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The Ga-Rap-agos Islands – Baba Brinkman on rapping evolution

23 May, 2011
Baba Brinkman

Baba rapping

This week sees the launch of a new website, ‘The Rap Guide To Evolution’ featuring a series of 12 music videos created by Canadian rapper Baba Brinkman, based on his award-winning show of the same name. The website also contains extra resources and supporting materials to assist teachers when using the videos in schools.

The aim is to aid the teaching of evolution in schools. Baba’s goal is to combine the wit, poetry and charisma of rap music with the accuracy, knowledge and expertise of evolutionary science. I had the pleasure of talking to Baba about hip-hop, the phylogeny of 14th Century English and how he came to rap about Charles Darwin.

Why did you think rap music would be a good way to connect with schoolchildren?

You know this was furthest from my mind in the beginning. I was really following a passion – I got into rap music to be the best rapper. There’s an aesthetic in hip-hop  – “keeping it real” – that is to say keeping authentic to your personality. That’s why I started rapping about books; my Masters degree is in medieval literature. I wrote my thesis comparing Chaucer to modern rap-battles and put together a rap adaptation of the Canterbury Tales to show people, rather than tell them, the connection.

How did you make the leap to Darwin?

I was in the UK touring my Canterbury show when I met Mark Pallen, Professor of Bacterial Genomics at the University of Birmingham (and driving force behind The Origin of the Species in Dub). He challenged me to “do for Darwin what you’ve done for Chaucer.”

I didn’t have to think about it for very long. I was looking for a new project, and everybody assumed I was going to do more literature – the Illiad or Paradise Lost for example. But On the Origin of Species really resonated with me, particularly as I have a section in the Canterbury Tales show called ‘The Rhyme Renaissance’ where I explain the origins of oral poetry and trace it back to Africa.

Given your literary background and the scope of Darwinian theory, I guess you had to hit the books pretty hard.

I had no expertise on the subject so I needed to do a little homework!  It took six months of reading popular science books to get the show ready. Mark Pallen was working on his book ‘The Rough Guide to Evolution’ at the same time, so we were bouncing ideas and drafts off each other – in fact he came up with name for my show.

Was the show always meant to be a teaching project?

Priority one for me was to make a performance that’s publicly entertaining. I didn’t let the idea that this is a teaching tool dominate the project. My first goal was to make the ideas that are complicated or scary about Darwinian biology accessible. Having said that, I’ve found that schools find a project interesting if they don’t think it’s made specifically for them. It’s more useful to use something as a teaching tool if it also has a social impact.

How did the raps find their ways into schools?

I released a record at the Edinburgh Fringe to promote the show. This was also available online. As soon as it was released loads of science blogs picked it up and pretty quickly I was getting emails from teachers telling me, “I’m using your songs in my class”.

And this is why the new website version of The Rap Guide To Evolution is being released?

A lot of this has to do with economy of scale. I’ve performed the Evolution show in a few dozen high schools around the world – this works well, but I can only be in so many places at the same time!

Tell me about the videos.

The videos are based on songs from the record. There are a few that are different from the live show and vice versa. There are 12 videos in total and also some short lectures where I’m doing some stand-up comedy explaining the concepts behind the songs.

In “Survival of the Fittest” I’m rapping gangster style with a group of threatening and aggressive young men – your typical rap music video really – but the lyrical content is all about life history theory, the statistical correlation between life expectancy, income inequality, and violent crime. It’s based on Daly and Wilson’s evolutionary psychology book Homicide, and as I rap and enact the gangster persona you see the homicide statistics unfolding in real time, both in graphs and statistics, and also dramatically.

The video for “Performance, Feedback, Revision” which is an animated hybrid video where I’m writing rhymes and working on the content of the show, making connections between freestyle improvisation in rap and mutation in evolution. This is the crucial randomness factor that generates the “variations” natural selection requires, for which human creativity is the analogy. The video takes you into the doodles and scribbles of my notebook as I free-associate rhymes and evolutionary concepts, mutating the lyrics in real-time. The animation really captures the chaos of a poet’s creative process, the dead-ends that never see the light or that are discarded after a single botched performance, much like extinct species and organisms that get “naturally deselected”.

That’s just two out of twelve [videos]! It’s a very diverse collection.

How did you find the filming?

It was an interesting creative challenge – all 12 are stylistically diverse, and I’ve never worked on a film set before with the lights and makeup and all that goes with it. The challenge was creating professional music videos that would stand up to MTV but filled with Darwinian content.

What is it about rap music that resonates with schoolchildren?

It’s speaking their language. They listen to rap music anyway and don’t see it as relevant to school – it’s something they like but that’s not forced on them by anyone. All it takes is reaching across the divide and explaining, ‘Yeah but if you think about it, it’s actually really similar to this thing that you have to learn.’

You’ve obviously covered some very diverse themes. Where does this project rate for you?

The Rap Guide to Evolution is my favourite project of the last five years by a long shot. Making the videos has been a great adventure in itself – I can’t wait to see what people think of the results.

The Rap Guide to Evolution music videos are funded by a Wellcome Trust People Award.

Benjamin Thompson

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