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Comedian Ben Bailey Smith Weaves Rapping Into Children's Book


Ben Bailey Smith started his career as British rapper Doc Brown. But the younger brother of novelist Zadie Smith wasn't your typical tough rapper. Nerdy with glasses, he lacked street cred. Humor became his ticket. He eventually became a comedian, going on tour with Ricky Gervais. Now, he appears in several U.K. television series as an actor. The multitalented Ben Bailey Smith has now taken on yet another persona, a children's book author. He wrote "I Am Bear" with illustrator Sav Akyuz. The father of two joins us from the studios of the BBC in London. Hi.

BEN BAILEY SMITH: Hey, how's it going?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: It's going really well.

SMITH: Excellent.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: It's clear that rap kind of inspired this book. You know, you have a lot of four letter words of the, you know, less explicit kind.


SMITH: Of the child friendly variety.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Of the child friendly variety - a lot of rhyming.


SMITH AND AKYUZ: (Rapping) I am bear. And I am bare. Yeah. The suit I wear has purple hair. Wow. In my tummy, mostly honey.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I was struck by, you know, often how a goods children book is like a good rap song.

SMITH: Yeah.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You know, was that the idea?

SMITH: For me, the text itself is no more of a rap than any other children's book that rhymes. But I understand where the comparisons come from. I know it's not just me because Sav's intention was from the start for this bear to have something different about him, something, you know, that could tie in with the cheekiness. And for him, it was the hooded top, you know, the graffiti angle with the B-boy stance that you see him in. None of that is accidental.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah, he's an urban bear.

SMITH: Very much so, yeah, I never saw it as a rap. But I understand the comparisons and where the connotations come from.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I'm going to take you back to the beginning of your career a little bit.

SMITH: Sure.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You know, you started out as a rapper. You know, what were the things that were - that moved you then? What were the things that you were rapping about that you found, you know, you wanted to talk about?

SMITH: I, you know, I came from a working-class background - low-income background and household. But I was never a street guy, you know? I was never involved with the tough guys. And I was fascinated by rap, and I wrote rhymes, but I always kept it to myself. So it wasn't until I was around 19, 20 and, you know, I'd started going to hip-hop club nights, and, crucially, the battle rap nights when emcees would go up against each other. And I started to understand that I could beat, like, a dude who could physically destroy me lyrically by embarrassing him for being beaten by the nerdy guy with the glasses, you know?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You turned to comedy then. We're going to play a clip right now from 2012 when you appeared on the British show "Good News." And here you are...


GARCIA-NAVARRO: ...Rapping about making a proper cup of tea.


SMITH: (Rapping) Teabag in first, pour the water on top. Shut up, man, I'll tell you when to stop.


SMITH: (Rapping) And you know exactly how much milk is required, making assumptions on how I like it.


SMITH: (Rapping) Whoa, whoa, whoa. What are you doing? Don't let the tea bag sit there brewing. You got to stir straight away. Don't stop. Otherwise you get that weird scum on the top.


SMITH: I'm amazed that you were able to find a clean few seconds of that. That's impressive work.


GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah, exactly. But how was the transition from rap to comedy? I mean, it - listening to that, it seemed seamless. But tell me how that works.

SMITH: You know, from the very start, I was fascinated by jokes and making people laugh 'cause that's what you have to do in a battle, you know? When I got into battle rap there were guys who were uber-serious about everything. And everything in their verses was all about, you know, I'll kill you, you know. And I always found that humor diffused that and could even beat that. And it was very natural to me to sort of not take myself too seriously.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And you've been pretty outspoken recently on issues of discrimination in the entertainment industry, specifically, you spoke about the Oscars and the controversy over the lack of diversity there. What are your thoughts about that?

SMITH: My personal opinion is that the world of casting really needs to open up a little bit more. I think scripts come in that are non-race specific in terms of the characters and I feel that naturally the casting world, who are overwhelmingly white, just imagine the parts to be white. But if the story has nothing to do with race, then for me, anyone should be able to play that part, right? It's not really something I'm even angry about because I don't think casting directors are going, oh, yeah, let's make sure this entire cast is white. I just think that they're not considering maybe mixing it up a bit.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: The children's book world has also been singled out for the lack of diverse authors and children's characters. You know, you pick up these books and you see little blonde kids and blue eyes. Was this something that was on your mind when you collaborated on this project?

SMITH: Yeah, it was in the back of my mind from when I first started writing for children. And what I loved about "I Am Bear" was as soon as I saw the first sketches of bear that Sav sent me, he was purple. And I never mentioned it. I didn't question it. And it was only after we were working through the first draft that I'd written that Sav said, do you think which should stick with him being purple? And I said, dude, I love that he's purple. I absolutely love it.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Ben Bailey Smith, the author of "I Am Bear," thank you so much for being with us.

SMITH: Absolute pleasure, thank you for having me.


SMITH AND AKYUZ: (Rapping) I am bear. And I was there. Now, I'm gone. Bye-bye. So long. I am bear. I am bear. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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