BABA BRINKMAN Peer reviewed rap

Quantum Words is Western Australia’s first writer’s festival dedicated specifically to writing about science, creativity and the spaces in which they intersect. One of the highlights of the program will be Canadian-born, 0ff-Broadway “science rapper” Baba Brinkman, performing The Rap Guide to Evolution and The Rap Guide to Climate Chaos at State Theatre Centre on Friday, November 8 and his The Rap Guide to Consciousness on Saturday, November 9. BRAYDEN EDWARDS spoke to Brinkman to find out how he got into such a unique field, which scientists would make the best rappers, and what we can look forward to at the shows.

It’s fair to say you have a pretty unique profession. Where did the idea for it come from and do you remember a particular moment that you realised this might actually be your life from then forward?

For a project in one of my English classes at uni I wrote a rap adaption of one of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, The Knight’s Tale. The first time I performed that rap live for an audience, in the fall of 1999 in my hometown of Vancouver, Canada, I knew there was a real hunger for smart, funny, atypical rap content with a story to tell. The other “aha” moment came in 2009 when I first performed The Rap Guide to Evolution for a group of Darwin scholars in the UK. The geneticist who introduced me, Dr. Mark Pallen, quipped: “Don’t worry, his lyrics are scientifically accurate. I know because he sent them to me in advance and I fact-checked them and suggested revisions. So you’re about to witness the world’s first-ever peer reviewed rap!” I was standing near the stage about to go on and perform, but in in my head I was thinking? “‘Peer reviewed rap!’ That’s gold, I should make that my whole brand.”

You started out adapting literature like Chaucer’s work into rap music. Which of the old school authors or poets have the best flow?

Obviously I would put Chaucer first for poetics and scope of vision, but an under-appreciated second might be John Skelton. If you read his poem Phillip Sparrow it definitely scans like a rap, specifically DMX’s song Rough Ryder’s Anthem – same exact cadence:

Unneth I kest myne eyes
Towarde the cloudy skyes:
But whan I dyd beholde
My sparow dead and colde,
No creatuer but that wolde
Have rewed upon me,
To behold and se
What hevynesse dyd me pange;
Wherewith my handes I wrange,
That my senaws cracked,
As though I had ben racked,
So payned and so strayned,
That no lyfe wellnye remayned.

Nosy people get it, too
When you see me spit at you
You know I’m tryin’ to get rid of you
Yeah, I know it’s pitiful
That’s how killers get down
Watch my killers split rounds
Make you suckers kiss ground
Just for talkin’ shit, clown
Oh, you think it’s funny
Then you don’t know me, money
It’s about to get ugly
Whatever, dog, I’m hungry

Do you feel like presenting the message you do in music reaches an audience that otherwise might not be interested and is that part of why you feel it is important?

I feel like the primary and most obvious form of outreach I’m doing is towards the general public who might be curious about science but find it inaccessible or boring, and yes music and comedy and theatre are natural channels towards kindling that interest. But a secondary and equally important form of outreach for me is towards people who are indifferent or hostile towards hip-hop music as an art form. If you never understood the appeal of hip-hop before, statistically-speaking that means it’s likely you’re over 50, and I bet I can convert you if you come to my show.

In your song See From Space you take on the perspective of an alien observing the world and human beings and trying to make sense of it all. If you actually were in that position, what aspect of human beings and their behaviour do you think would be the most perplexing?

The alien would probably be a lot more intelligent than us, by dint of it having managed to travel here, so I don’t think it would be perplexed by any aspect of human behavior, just as a pre-school teacher isn’t perplexed by anything a three-year-old does at playtime. All of human behavior is already fairly comprehensible, even to contemporary science, through a combination of genetic and cultural evolutionary analysis. What the alien would probably find most confounding, as opposed to perplexing, is how easily our capacity for reason gets disabled by affiliative, tribalistic influences.

If you were to combine the scientific intellect and insight of any scientist with the flow and skill of any rapper who would it be? 

John von Neumann and Lil Dicky.

And if scientists were rappers, what two of them would make the ultimate freestyle rap battle?

Charles Darwin vs Alfred Russel Wallace battling over the evolutionary vs divine origins of human creative and moral sensibilities.

What in particular are you bringing to Quantum Words Perth? What kind of show can we look forward to?

Rap Guide to Evolution is my classic science rap extravaganza, a celebration of the legacy of Charles Darwin seen through the lense of today’s most overtly Darwinian art form and culture: hip hop. Survival of the fittest is all but gospel in rap music, and the Quantum Words audience might find it surprising how well rappers articulate complex evolutionary theories, including game theory models of cooperation and defection, in their lyrics.

The other show I’m bringing is the newer Rap Guide to Consciousness, which tackles one of the enduring mysteries: how do you get mind from matter? I’ll be taking the audience on a deep dive into the most recent neuroscience research on consciousness, hallucinations, illusions, perception, and experience, all of which are produced by interactions between cells in your brain. It’s a wild ride so be warned. Your sense of reality may not survive intact.

And what’s next for you? Any other topics or texts you are looking to give the Baba Brinkman treatment in the future?

The most recent show I’ve been developing is Rap Guide Culture, about how ideas and technologies and belief systems evolve through a competition for space in our brains, so look out for that one in 2020, and I’m looking into tackling AI next. I’ll hang up the mic when a robot can beat me at science rapping, but until then the series continues.

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