Learning science through Hip Hop: Interview with Baba Brinkman

Posted: January 17, 2014 - 13:41 , by Amanda Girgis
Baba Brickman
Understanding evolution is critical to understanding life on earth.  Imagine teaching calculus before algebra -- to understand biology, we must be aware of life on Earth and its constant changing form.  Baba Brinkman, upcoming ROM guest and Canadian MC, has worked extensively to craft cerebral rap lyrics that introduce diversity, change and adaptation; the fundamentals of Darwin’s theory of Evolution. Brinkman’s music draws on both the art of rap and, the relevance of natural selection today – a combination that has earned him countless awards and recognition in Canada and around the globe. In light of his upcoming performance at the ROM on February 12th, we sat down with Baba Brinkman to pick his brain on learning science through hip hop. 
ROM Fossils and Evolution: You use rap as a vehicle to explore Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, what inspired you to fuse science and hip hop?
The original impetus for the show was Mark Pallen, author of The Rough Guide to Evolution, who reached out to me asking if I would write some evolution-themed rap songs for a conference he was organizing in 2009 for Darwin bicentennial. But in terms of inspiration, it's the science itself I find most compelling. When I read Evolution for Everyone by David Sloan Wilson or The Blank Slate by Steven Pinker, or The Blind Watchmaker by Richard Dawkins, I am filled with a sense of awe and appreciation, what Richard Feynman called "the pleasure of finding things out." Evolutionary science casts a new light on things I'm passionate about, like the art form of rap and its social dynamics, so it was a great challenge to write rap songs about the evolutionary dynamics involved in the writing of rap songs, and it's a great way to bring the whole thing home for an audience. 
ROM F&E:  Your LP, The Rap Guide To Evolution Revised covers an array of topics: Natural Selection, Sexual Selection and Evolutionary Psychology to name a few, what was your biggest obstacle while crafting content?
My biggest obstacle lies in the tension between information and entertainment value, the desire to convey scientific ideas accurately without stripping them of their explanatory power or detail, but at the same time I can never have a song come across like a lecture. That's the key challenge of what I do, but it's not something either rappers or scientists usually have to worry about. Sometimes a song turns out very fun but doesn't say much, and other times it says a lot but it’s a chore to listen to. I'm always fighting for that middle ground between the two, where it can be found.
ROMF&E:  Speaking of evolution, how does the climate of hip hop look from your perspective? Are we evolving in a positive direction? You briefly address it in the song ‘black-eyed peas.’
From what I can see hip-hop is thriving and more full of creativity than ever. Some of what you hear when you turn on the radio is pretty shallow and disheartening, but it's a bare fact that there are more artists making a living from the craft than there ever were in the past, mostly thank to new models of digital distribution and low-cost recording equipment. There's still a highly distorted process driving record sales and commercial success, but that's true of all contemporary art, not just rap. I think an art form is evolving in a positive direction when it has a high level of uptake and participation from young people, because that's where you generate the next round of creative variations from which the best work will be selected going forward. By that definition, hip-hop is one of the least inbred and derelict creative practices on the planet.
ROMF&E:  Your music mutates the narrative of commercial hip hop, how does your adaption appeal to new learners of evolution?
I hope at the very least I convey a sense of relevance, the impression that evolutionary theory is not just about what happened in the past, although that's part of its explanatory framework. Evolution can also teach us things about what's happening right now, including your personal preferences, passions, appetites, social relationships, etc. The evolutionary psychology component of my music points to the genetic legacy infusing our behaviours, and the cultural evolution component of my music shows how hip-hop itself functions like an ecosystem subject to the action of natural selection. That's not really an extreme mutation of the narrative of commercial hip-hop though. Just listen to any song by Eminem or Jay-Z or Lil Wayne about how they "made it to the top" and you'll hear about crushed rivals, fierce competition, and a legacy of success built on the support of fans, since fans provide the substrate (brains) within which rap songs (memes) will ultimately thrive or perish. I'm not really changing the narrative at all, just pointing out its Darwinian nature.
ROMF&E: How do you measure your success?
Number of brains within which my carefully-designed memes have successfully reproduced.
ROMF&E:  GZA the genius of the Wu-Tang clan also curates a science through hip hop program, what makes your work different than his?
GZA works with young people to inspire them with a love of science by curating creative writing exercises and science rap battles, and I understand he's working on a record about cosmology and physics. I haven't heard the record so I can't comment on how similarly we approach the science-via-rap challenge, but as far as I know he's talking about physical sciences and I mostly deal with life sciences, so that's one difference. Also, he's a rap legend and founding member of Wu Tang whereas I'm a humble Canadian white boy, so we might have slightly different levels of street cred. I'd wager I've done more science-based live performances over the years though. Either way, I respect what he's doing and I hope we can collaborate one day.
To purchase tickets for Baba’s performance at the ‘Celebrating Evolution in the 21st Century’ event click here
ROM Fossils and Evolution is a leading resource for helping make sense of the diversity and history of life on Earth. Our curators and research scientists discover new species from dinosaurs to our earliest ancestors, and use this information to refine our understanding of the web of life today.  Jean-Bernard Caron, Senior Curator, Invertebrate Palaeontology, will introduce the event on Febuary 12th, and will share exciting news about his teams most recent discoveries.