Canterbury Tales’ rhymes remixed

canterburytales

Baba Brinkman re-tells The Canterbury Tales and Beowulf through rapping.

His treatment of “The Canterbury Tales” and “Beowulf” demonstrated the perceptiveness of a literary scholar and the wit of a chart-topping rapper. Full of head-bobbing rhythms and clever rhymes, the show brushed the dust off of literary classics and revealed their modern relevance to a packed house last night.

Brinkman is a Canadian rapper and playwright. His show drew themes that resonate with modern audiences, like relational strife. As a comparative literature student working on his thesis, he said he saw parallels between the rich storytelling of English classics and modern rap.

Phil Lankford, research collaborator in the English and comparative literature department, first saw Brinkman in 2005.

“I was so impressed by his ability,” Lankford said.

He has spent the past two years planning to bring Brinkman to Chapel Hill to expose students to the artistic variety available to them.

Lankford, along with the UNC Carolina Scholars program and literature professor Ted Leinbaugh funded the performance so students could experience the show for free.

For those unfamiliar with the art of literary hip-hop — “lit-hop” — the gulf between 14th-century texts and catchy rap rhymes seem too wide to bridge. Yet Brinkman’s transformation of age-old appeared effortless.

“The things that transfix us and we’re passionate about today are still relevant and resonate with what was of interest to people 600 years ago,” he said.

The work of Chaucer in particular lends itself to Brinkmanesque retelling. Lines like, “She was supreme as Elena Kagan/ Crossed with Kiera Knightly; Guinevere was rightly,” to describe the queen in the Wife of Bath’s Tale capture the spirit of Chaucer’s original in an exciting way.

“I think Chaucer tapped into something deep about people’s natural wants and needs, and rappers have that same talent and show that connection,” Brinkman said.

“The Canterbury Tales Remixed” isn’t Brinkman’s only attempt to transform elevated subject matter into catchy beats. Since Lankford first saw him in 2005, Brinkman has written or co-written a total of six rap shows, each of which tackle topics like religion and evolution.

“The Rap Guide to Evolution” earned him a Scotsman Fringe First Award. He has been a featured guest at several regional TEDx performances and has been commissioned for a number of musical projects, including the “The Rap Guide to Business” for New York University Stern School of Business.

Brinkman’s show is a cultural translation of Chaucer’s work. Retaining the spirit of a work is difficult, but senior Metta Longo said she was impressed with Brinkman’s unique rendition. As a Romance language major, Longo said she confronts the issue of retaining the original connotation of a text.

“I think that’s definitely something that needs to be a discussion, and just his presence on the stage like that is making this a talked about issue.”

@ecperry17

arts@dailytarheel.com

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