Urban Heroes

White, middle-class, and monocultural. The Fringe is undoubtedly that – but also much more. Lewis Porteous speaks to artists straddling the UK's urban comedy scene as well as its mainstream equivalent

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Published 22 Aug 2015

Whichever direction Britain’s ideological compass swings, political correctness proves a tenacious subject of discussion. We live in a multicultural, internationalist world, and yet anxieties surrounding race and religion abound. The establishment has long grappled with how to address these issues, but all too often exchanges are dominated by white Christian voices, to the point where it almost comes as a shock to find subjects of the debate publicly participating in it.

Step forward Tez Ilyas, whose debut solo show, TEZ Talks, has been causing a stir amongst Fringe audiences. A heartfelt plea for understanding, it sees the comic address his background as a British Muslim by presenting a mock induction to the faith. Of course his first priority is making audiences laugh, but Ilyas's ultimate agenda is to assume a degree of control over his community's narrative, reclaiming it from an ill-informed, sensationalist media.

“What I found hardest in this show was getting the tone right,” he reveals. “In earlier versions, I gave it a harder edge and people really didn’t go with the comedy. They were taking things I said at face value and forgot they were watching a comedy show. I want to take the audience with me. Hence I have the conceit that they’re converting to Islam. It becomes ‘this is what we have to do'.”

Leaving scores of emotionally engaged punters in his wake, Ilyas is showing himself adept at bridging differences between an oppressed minority group and predominantly white, middle-class comedy audiences. This is, however, the only demographic he's ever targeted. For a great many black and Asian acts, the obvious first step of their career is to cut their teeth on the urban circuit, a thriving scene running parallel to the mainstream, with few crossovers among punter and performer alike.

Conventional wisdom has it that material needs to be tailored to fit its context, and Tez concurs. “I found out very early on that the stuff I do for the mainstream circuit doesn’t always work with urban audiences. You’re not telling them anything they don’t know. I can be more ironic with a white audience.”

But one performer who holds himself in stark opposition to this approach is Dane Baptiste, a rising black voice whose latest hour, Reasonable Doubts, could well be one of the festival's best reviewed offerings. Nominated for last year's best newcomer Fosters Award and achieving sell-outs almost daily throughout the month, he's proving urban acts can break through to the mainstream with the minimum of compromise.

“Some people may feel their subject matter isn't welcome in the mainstream and that they can't crossover, but it's inevitable for most performance artists to want their ideas to have as many people identify with what you do as possible,” Baptiste explains of his move to more challenging pastures.

“Any observation I make isn't so much forcing ideas onto people as describing a parallel which they can identify with. I think the way of making material work is for it to be unique and distinctive to yourself, but to present it so that anyone can relate to it.

“For example, I don't think discrimination is something unique to urban acts alone. The complex behind most comics is that they don't fit in or exist outside conformist culture. This is always something people can relate to regardless of their background.” Baptiste says that when he recalls being on the receiving end of prejudice in front of a minority audience, his words are treated like a straight observational routine no different to that of the space hopper-fixated middle-aged white man. It's when the mainstream hears what he's been subjected to that references to bigotry acquire a more challenging, almost surreal edge.

Fiercely intelligent and of unshakeable conviction, Baptiste believes that honest, considered material will transcend arbitrary audience divisions. “My material doesn't change," he says. "My thing has been to galvanise those circuits, to hopefully be just a stand-alone person.”

Veteran urban comic Funmbi Omotayo—himself enjoying unqualified success at the Fringe after 15 years of graft—takes the opposite tack. “With mainstream audiences, I have to change my entire set. My references are very cultural, and I'm talking specifically cultural. If you've never been in that world or that circle, you won't understand what I'm talking about. Even though we think London's multicultural, we still have separate experiences.”

While Baptiste believes that persistence will result in audiences attuning themselves to a comedian's material, Omotayo is wary of approaching crowds in anything that could be deemed a confrontational manner. “As much as black people like to point the finger, we're just as ignorant to other races,” is one of the explanations he offers. Another is that, “when you're a black comic, you carry the weight of every single black person in the world. How you portray yourself on stage, your colleagues at work are going to be judged by it. I have a responsibility to represent myself in such a way that the perceptions of people like me will change.”

The opinion shared by all three emerging acts is that the urban circuit is too parochial and exclusionary by nature. It makes sense that it exists because, as Baptiste suggests, “in any kind of entertainment, people tend to project onto or have empathy for someone they might resemble or share experiences with”, but people should be open to new perspectives.

It could too be accused of engendering complacency in its acts – something Ilyas, a recent convert to structured, narrative-driven shows, seems especially disapproving of. “I think the urban circuit spoils people because they can progress to a certain level and earn good money quite quickly. Whereas on the mainstream circuit, you’ve got to fucking slog. You’ve got to do the open mics, the mixed bills, come up to Edinburgh, lose lots of money and I can see why that’s unattractive.”

Still very much at the onset of a promising career, Baptiste desires to continue developing as an artist, exposing his following to new realms of honesty and insight. “It's a symbiotic relationship between you and your audience where if you maintain consistency and keep doing what endeared you to them in the first place, they'll support that. Fame and infamy never last.” Let's hope that neither do stereotypes and barriers.