Exclusives Interviews 9 February 2021
Author: Kafui Mensah

GRM Exclusive: Dane Baptiste talks new show ‘Bamous’, the black experience in the UK’s entertainment scene & more

9 February 2021

Dane Baptiste can be recognised as a pioneer in the UK comedy/ entertainment scene from the early 2000s, and for being nominated for the “Best NewComer” in 2014. The comedian made history at Edinburgh Comedy Awards as the first Black British act to be nominated for the award. The content creator continues to break down the social barriers put in place to stop black creators elevating in the scene. In light of the recent release of his latest BBC Three project BAMOUS the comedian sits down with GRM Daily to discuss how to navigate the complexities of being black and famous in the UK, the creative process behind his latest project and much more.

So how did the idea for Bamous come about?

“So I was doing my second one man show. I had a one man show that I did in 2014, and I did the second one in 2015 which was called Reasonable Doubts, it was basically about me trying to work out my position in the industry. Because I’d gone from being an aspiring professional comedian, to a professional; and its about my position in the industry looking at my peers and other people I looked up to.

“A lot of times it is really tough as a black creator going into the mainstream because you tend to have to compromise or dilute your act or your appearance, to make yourself more palatable to white audiences. I’ve always been worried about selling out, so I thought about the fact that I don’t want to just be famous I want to be Bamous; which means I don’t mind having a profile and success but I also want to have the credibility and the respect of my peers from where I’m from, so thats where the idea came from to be Bamous apposed to being famous.

“It was all about an observation that I’d seen over a number of years before the advent of the internet, where it seemed to be like a real dark covenant for creatives, where when you start making mainstream songs you have to leave out topics and subject matter. Thats just something I never wanted to be, so it was really about me pondering how not to lose myself.”

I agree with the sell-out concept that you mentioned a lot of times in our culture people don’t hesitate to slap you with the sellout label, how hard do you think it is to navigate correctly?

“Fame is very different to success. Obviously people know who you are and fame can be a bi-product of success, but what tends to happen is the more people that are invested in your brand, means you have a lot of stakeholders. Like when grime just started and you had things like Channel U, people could do whatever they wanted, but when record labels started taking more interest in the music then you saw how the music began to change in its appearance, and the next thing you know it was more of a funky house type of thing.

“Thats something I’ve seen particularly with comedy in the UK for a long time, and I just thought it was very strange how you can look at the States which despite being such an overtly racist country, they have had a long legacy of successful comedians from as far back as Red Fox, to today with your Chappelles and Kevin Harts where you can hear an unapologetic depiction of black life. Even Trevor Noah, who comes from South Africa, where they had Apartheid that ended in ’97 they still talk about these issues, and I just think in the UK we use a very subversive racist technique where we don’t acknowledge our contribution to racist attitudes, or our treatment of non-white people.

“I always say to people in the UK, the way it works is Americans say “WHAT BLACK PEOPLE” whereas British people go “what black people”, because it’s taken such a long time for them to acknowledge the existence of the diaspora in this country.

“If you look at the face of music maybe 10/20 years ago in the UK, compared to who’s the face of music now. I remember being at the train station, and seeing all the faces of the posters for Apple Music and its like Fredo, Stormzy and Jorja Smith, this is what people listen to and its the most influential music, but 10/20 years ago before the internet, and before peoples voices were democratically heard online, the people that we used to see at number 1 nobody would’ve known who they are.”

How would you describe the premise of the show without giving away the entire plot?

“As a format I’d say it whats Soccer AM is to football fans, Bamous is the same for black culture. Its almost like a visual, or a show like magazine on topical events that will effect the diaspora. Another way of looking at it is if the MOBO’s was a boxset it would be like Bamous as well, because it has celebrated all those contributions from Windrush onwards and even before then of the diaspora to black culture; but also by that same token its acknowledging a lot of Black British culture is still British culture that is enjoyed by other people that are not black as well.

“So the main point of it is celebrating black culture within the context of it being British culture.

On the concept of Bamous itself, when did you realise that black people have a different experience when it comes to traversing fame in our culture?

“A perfect example would be Raheem Sterling being villainized for having a gun tattoo on his leg, he’s getting attacked for that and getting treated that type of way, but Joey Barton’s putting cigarettes out in peoples eyes, but he still has a job. Another example would be Ian Watkins the lead singer of LostProphets, went to prison for child molestation but the rock community was not held to account for his actions of child molestation and pedophelia, whereas if one rapper goes to prison then the whole scene has to be accountable for him.

“For people to lament what they perceive to be the criminality of black kids, and also oppose them with Form 696, whilst they are actually performing and creating a revenue stream to leave that situation does not really make any sense. On one hand you have the detractors saying “well my tax money shouldn’t go towards these kids”, or “people shouldn’t be having so many kids if they can’t look after them blah blah blah”; but when these children through their own ingenuity and creativity are able to create something that gets them out of that situation then people say “The music is too violent and blah blah”.

“We’re still having this conversation on censorship, porn is the most present thing on the internet and its free and you lot are still worried about rappers and drillers and stuff like that? I’m not saying theres not any responsibility there, but there are no guns that are made in Ghana, there are no guns that are made in Nigeria, there are no guns made in Jamaica, there are no guns made in South Africa, there are no bombs made in these countries so they have to get here somehow.

By the same token again, I’ve noticed in terms of fame you supposedly have a proximity to drugs as a black creative, then again your accountable if something happens. Amy Winehouse died of an overdose no arrests, no investigations, no questioning about her use of drugs; even her boyfriend who we all know openly used drugs, not a day in prison. So the examples are just endless to be honest with you.”

Another concept in Bamous is the NASBLAQ, how would you describe the idea?

“If Bamous is the equivalent to Soccer AM representing black culture, the NASBLAQ would act as the league table, and it works in the same way as the NASDAQ does in the American stock market.

“As a creative and a brand, when you’re trying to be successful in the industry, you got to make sure you take care of that brand for it to have a higher value. So essentially what we’ve done with the NASBLAQ, is taken all of those things that contribute to a persons value as a performer or creative whether its their skill proficiency in their line of work, or their social commentary, or sometimes their general goodwill and conduct as a human being, thats how you end up on the NASBLAQ.

“Currently at the top of the NASBLAQ we have Marcus Rashford, because he’s an accomplished athlete, a role model and not only that, he’s led by example with his on going campaign to feed hungry children in the UK when the government wouldn’t do it. It’s just really about who’s got the juice basically.”

For a lot of creatives like yourself, not being able to go outside and have normal interactions would’ve had a real effect on their creative process, how have you dealt with it?

“If I’m honest the hardest part has been not being able to go and gig. Because comedy is a very unique art form where you need to have people reciprocating to what you’re doing for you to know if its working or not. So I can’t really go and put out a song, or three minutes of material, and be like its ok because all of lines or bars, I need a laugh at the end to see if it was working so the conditions have made it very difficult to test out new material. There have been other ways we’ve been doing stuff through Zoom calls, and uploading different stuff to the internet with content that I’d previously recorded.

“The main way that this has effected me is that everyones having the same shared experience, so because everyones spent this whole time in lockdown it means for me to just to just speak about the quantum of my lockdown would be like, “I was on lockdown” and everyone would just say “so have we so tell us something we don’t know”, so its kinda hard to push yourself and challenge yourself to find the most innovative ways to describe the experience.

“So far as how it has effected me, I would say the effect has been mostly positive, because I was touring before we locked down, so its been like a good break and time to take a breather, and I think 2020 was a very reflective year where I’d been doing comedy ten years and it was time to sit down and take stock of what I had achieved and moving forwards what I want to achieve. In that aspect its been very positive in creating a little bit of stillness, and in comedy (especially observational comedy), a main part of it is being able to sit down and observe, and sometimes its more important to listen more than you speak.

“Right now I have tunnel vision, and sometimes that can be really effective especially in a world of entertainment, where you are constantly competing with people for opportunities and people always have to emphasise their success. For me, it’s been a quantum of solace for me to focus on what I’m doing, and it’s been very effective which definitely contributed to me being able to make Bamous.”

Looking at the wider picture, in todays world where race is such a prevalent theme, would you say someone being Bamous is a handicap or a benefit to a black creator?

“I think that it would be a positive, I think that we’re at a time now especially with Black Lives Matter, where there is no need to be apologetic about who you are. I also feel like black people are aware more than any other group of people that irrespective of how hard you work, or how hard you pray, that there are some people that simply won’t accept you because of who you are. I feel like if you know that people won’t accept you no matter what, you do you gotta do what the hell you want because they’re not gonna like you anyway.

“For me I think its good to be Bamous, because listen I think now we are being reminded of racial iniquity that is as clear as it was back in 1966 when MLK was alive, so fast forward 50+ years later I just think you might as well just be yourself because nothings changed.

“Right now we’re on the cusp of a real restitching of our social fabric, I don’t want to be too blunt, but if you can get shot for sleeping in your car why try and change and be nice or more acceptable? Lemme tell you something, I have never lived on a council estate in my life, my dad has been in my life, I went to a grammar school, I got an honour degree in business from university, I never sold no drugs, I never been to prison, and I’m not bragging or saying I’m a good person, but despite all of that I’m a black person and thats how some people see me, and they’ll see me just as a brudda that sells crack on road or in a bando. So with that in mind why would I change who I am, or try to encourage other black people to change their behaviour in the face of white supremacy? Now is the prefect time to be Bamous, be whoever the fuck you want.”

The comedy scene in the UK has changed so much. Comedians now have jumped on new apps like TikTok. How do you feel about the new era of 60 second comedy?

“People are using the tools they have to create something that people like. Some people do complain, but the thing with the internet is that it is truly democratic, people can choose whether or not they want to buy into this and they can choose not to. So if people are watching this stuff and they are amassing followers, theres nothing you can really complain about, because its a democratic thing and if you want to create a different type of aesthetic your free to do so as well, so I just think its a true free market.

“I guess from an artistic perspective, the thing with any product thats easy to make, is your leaving yourself open to a lot of competitors. So its like the difference between a roast dinner and a jam sandwich. If your just making jam sandwiches, it’s a lot easier for someone to duplicate what your doing, but if your making a roast, you’re meticulously marinating and it takes a lot longer to make.

“The thing that I’m most enthusiastic about is because this can all happen without gate keepers. It means that they are no barriers to entry for my peers, and at the end of the day cream rises to the top. I remember very early Channel U days, and the people that are still thriving and doing well you could tell they were gonna do well when they first started, so I genuinely believe that quality will always rise to the top.”

Would you say that compared to back in the day, the scene is better equipped to offer opportunities to someone from our background trying to make it out?

“Absolutely. It’s a great time for comedy now. I think so far as opportunities, diversity and inclusion, especially through digital media its a great time, and I’m not saying its easy, but theres not gonna be a better time, especially compared to 20 years ago.

“What a lot of younger creators don’t understand is, for people of my generation in their 30s, the last superstar black comedian we saw on TV was Richard Blackwood, and that was like the early 2000s. When Richard Blackwood came on TV, and was basically mainlined by mainstream media, they were not putting any black thing on TV. Instead they were replacing it with diluted versions, thats when you started to see the Ali G’s , Bo selecta, and BBC were doing Mr T’s craziest fools. So you just basically had an entire generation of black people who were deprived of any representation of themselves in mainstream media for about 20 years.

“In comedy, around the same time grime started moving into the mainstream, and even then it was diluted where you had Tinie Tempah and Tinchy Stryder. I’m not saying those guys were necessarily that diluted, but Tinchy Stryder was five years older than they were making him out to be when he first came out, even in the video the lead singer is a mixed race girl, yet they put a white girl in the video, then you got So Solid being replaced by Blazin’ Squad, which was just the same big crew or collective with just more white bruddas this time round.

“The whole aesthetic changes, were they take black music and turn it into this homogenous mass and call it urban for 10 years, and your like what does that even mean? Like what does urban even mean? It’s such a reductive term. London itself has such different sounds, South rap is very different to grime music in the East, so you already have so much diversity in one city, which doesn’t even include Birmingham and Nottingham.

“As a Ghanaian you know things like Afro-beats and Afro-Swing are not new they’ve been around for time, so how you gonna take all these different nuance sounds and put it all together and call it urban? I remember Akala had a quote where he said “If Capital Xtra is the home of black music why do they not play jazz or different genres of black community?”.

“So for a long time the presence of black people outside of sports was nearly 0. So I think things are great, I heard last week that 10% of all music streams around the world are from British artists. People used to say that Americans don’t have the ear to listen to black British artists or comedians, but now because the internet has allowed it to reach them, or allowed us to secure a Netflix deal, for example someone like Mo Gilligan, it means all of these preconceptions that the industry had about our scene were all lies. We do have a broad appeal, and I think its a great time now compared to how bad it was.”

With your recent collaboration with BBC for Bamous being a major achievement. Looking back to your early career how hard was it as a black creator to make the jump to TV?

“I mean it was tough when I first started comedy, but it wasn’t really my prime goal to be on TV, I just wanted to be able to do something I enjoyed and make living from it. After I did my debut show, I was approached by the BBC commissioners for a pilot, so then I did that and it got to that point because it turns out I did a sitcom called Sunny D on BBC3, and that was the first black British sitcom on the BBC in the last 20 years. I got that off the back of going to Edinburgh, and doing the worlds largest arts festival. Again I got nominated for an award for best newcomer, and I was the first black person from this country to ever be nominated and thats how deep it was before for the diaspora in this country.

Be sure to watch BAMOUS over on iPlayer now.