Interview: Baba Brinkman
By Roger Cox
Creator of the first peer-reviewed hip-hop show, Darwin devotee and science celebrant Baba Brinkman is intent on spreading the word, discovers Roger Cox
BABA Brinkman is an evangelical atheist, a hip-hop Richard Dawkins, a man on a mission to preach the gospel of evolution. "Let's put Darwin on a pedestal where he belongs," he says, sipping an orange juice in the Gilded Balloon's Library Bar. "Not as a godlike figure but as the person who figured out the logic of the biological world. Let's shift the calendar so it doesn't start at 0 BC, it starts at 1859 AD, to mark the publication of On the Origin of Species - because that's the date when our entire mentality about where we came from changed."
A self-styled "rap troubadour" with a masters degree in medieval and renaissance English literature, Brinkman, who hails from Vancouver, Canada, has been a fixture at the Fringe for several years, specialising in giving hip-hop makeovers to unlikely subjects.
He first raised eyebrows in 2004 by livening up Chaucer with a bangin' bassline in The Rap Canterbury Tales, and in 2008 he scooped the Spirit of the Fringe Award for The Rebel Cell, a meditation on freedom performed with UK rapper Dizraeli. Then, last year, he turned his attention to all things Darwin.
In the autumn of 2008 Brinkman was approached by Dr Mark Pallen, a microbiologist from Birmingham University who suggested that, to mark Darwin's bicentenary in 2009, he should consider doing for the theory of evolution what he had previously done for Chaucer. The result was The Rap Guide to Evolution - a hip-hop show about evolution and a show about the evolution of hip-hop all rolled into one, which garnered glowing reviews, picked up a Scotsman Fringe First award and saw Brinkman frequently mobbed post-gig by an unlikely mixture of baggy-panted hip-hop fans and tweed-jacketed boffins.
Essentially a series of hip-hop songs illuminating Darwin's theories, the script was packed with flashes of impertinent genius, from the explanation of bling as a fitness display to the description of Vanilla Ice as an evolutionary dead end. But perhaps the most memorable moment of all was the show's confrontational introduction. After much deliberation, Brinkman opted to kick off with a call-and-response number entitled Natural Selection. "Every time I say 'CREATIONISM IS?' I want y'all to say 'DEAD WRONG!'" he instructed his audiences.
At the performance I saw, participation was enthusiastic and, as far as I could tell, total. But attacking creationism in an enlightened city such as Edinburgh is like preaching to the converted. When Brinkman performed the same material at a college campus in Houston, Texas, earlier this year, as part of a bold mini-tour of the American South, the response was considerably less enthusiastic.
"You just have to picture me in front of 120 Texas college students," he chuckles. "The first time I said 'CREATIONISM IS?' I was just like ... 'oh, shit!' Literally six people out of 120 said "Dead wrong?" but everyone else was completely silent. About 15 people walked out in the first five minutes, shaking their heads in disgust. I was like, 'Wow, this is going to be a long hour. I'm going to have to claw my way back here.'"
But claw his way back he did. "At the end a bunch of the kids came up to me and they were like 'Man, I thought that show was fantastic. I'm a creationistï»¿ though, and I tell you: that intro did not work for me.'"
At this year's Fringe Brinkman is revisiting The Rap Guide to Evolution for ten nights only, and also premiering the follow-up, The Rap Guide to Human Nature. Whereas the first show looked at evolution in general, this one concerns itself with evolutionary psychology - the study of human psychology from the perspective of natural selection. Like its predecessor, it was born out of a piece of fan mail from an infatuated academic.
"I got an email from Dr David Buss last August while I was doing the Fringe," says Brinkman. "He wrote the textbook that's used to teach evolutionary psychology in every college in America. It's sort of the standard evolutionary psychology text. Anyway, he said 'I bought your evolution CD - you should think about doing your next [show] on evolutionary psychology - there's some great stuff to cover. If you're interested, I'll happily send you my textbook in the mail and answer any questions that you have.'"
In the months that followed, Brinkman kept up a correspondence with Buss, making sure he had a decent grasp of the facts before turning them into an hour-long show. The rapper was proud of the fact that The Rap Guide to Evolution was "the first ever peer-reviewed hip-hop show" after he invited feedback on it from Pallen.
But with this sequel, he has been even more rigorous with his fact-checking: "I sent my script to three scientists this year, so it's been triple-peer-reviewed," he says. "Once I got the peer-review emails back from the scientists I wrote them back and said 'thank you, that's fantastic - please can you phone my cell phone and leave that feedback as a message?' Then I edited their voices into the rap songs, so now the peer review is part of the rap."
If The Rap Guide to Evolution provoked some strong reactions from creationists, The Rap Guide to Human Nature looks set to provoke strong reactions from pretty much everyone.
"This whole show is so much more offensive," Brinkman laughs. "People will be scandalised by some of it, that's for sure. It's all so personal, right? It's not just about a theory, it's all about you and why you behave the way you do. But the cool thing is, it's all based on good research."
Brinkman isn't simply out to get a reaction - you only have to spend five minutes in his company to realise that he sincerely believes in the importance of getting the evolutionist message across to as many people as possible. When telling the story about his disastrous gig in Houston, he seems genuinely upset that those 15 students walked out ("I might actually have reached those people if I hadn't started with such a confrontational song.").
And he talks about the way evolutionists in the USA, surrounded on all sides by religious zealots, are forced to adopt a "bunker mentality" and talk about Darwin "in hushed tones in dark alleys".
"I want to embolden people," he says. "I have a lot of people in America come up to me after my shows and say 'thank you for saying so unequivocally that Darwin was right.' I really feel like America is why I need to do this show. People in Britain are like 'yeah, it's clever but the debate's kind of over, isn't it?' The mentality here is that it's a done deal, whereas in America [pro-evolutionists] are like, 'we're being oppressed every day'."
The good news is that Brinkman seems on the verge of taking the next step in his evolution as an artist - a step that will enable him to spread his message to a wider audience than ever before. A New York producer is optioning The Rap Guide to Evolution for a major off-Broadway run, to start in January.
It will be a three-month booking in the first instance, potentially extended to a six-month run if it goes well, followed by an extensive US tour. Naturally, Brinkman has asked the people booking the tour to "focus on the South".
"I'm not working on any new shows right now," he says, "but I'm happy to leak my master plan with the rap guides, which is that it's going to be a trilogy - and the third one's going to be The Rap Guide To Religion. I figure it's going to take me a year or two to figure out what I'm gonna say about that, but I do feel like I'm sort of zeroing in on the key issue of today.
"You could say that evolution is the big picture, human nature is necessary context and religion is the problem we need to deal with. That's how I see it. I don't see religion itself as a problem, but I see a lot of the problems of the world as a direct result of the religious mindset. And by the religious mindset, I don't necessarily mean christians or muslims or whatever - it's the mindset that accepts untested, unsupportable claims on faith and acts on them, in ways that can do damage.
"The question is: why do we have all these beliefs that contradict demonstrable reality? Why do people cling to them even when they're shown things that really, clearly contradict them?" Does evolutionary psychology offer an answer? "Absolutely," he says. "It's the key to the lock. I'm zeroing in."
• The Rap Guide to Human Nature is at Gilded Balloon Teviot, 3:45pm, until 30 August; The Rap Guide to Evolution is at the same venue, tomorrow until 30 August, at 12:30pm. Baba Brinkman also performs Rapconteur at Cabaret Voltaire, 8:45pm, until 28 August. www.babasword.com