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I TALK TO Dane Baptiste

"I definitely want Black Britons who have previously felt marginalised or under-represented to watch and feel like they're being represented."

Today on BBC Three, comedian Dane Baptiste is hosting a brand new comedy entertainment pilot called Bamous, which offers a satirical, razor-sharp and shamelessly provocative look at what it’s like to be black and famous... bamous.

Part entertainment show, part sketch show, Bamous is set in the heart of The NASBLAQ, a mythical, ever-shifting stock index of the most prominent and up-and-coming black talent in the UK. It’s like the Kilimanjaro of black success, incredibly hard to ascend, full of hidden dangers and all too easy to drop off.

Dane is joined by by some of the most exciting comedy talent in the UK today, including Toussaint Douglass, Munya Chawawa, Lola Jagun and Thanyia Moore, for some hilarious sketches including Bamous Bingo, the NASBLAQ call centre, a diversity thought shower at the BBC and much more.

I caught up with Dane to find out more about why he wanted to make Bamous, the legacy he hopes the show will leave behind and why it's important to support up-and-coming creatives in your field. Here's what he had to say...

First things first, what does "Bamous" mean?

It's when you're Black and Famous. Being bamous means you can still maintain a high level of profile without losing any essence of who you are or where you're from. What I wanted to do, was bridge that gap between Black comics who would mainly perform to Black rooms and Black comics who would mainly perform to White rooms.

I noticed that there were a lot of Black creatives who may prosper within the industry and even at Edinburgh, but found themselves being detached from the Black population in the UK as a whole, because we went such a long time without representation, that people stopped going towards mainstream media outlets.

How would you describe the show, Bamous?

It's an unapologetically Black show which celebrates those who are Black and famous. Essentially I'm trying to create an anthology of Black creativity.

The saying nowadays is that we don't give our creatives and our inspirations flowers while they're alive or while they're relevant. So Bamous is trying to work as a florist - whereby we acknowledge and recognise the contributions of, particularly, Black creatives, inspirers, movers and shakers within British culture.

It's a celebration as opposed to talking about race relation in terms of division. I feel like we're at a time now socially where when we discuss race in the UK, we talk about division, rather than, irrespective of colour, people recognising that there are Black icons who have contributed to British culture.

And the Black British culture I'm describing is also British culture. They're able to work in tandem for us to produce the best art possible.

Why do you think discussions of race are that way in the UK?

Historically, Black culture within the UK has, I believe, been erroneously referred to as "urban culture" or "youth culture" and it's because of that, that there has been a very skewed archetype of Black creatives. There has never been an archive or reference point for Black creativity.

As you know, when I made Sunny D, there hadn't been a Black British sitcom on TV in 20 years. Within that time there was a serious drop off in recognition of Black contribution to British arts and culture, which I think contributed to a lot of creatives falling into obscurity.

Most of the time when people do conjure an image of Black British comedians in the UK, they still can only think of Lenny Henry.

I do think that due to the 20-year absence of Black creativity on British TV there's been a very long disconnect and I think now, because racial tensions have become so heightened, there's been a renaissance to talk about these issues.

When did you first have the idea for Bamous?

When I became aware of the fact that I was the first Black British nominee in Edinburgh's entire history, despite being well aware of a plethora of Black creatives who were involved in comedy. There are also a lot of people who aren't aware of Edinburgh, so there's a disconnect there. So that was part of the inspiration to do this show.

But also, I did my second show in 2015, Reasonable Doubt, which was my tour show, and as I transitioned into becoming a professional comedian I started thinking about my place in the industry. And how I'd work towards the natural trajectory of becoming a household name.

I asked myself if there was any type of listing or reference point for creatives like myself. So the initial endeavour, I guess, was me being quite selfish and trying to work out who my predecessors had been.

So it's actually been quite a long process. It's something I've been refining for three or four years, trying to find out the best way to display it. Also, I was getting into my thirties and noticing that there are very few creatives who were my age who were able to maintain a level of relevance within the public eye.

Explain The NASBLAQ...

It's an index of Black excellence and creativity. I asked myself, what's the best way to display success, and that's when I came up with The NASBLAQ.

I looked at other people I was inspired by and tried to find a way of what I refer to as a blackprint, of how I can achieve the same level of success.

The idea also came from the fact that we live in a world where people refer to themselves as brands as opposed to individuals, when it comes to their work within the industry - and we try to work out the value of our brands based on our achievements.

I wanted to create a state of longevity for myself and my contemporaries because I'd noticed that due to the conflation of Black culture with youth culture, when you get older it's as if you don't matter.

I wanted to get rid of this idea that Black people only tend to prosper within sports or entertainment, so I wanted The NASBLAQ to be a reference point not just for people that have contributed to the culture in terms of arts and sport but also economically, politically and to some extent academically as well.

What does it take to be top tier bamous?

Like with any creativity, you have to be true and genuine to yourself. That doesn't necessarily mean that you have to have the same complexion, but having a respect and affinity for the contributions to Black culture and wanting to contribute to that yourself.

If you are a good creative and you believe in what you're doing, cream always rises to the top of The NASBLAQ.

How important was it for you to give up-and-coming comedians like Thanyia Moore, Toussaint Douglass, Lola Jagun and Munya Chawawa the chance to appear on your show?

It's of infinite importance. I really can't emphasise that enough. The idea for Bamous, same as Sunny D, is that I was a new act trying something new, trying to be innovative, and by the same token I wanted to offer the same platform and opportunity to my peers. I wanted to show the diversity and range of their creativity.

Very often, Black creativity in the UK is seen very much as a monolith. Your musicians are the same as your comedians and your comedians are the same as your influencers. There's a lot more nuance amongst Black creatives than we are being given credit for.

I wanted to demonstrate that by having a very diverse range of up-and-coming talent on the show who I believe - and I don't mean this in a patronising way - that I will be passing the torch on to.

I noticed they each have writing credits on the show too. Which I think is very important. Was that important to you too?

Absolutely! We collaborated together but I made it a point of principal to let all of these guys know that the reason they're involved in this project, is because I'm aware of their talent and the nuanced approaches that they have to their creativity.

I wanted to create a space for them to express themselves and I see in them the potential for them to reach the higher echelons of entertainment. When I created Bamous I really wanted to give those involved, creative control.

The best case scenario would be for this show to be a vehicle for many Black creatives and for British audiences to have a frame of reference if they want to get an honest narrative regarding the Black perspective on issues that affect all of us.

I have always felt like, and it has always been proven socially, that comedy has always been a very effective icebreaker and a very effective tool for rapport building - and I think given the state of race relations in the UK right now, Bamous is a very important vehicle for people to hear directly from the horse's mouth, so to speak.

Given the current social and global climate right now, comedy is not a vaccination, but it's still the best medicine so I'm just trying to find the best people to administer that, who themselves I hope one day will take prominent positions on The NASBLAQ as well.

There's a growing trend of pilots, like Bamous, making it to TV screens so that the audience can give their honest feedback - in terms of ratings, but also in terms of social media comments.

Are you looking forward to seeing the instant feedback?

Absolutely. I think the democratisation that social media has provided has allowed creatives to have a direct link with their audiences, allowing them to change and craft their material accordingly.

They no longer have to deal with middle men and they're not subject to the same level of censorship or micro management they they'd normally experience from gatekeepers. So I'm definitely looking forward to getting feedback because Bamous as a function and NASBLAQ works for the people. We want to know what people think and want to provide a portal where they can let us know who they feel should appear on there.

As a vehicle, I'm definitely depending on social media to help me build that platform as well and give us an idea of what they want the aesthetic to look like. I'm trying to create a comedy vehicle for the people, so I'm definitely open to feedback.

I always refer to comedy as an honest form of politics, so in this particular instance I want to exist as a comedy civil servant and really create a positive aesthetic for Black creatives in the UK.

Who are you hoping will watch Bamous?

Anyone who has previously been incorrectly described as BAME, I'd love them to watch it. I definitely want Black Britons who have previously felt marginalised or under-represented to watch and feel like they're being represented.

But at the same time, despite the social subtext of the show, it's a comedy show. So anyone who's a comedy fan, a British comedy fan and a fan of the work I've done previously should definitely watch the show.

This is the first co-production for your production company John's Boy Entertainment - and Spirit Studios - what made you want to start up your own company?

With the emergence of social media, people have a lot more creative control over their content and output so it was a natural progression for me to have more executive involvement in my creations.

I think it's just a logical next step. The more you have an understanding of the industry, the more you want to thrive in it, and one way of making that happen is having more creative control over what you produce and what you lend your name to.

Hopefully it'll inspire younger or aspiring creatives into knowing that they can really be involved in a project to that level.

Last time we spoke - which towards the end of 2016 - you mentioned that "a lack of investment" is an issue, when terrestrials attempt to diversify their programming.

Do you still think that? Or have things improved at all?

Investment wise I think we're very far off from where we want to be, in terms of creatives who are dependent on it. But at the same time, as I've just mentioned with the emergence of people owning their own production companies, we're now in a position we're were not necessarily looking for support from gatekeepers. People are just doing it themselves.

There have been improvements since then. But largely, the improvements have come from the self-determination of creatives as opposed to relying on the industry.

I know you were due to tour The Chocolate Chip in 2020. How far did you get before the pandemic hit?

I got as far as completing the London leg of my national tour. We went into lockdown literally the weekend after I finished the run.

Racial tension and the complex of black anger as a result of oppression was a key narrative of the show so when the George Floyd murder happened and the BLM protests began, it made all the subject matter within the show ring all the more true.

Even though the show didn't continue for the remainder of the year, the essence of the show has been able to endure because it's so relevant to what was happening.

Are you hoping to tour the show again once lockdown lifts and live comedy hopefully returns?

Absolutely. As I say, the show is very much on the pulse of society right now. We have been witnessing history in front of our very eyes, so I look forward to returning with the show because so much of the material has now resulted from 2020.

I'm looking forward to coming back and providing that commentary on what happened over the last year.

And finally, Bamous ends with a look at the trend of Black British talent moving to America to find success - London Hughes being the most recent example. Were you ever tempted to leave the UK for the US?

Definitely! I've always tried to have quite a global perspective in what I create and have a universal appeal anyway. I actually have a Green Card, so I'm an American resident. I'm already a resident of the United States.

Prior to lockdown I spent a lot of time between London and New York. It's always been a part of my creative matrix. It's definitely on the cards, but I did want to crack the UK because I feel like we have a considerable presence here and I didn't want to leave before people recognised who we are.

Bamous is available now on BBC Three and will be shown Tuesday 19th January at 10.45pm on BBC One


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