July 23 2008
In the midst of all of the intended fanfare around “The Rebel Cell”, which premiers in Edinburgh in one week, with the corresponding album release coming up on the weekend, I thought I’d take a moment to share a quick Chaucer-related story, bizarre and hysterical as a Canterbury Tale. Yesterday I returned from performing at the New Chaucer Society conference in Swansea, Wales, where over three hundred of the world’s top medieval professors had congregated for four days to give papers and round-tables and plenary speeches on the subject of history’s favourite storyteller. I was scheduled to be the entertainment at the pub night at the end of the conference, but I asked if I could also come for the day to attend some of the lectures and get caught up on the state of global Chaucer studies. I was especially keen since I recognized many of the featured speakers from the bibliography of my Masters thesis, so I was looking forward to putting some faces to the quotations I used.
The first session I attended was a fierce debate about “New Formalism vs New Historicism”, the question of whether the study of literature is best guided by a close reading of each text as a semi-autonomous work of art, or whether it’s generally better to understand texts as a product of their historical and cultural circumstances. As with many debates, it was only the most radical applications of these two approaches that were really under attack, and both of the speakers actually seemed to fall somewhere in the middle, although they did a fine job of misrepresenting each other as ideologues.
The second session produced an incident that was so surreal I’m sure I will never forget it. It was a round-table discussion on “Teaching Chaucer” featuring short presentations from six professors (actually five professors and one high school teacher) who all shared their varied experiences with teaching The Canterbury Tales at their respective schools. I had quietly taken a seat near the back of the lecture hall before the session started and was curious to hear if any of what was said could be brought to bear on my own work in schools with the Rap Canterbury Tales. Little did I know that the intensity of the “New Formalism vs New Historicism” debate was shortly going to be eclipsed by the intensity of the “pro-Baba Brinkman vs anti-Baba Brinkman” debate.
I was mentioned probably half a dozen times in the various presentations, with the first speaker coming out strongly against me, cautioning against over-reliance on superficial pop-culture adaptations of Chaucer, from the TV dramatizations to parallels with South Park and Family Guy to the notorious Rap Canterbury Tales, which was now being put to use in a dangerously high number of classrooms. She argued that these students would be left with no memory of the actual curriculum material or of Chaucer himself, only the “cool stuff” it was compared to in class, like rap. Other professors came to my defense, saying they were skeptical at first about a white Canadian co-opting a black art form in order to disrupt the sanctity of medieval studies, but that after seeing the show performed and hearing about my work in inner city schools, they were convinced that I was a valuable resource for capturing the attention of young people who would otherwise never give Chaucer a chance. Still others argued that it was a bad idea to use the rap as an ice-breaker, because it would unduly influence the students’ interpretation of the Tales, but that they had found it effective as an incentive, as in: “at the end of the Chaucer section, if you study hard, you’ll get to hear the rap as a reward”.
As this debate transpired I kept sliding down lower in my seat trying not to be noticed, since they were clearly oblivious to my presence. Ever wondered what it would be like to be a fly on the wall at your own funeral? Well, as it turned out one person had noticed me coming in, and it happened to be the session moderator, Dr Helen Cooper from Cambridge, whose job was to open the floor for questions after the initial talks. So the first thing she said was: “A fascinating debate about modern vs traditional approaches to teaching Chaucer! Rapping and YouTube and Television, what exactly is their place in medieval studies? It may come as a surprise to many of you, but we are lucky enough to have Baba Brinkman in the room right now, and I’m hoping he’ll be willing to comment on the ongoing discussion of his work.” A hundred and fifty bespectacled professors’ heads swiveled around in surprise to stare directly at me as I gave them a nervous wave, “hi everybody”.
So I said: “It’s pretty surreal for me to hear you all debating the merits of my rap adaptation as a pedagogical tool, especially since that’s definitely not the purpose that I wrote it for. I’m happy that it’s found a home in the classroom and that some teachers have found it useful, but my original motivation when writing The Rap Canterbury Tales wasn’t to help you to teach Chaucer; it was to wrest Chaucer away from you people and bring him to a wider audience outside the classroom. That’s why I brought the show to the Edinburgh Festival and to dozens of other festivals around the world. I thought it was a tragedy that The Canterbury Tales was only being enjoyed by people with a medieval studies education, when the Tales have a universal appeal and deserve to have a universal audience. So, use the rap version at your own risk, and please judge it on its own merit after listening for yourself, instead of through the lens of your prejudice about rap, and keep in mind that from performing this show to tens of thousands of people around the world over the past five years, I am now the face of Chaucer, not you all. I think the tales should be studied because they are loved, not loved because they are studied, and I’m trying to make people love the Tales again. So come see the show tonight and you’ll see how I do that.”
That night I got to perform the rap in a crowded room full of the world’s most eminent (beer-drinking) Chaucerians, and from the response I got (both to my comments and to the performance) I have a feeling that the “anti-Baba Brinkman” faction has been all but vanquished from the field of Chaucer Studies. However, the “New Formalism vs New Historicism” debate rages on.
Yours from the trenches,