-Broadway for three months from November 2011 until February 2012.

Rap Guide to Evolution (with music and turntablism by DJ Jamie Simmonds) “How can rap do justice to ancient literature and evolutionary science?” asks Brinkman, then later in the 8pm show, he has the Victoria crowd singing along to the Dead Prez song “I’m a African” with fists pumping the air.

Rap music is
testimonials from the urban jungle.

This unity of common descent,
that’s just elegant.

According to promo material for the show: “How is bling like a peacock's tail? What do scorpions, geese, and gangster rappers have in common? Brinkman performs his clever re-workings of popular rap songs and original character-driven story-lines, exploring natural selection, sexual selection, and the evolutionary roots of human behaviour.”

At the end of the performance, Brinkman turns to the audience for a Q&A session which he promptly turns into rap. One of the three questions from the audience is, is there a link between socio-economic status and linguistic abilities?

Brinkman responds, “Judging from where rap came from, I’d argue the opposite” and adds that ‘climbing the ladder’ due to “innate talents” and not money or status is something that “hip hop rightly celebrates.”

The Rap Guide to Evolution ran off-Broadway at Manhattan’s Soho Playhouse from June to November 2011. In addition to his success on stage in NYC, Brinkman has won awards and entertained thousands including at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in Scotland for nearly a decade. He’s working next on a show about climate change.

Brinkman is a maestro of originality and wit who does justice to words but for whom words can’t fully do justice.

UVic video of Brinkman

Check out for details on future theatre and tour dates.