What do hip hop and Darwin have in common? According to rapper, Baba Brinkman, a lot. He’s the man behind The Rap Guide To Evolution, a musical project that finds natural selection in everything from the iPod shuffle, flashy jewelry to the act of rapping itself. Brinkman explains to host Bruce Gellerman why he, as a white Canadian, can proudly chant, “I’m A African.”
GELLERMAN: Beats, rhymes, and evolutionary biology are what you’ll hear on the musical project - A Rap Guide to Evolution.
[MUSIC: “Natural Selection”…(SINGING: So long, the weak and the strong. We’ve got it going on. Creationism is dead wrong - the weak and the strong. Who got it going on? Whoever leaves the most spawn. Darwinism has got it going on. Creationism is erroneous. Erroneous…]
GELLERMAN: In the lab with a pen and a pad is Baba Brinkman. He’s a Canadian rapper with a Master’s degree in English and a passion for Darwin. Baba, welcome to Living on Earth.
BRINKMAN: Thanks a lot, Bruce, thanks for having me on!
GELLERMAN: So where did the idea for the Rap Guide to Evolution come from?
BRINKMAN: It came from a scientist. I don’t take credit for it - it was a commission. The thing that I was doing at the time was another project called the Rap Canterbury Tales and it was, you know, Geoffrey Chaucer remixed as hip-hop.
And a scientist saw that show - heard that show - and his name is Mark Pallen - he’s in Birmingham, UK- he studies bacterial genetics, and he said, you know, if you could do the Canterbury Tales, could you do the Origin of the Species next and he had a budget from the British Council to create an event for Darwin’s birthday and the Rap Guide to Evolution was the entertainment.
GELLERMAN: We’re going to listen to a selection from your album, it’s called “Natural Selection,” naturally.
[MUSIC: Baba Brinkman: "Natural Selection 2.0" from The Rap Guide to Evolution: (June 2011) ]
RAPPING: Whoever is left to believe that species are immutable will do good service by conscientiously expressing his conviction…For only thus can the load of prejudice by which this subject is overwhelmed be removed. Be removed…
BRINKMAN: That’s Richard Dawkins reading The Origin of Species, reading Darwin’s words. That’s basically, if you believe in evolution, you need to tell people that you believe in evolution because that’s what’s going to make all of the prejudice or the misunderstandings or the tension around it disappear.
[MUSIC: Baba Brinkman: "Natural Selection 2.0" from The Rap Guide to Evolution: (June 2011) ]
RAPPING: So what you know about natural selection? Go ahead and ask a question and see what the answer gets you. Try being passive aggressive or try smashing heads in and see which tactic brings your plans to fruition. And if you have an explanation in mind, then you’re wasting your time because the best watchmaker is blind. It takes a certain base kind of impatient mind to explain away nature with intelligent design. It’s time to elevate your mind-state and celebrate your kinship with the primates (monkey sounds). The way of the strong, we’ve got it going on, we’ve lived in the dark for so long.
GELLERMAN: By my understanding, this may be the first scientifically peer-reviewed album in history.
BRINKMAN: That does seem to be the case, yeah! Which, you know, wasn’t really my original intention with it, but it basically came from the scientist Mark Pallen and he said: Look, you know if you’re going to rap about evolution, you need to make sure that you represent evolution accurately and don’t misconstrue what it actually means and how it works. So, I’m going to ask you to send me drafts of your rap lyrics so I can check them for accuracy. So I had all of my raps checked before the performance.
GELLERMAN: So, how has it fared on stage, have you found success?
BRINKMAN: Yeah, well, it started onstage at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in Scotland and it won an award there and a Broadway producer saw it and she optioned the rights to it and we started in June. We had over 10,000 people come see it in New York and now it’s going to be touring to colleges and performing arts centers around the country.
My hope is to take it to places that are slightly less culturally friendly towards evolution. If you can make people laugh at evolution and tap their feet along with it - it just makes it less scary.
GELLERMAN: We’ll have to see how your music evolves…
BRINKMAN: Yeah. The process is called “Performance, Feedback, Revision,” you put it on stage, you try it for people, you get their impressions, you talk to them, you get the feedback and then you fine-tune based on what they say.
[MUSIC: Baba Brinkman: "Performance, Feedback, Revision 2.0" from The Rap Guide to Evolution: (June 2011) ]
RAPPING: Well, sometimes people ask me, well how does your show get written. Like this: Performance, feedback, revision. And how do I generally develop my lyricism: Performance, feedback, revision. And how do human beings ever learn to do anything? Like this: Performance, feedback, revision. And evolution is really just kind of an algorithm that kind of just goes like this: Performance, feedback, revision. So, the…
BRINKMAN: I mean, I noticed similarities between things that rappers were saying and things that biologists were saying and ways in which hip-hop was a kind of showcase of the kinds of behaviors that evolution has been applied to: cooperation, aggression, mating dances, costly signaling displays…
GELLERMAN: In evolutionary terms, is there a role for “bling” in the rap world?
BRINKMAN: Absolutely. Yeah, bling features quite broadly in the off-Broadway show. The peacock’s tail is the classic example because if you have some kind of a flaw in your genes, or you’re, you know, not strong - then it’s impossible to grow that large of a tail and carry it around and not get killed by a predator.
So the tail is a handicap that’s an advertisement of its own cost and I think that’s what bling is as well. If you can afford to carry bling around, then it means you’re winning the game. You know, I’ll just say, anybody who looks down on bling needs to look at themselves in the mirror and figure out what their bling is - because everybody’s got bling.
Whether it’s your fashion sense, or your Harvard degree that you're showing off that hangs on the wall or the fact that you raised a couple of kids that are whip-smart or winning at something. You know, there are a lot of things that we display to each other to try to advertise something about ourselves. And bling just happens to be the sort of symbolism that hip-hop has settled on but anything could suffice as long as it’s difficult to fake and costly and represents your resources.
GELLERMAN: You know, I don't think I’ll ever listen to rap or look at a peacock again the same way.
BRINKMAN: Well, that really is my goal, as well as teaching people about evolution. I want people to appreciate rap, and you know, not just as some kind of aggressive chest-beating display. A lot of people take it for negativity and materialism and misogyny and all that, but it comes from a specific cultural context and it’s not just about the material bling - it’s about the verbal bling - the skill with storytelling, craft.
And it’s a sort of virtuoso display of linguistic ability, which is also difficult to fake. And look at all of the benefits in resources that accrue to the people who put on the best displays, you know. I think - er - anybody who doesn’t get it is either missing something - very similar to evolution actually, both rap and evolution are massively hated on, and I’m trying to redeem them.
Professor Sehoya Cotner plays Baba Brinkman in her " Biology of Sex" at the University of Minnesota. The Rap Guide to Evolution inspired several students responses. Disclaimer: Professor Cotner says she never taught "we're all sex machines."
GELLERMAN: Tell me about the cut “I’m a African.” It’s not “I’m AN African.” You’ve got a master’s degree in English - shouldn’t it be “I’m an African?”
BRINKMAN: Well, that’s me being respectful of the social context of the original track that that remixes. So “I’m a African” is actually a track by Dead Prez which is a rap group originally from Florida. Their version is based on Peter Tosh - that says: As long as you’re a black man, then you’re a African.
It’s sort of a reggae song that Peter Tosh made, sort of basing it on Garvey. And I'm just making the point that actually, that’s true for all black people if you go back 500 years. But it’s true for all living humans if you go back 500 centuries. Between 50 and 70 thousand years ago is when the first modern humans first left Africa and all of the races are descended from those first emigrants. And then, that’s actually not that much time. That makes racial differences superficial.
[MUSIC: Baba Brinkman: " I’m a African 2.0" from The Rap Guide to Evolution: (June 2011) ]
RAPPING: I wasn’t born in Ghana but Africa is my momma, because that’s where my momma got her mitochondria. You can try to fight it if you wanna, but it’s not going to change me because it’s plain to see Africans are my people. It’s not plain to see that your eyes deceive you - I’m talking primeval. The DNA in my veins tells a story that reasonable people find believable but it might even blow your transistors. Africa is the home of our most recent common ancestors which means human beings are our brothers and sisters…
BRINKMAN: I feel like the whole human race can shout it in unison:
[MUSIC: “I’m a African.” (Rapping: I’m a African, I’m a African and I know what’s happenin’… yeah.)]
BRINKMAN: And by the way, the grammatical thing, it’s all about the rhythm, right? I’m a African, I’m a African, but if you say I’m an African, and you say it that way and say it grammatically properly, it becomes I'm a Nafrakin and the word “Naf” just sounds wrong in there. In this case, you’ve gotta drop that “n” and make it into a sort of (staccato sounds) I’m a African - make all of the syllables pop.
[MUSIC: “I’m a African:” (Raps: “I’m African and it’s plain to see because I’m gonna be a homo sapiens for life.)]
GELLERMAN: So, what’s next, a Rap Guide to String Theory? A Rap Guide to the Higgs Boson?
BRINKMAN: Well, I’ve got a couple of projects I’ve got a half an eye on but I don’t have anything that I’m 100 percent confirmed. I’ll tell you, one thing I’m interested in doing a rap about is climate change, global warming, environmental sustainability. I think that’s another subject that there’s a scientific consensus on - scientists all agree that yes, the world is getting warmer and yes, it’s human caused to a large degree.
There’s not complete agreement on what the political response should be. That’s one thing I’ve been interested in doing a rap on, although I haven’t been able to figure out how to make that entertaining enough yet, I think, so I’m still taking notes.
GELLERMAN: Well Baba, I love it.
BRINKMAN: Cool. That’s why I make it!
GELLERMAN: Baba Brinkman is the man behind the Rap Guide to Evolution. You can find the link to his songs and his brand new music videos at LOE dot org. Well, Baba, thank you so very much.
BRINKMAN: Thanks for having me on the show, I appreciate it.
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