Rapper gives rhyming a reason

20th March 2009 at 00:00
Hip hop artists such as Kanye West, Ludacris and 50 Cent are the modern-day equivalent of Chaucer and Shakespeare

As far as Canadian rapper Baba Brinkman is concerned, hip hop artists are the Shakespeare and Chaucer of the 21st century. Where contemporary poets and their preference for free verse have failed to capture the public imagination, rappers, he argues, have stepped into the breach, attracting a massive following.

"Shakespeare's plays were also a form of populist entertainment, and were only later adopted by academics and hailed as great literature in hindsight," he says.

So what better way to make these outstanding poets accessible today than to translate their works into the hip hop language? This is what he has done in The Rap Canterbury Tales. "The words are my own but the things that happen are Chaucer's."

According to Baba, who has an MA in Medieval and Renaissance English literature, the translation makes perfect sense, restoring the poems to their original purpose as live oral storytelling experiences.

Today, Baba has been invited to George Watson's College in Edinburgh to perform the tales. The visit was initiated by English teacher Andrew Leask who, several years ago, saw Baba perform at the Edinburgh Festival. He hopes his modern take on Chaucer will make the poet's works more palatable for pupils.

"Chaucer isn't generally covered in the early English curriculum, so when it comes to signing up for Advanced Higher courses, pupils are more likely to opt for Shakespeare or Keats," says Mr Leask. "Hopefully, this will show them that Chaucer is relevant and fun."

First to see the performance is S1; if this fails to pique their interest, nothing will. The tales begin as a means of passing time, he explains, but gradually the pilgrims use them to subtly insult each other, in the way 50 Cent and Ja Rule weave insults about each other into their songs, with lyrics like: "You's a pop tart sweetheart, you soft in the middleI eat ya for breakfast."

Baba raps in his translation of The Miller's Tale:

"'Cause in the sack this guy was on disability.

"He was prone to senility, pride, and jealousy,

"And he slept with open eyes, terrified of infidelity."

In Baba's eyes, the pilgrims look and, in some cases, act like rappers. He imagines the Pardoner as looking like Kid Rock with his pale, pasty, smooth cheeks and long, stringy hair. And in personality, he is akin to hip hop artist Ludacris, a playboy who talks about having "hoes in different area codes". The Pardoner, he explains, has "a jolly wench in every town".

When Baba has rapped the tale, which features three men who go on a mission to kill death:

" ... the three friends hit the streets,

"And went to seek their destiny, and provoke a confrontation,

"In a drunken rage, hoping Death would come and face them ...".

- he recites a few lines from Chaucer's original, written in Middle English. A stunned silence follows. "The language was the way they spoke at the time of writing, so Chaucer's friends would have understood perfectly," he explains. "Now it takes scholars to figure out what he was talking about."

But, he continues, in 500 years' time, academics will be baffled by references in rap. Kanye West, for instance, talks about Anakin and Jennifer Aniston. "Scholars will be saying: 'There's a fascinating reference to Jennifer Aniston. Do you think she's one of those mythological gods?'"

The next tale to get the Baba Brinkman treatment is the Wife of Bath's. He immediately captures the audience's interest by telling them how she got her name: "The Wife of Bath has been married five times, the first time when she was 12 to a guy of 60."

Baba only performs The Canterbury Tales with a strong narrative, containing those "old stalwarts" of popular culture: sex and violence. It's the best way to get people hooked, he feels.

This year, the Advanced Higher class specialising in Chaucer at George Watson's has five students. Next year, The TESS predicts a surge in interest.


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