When it comes to topics for hip hop, science isn't usually first on the list. But this year when I attended the Science Online conference, one of the morning Converge sessions featured a performance by Baba Brinkman, creator of The Rap Guide to Evolution. Brinkman's electric energy immediately woke up the sleepy (slightly hungover) room, and catapulted us into the day as he got the audience to joyfully consider how the process of "Performance, Feedback, Revision" applies both to science and art.
Brinkman calls himself a "rap troubadour," and finds inspiration in everything from The Canterbury Tales to evolutionary psychology. I was curious about how the writer/performer has managed to meld the worlds of hip hop and science, so I tracked him down and convinced him to answer a few questions for me about how an English Lit guy ended up writing songs about natural selection, who he might like to work with in the future and what it's like to try to find rhymes for "Darwin."
His show Evolutionary Tales: A Hip-Hop Theatre Cycle, presented by Soho Playhouse Inc., opened Off-Broadway at the Player's Theater on May 31st, 2013, and runs through June 23rd, 2013. The cycle is comprised of three different shows - The Rap Guide to Evolution, Ingenious Nature and Canterbury Tales Remixed. If you're lucky enough to be in the NYC area during the run, visit www.evolutionarytales.com for tickets and information.
You have a Masters in Medieval and Renaissance English Literature, and your thesis drew parallels between the worlds of hip-hop music and literary poetry. How did you get the idea to correlate these two seemingly very different forms of communication? I was reading the Canterbury Tales for a class, and I recognized it as a masterpiece of rhymed storytelling, a lyrical chronicle of the lives and power struggles of diverse characters, young lovers, bitter rivals, villains, heroes, murderers, adulterers, kings and beggars; the tales are rich with metaphor and symbolism but also a gaudy circus of sex and violence. At the same time I was listening to albums by Nas, the Notorious BIG, Jay-Z, Big Pun, and Slick Rick, and I recognized their songs as... exactly the same thing.
When I started the project I had read a few books by Jared Diamond and Richard Dawkins and E O Wilson, so I was familiar with the broad sketch, but the challenge was to create a story with a human face, so it was like a treasure hunt. I was looking for areas of overlap between evolutionary science and human experience, and I found them in the writing of David Sloan Wilson, Steven Pinker, Geoffrey Miller, Sarah Hrdy, and by re-reading the big three I started with to draw out the jewels. Mostly it came down to applications of evolutionary psychology and cultural evolution or "memes". Between those two concepts, you can connect evolution with virtually everything humans do and care about.You are first and foremost an entertainer, not a scientist or science journalist. When writing, how do you balance scientific accuracy with what may be necessary for theatricality?
"Darwin" is actually a very difficult word to rhyme on its own. That's why I usually combine it with other words, for instance by rhyming "Storage Container" and "War of Nature" and "Darwin Hater" and "Fornicator".
Tell me about the inspiration to make the show not just about evolution via a hip-hop delivery, but also about the evolution of hip-hop.I suppose the evolution of hip-hop would be the elephant in the room if I didn't talk about it. There's also something theatrically potent about being in front of an audience and telling them, in real time: "Your response to everything I say determines my fate, if not causally then at least probabilistically. How likely am I to thrive or to go extinct as a performer? That depends on what happens in this moment." It makes people realize that the power of cultural evolution, which is very similar to artificial selection or domestication, is in your hands at all times, as a consumer, as a citizen, and as an audience member.
Supported by The Wellcome Trust.
Nas, Black Thought, Talib Kweli, Tim Minchin, Homeboy Sandman, Slick Rick.
I suppose the only difference between a rap troubadour and a traditional rapper is that the former is fully aware of and oriented towards the rich global history of storytelling as a universal characteristic of the human species, a function of the irrepressible instinct that we have to make and consume narrative. The latter is also a practitioner of the craft, but is more oriented towards the present historical moment. I'm certainly not the only one to view rap this way, however; K'Naan also seems to get it.
A remixed version was Coke's promotional anthem for the 2010 FIFA World cup.
Dear Mr. Brinkman,