Fringe interview: Baba Brinkman on the Canadian Fringe circuit

Promoted by the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. In a regular series of interviews to mark World Fringe Day, acts performing at this year's Edinburgh Festival Fringe share their experiences of other fringes around the world. This week: rapper Baba Brinkman tells Jay Richardson about his experiences on the Canadian Fringe circuit.

Baba Brinkman
Baba Brinkman

When Baba Brinkman argues that travel broadens the mind, it’s with authority. The rapper, who’s built a reputation for accessible but theoretically robust shows about science, is returning to the Edinburgh Fringe with two hours – the Rap Guide To Consciousness and a reprisal of Off The Top: Neuroscience with Attitude, his well-received double-act with his cognitive neuroscientist wife, Heather Berlin.

“Actually, travel changes your whole personality,” he says. “The person you’re expected to be at home and the relationships you have cause you to evolve into a certain social niche – you find things you’re good at in relation to the people you’re around.

“But I’ve found that when I travel, I reinvent myself. You can’t completely remake yourself anew but I’ve found that the person I’m able to be at a festival or touring a show has broader horizons. I surprise myself away from my set routines with acts of spontaneity. At an international festival, your dials get adjusted so that you’re more open and extroverted, have more energy and just want to experience it all.”

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    The New York-based Canadian is currently recording the accompanying Rap Guide To Consciousness album in Vancouver. This was where he first embarked upon the fringe festival circuit, debuting his rap guide to Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales in 2003.

    Recognising what a “great outlet” fringes were for his distinctive mix of pop culture and so-called high art, he subsequently took the show to seven festivals the following year – Brighton, Edinburgh, Prague, Toronto, Montreal, San Francisco and Victoria.

    “That experience was so positive and so formative, I realised that this was what I wanted to do for a living and pretty much have done ever since,” he explains. “I like the competitiveness and meritocracy ideal that drives a fringe, where there’s no winner at the beginning, you’ve just got to get people’s attention and by the end, the buzz has coalesced around certain shows organically and spontaneously.

    “I see it in very starkly Darwinian terms. [Fringes] are like a meme market where you bring ideas to the arena and they’re battle-tested by their ability to compete for limited attention in a limited amount of time, I find it motivating. I can read the reviews, see what’s good and just use it as fuel for the fire. Maybe that’s my hip-hop background.”

    Arriving in Edinburgh in 2004 without fanfare, a publicist or producer, he nevertheless managed to sell out his run “and it set me up with all these other gigs. It gave me a taste of what’s possible.”

    All five of Brinkman’s off-Broadway shows made their debut in Edinburgh. And he claims that there isn’t a “smarter, more literate, more discerning comedy audience. It makes me write to a higher standard than anywhere else I’ve premiered work.”

    For a time, he played Canadian fringes ever year. Then for four years, no festivals but Edinburgh. His home country was “hit and miss”, insofar as “when they went well, the positive outcomes weren’t enough to be worth the time when they didn’t do so well. Unlike Edinburgh which set up a lot of touring opportunities.”

    Despite forsaking them for the better part of a decade though, he’s returning to this month’s Winnipeg Fringe. Having fallen foul of the show application lottery system on three occasions before his self-imposed exile, his number finally came up. And he’s enthused about further honing the Rap Guide To Consciousness.

    But he has mixed feelings about the Bring Your Own Venue initiative that sprang up at Canadian fringes in response to the lottery system. “If you can find a coffee-shop or bar that’s not signed up as an official fringe venue you can still do a show, though they’re more of a gamble.”

    Still, he appreciates the welcome performers get in Canada, where “they’re so grateful to you for coming. That’s unlike Edinburgh where you have to earn it from scratch every time, even if you’ve been coming for years.

    “Sometimes I wish there was more of a red carpet experience in Edinburgh. But I understand why there isn’t and appreciate the challenge. The success wouldn’t feel as earned.”

    *Baba Brinkman’s Rap Guide to Consciousness is at Assembly George Square Studios from 2-28 August,

    *The Edinburgh Festival Fringe was the world’s first Fringe back in 1947. Seventy years later, there are now more than 200 Fringes worldwide. World Fringe Day, on 11 July, marks 70 years since the birth of the Fringe concept,