James Atkinson for Right Now: Baba, you use rap and music to communicate some big and complex topics – can you tell us about the decision to use this medium?
Baba Brinkman: I was a rap fan from age 11, but I didn’t write any rhymes of my own until I was 19, in 1998. When I think back to my teenage years I sometimes find it perplexing that I didn’t start rapping sooner considering what a little hip-hop head I was, but I think my main reservation was around identity questions and concerns of cultural appropriation. It’s one thing to wear the baggy jeans and baseball caps and play loud rap music on your stereo, but if rap is an African American urban art form, how can a middle class white Canadian from the suburbs participate in the culture in an authentic way? The answer is far from obvious!
At any rate, I can still recall the very day I decided to be a rapper, in the summer of 1998. It was when I realized that rap is not just music, it’s also a poetry form, a form of rhymed storytelling that has links to Chaucer and Shakespeare and ancient oral traditions going back to Homer and beyond. I had a kind of “eureka moment” when I started thinking about rap not just as a poetry form, but as a poetry form that has more in common with poetry’s oral roots than the published, literary, free verse poetry that was accepted as “serious poetry”. Chaucer would have recognized rap as akin to his own work. Would he have recognized the poems in the New Yorker? I doubt it. So that was the moment I decided if I wanted to find a distinctive voice as poet in the modern world, a poet who could make an impact and reach people, rap was the medium I had to master. So the love of rap as an art form came first, and then second was the question: “Okay now what do I do with this?” That’s where the big and complex topics came in.
Has your use of this medium changed over time?
I started off just wanting to make music, record songs, and play music venues. But it didn’t take long for me to realize that the kind of stories I wanted to tell would not fly at a nightclub. The attention-spans were too short! I was writing ten-minute long storytelling raps, some adapted from Chaucer and some my own stories, and that’s not what people come to music venues to hear. So in 2003 I started putting on shows at Fringe Festivals and thinking about how hip-hop and theatre could fit together, how the techniques and tropes of rap music could be applied in a narrative or dramatic context. I wish I could say things have changed for me since 2003, but frankly all I’ve been doing since then is stepping up my hip-hop theatre game, writing show after show about topics that interest me and trying to find the best way to connect with an audience, make them laugh, make them think, and make them appreciate the potency of hip-hop as a channel for communicating big ideas.
You have spoken about your passion for breaking down the barriers between research and the everyday person. Why do you think that there is a disconnect between researchers and wider audiences, and what role do communicators such as yourself play in breaking down those barriers?
There is a disconnect between research and a wider audience because no research project was ever improved by having a wide audience! And the minutia of what it takes to do good research is more complex and specialized than most people are inclined to follow. Scientists are focused on the details of experiment design, and on the evidence-base needed to convince colleagues and peers, rather than on public engagement questions, and that’s a good thing! Too much politicking is not good for knowledge-production. So that creates an obvious niche in the “food chain” of knowledge dissemination, from primary research to popular science books to science journalism to catchy rap songs at the top of the pyramid. As apex predators, humans tend to naturally admire organisms at the top, but we are also the most vulnerable if something in the ecosystem goes out of wack. My rap lyrics are like orca breast milk or the yolk of an osprey egg, highly enriching but also prone to concentrate any toxic information distributed in lower layers.
Your rap is not only humorous and enjoyable, but also educates others on the rigours of scientific method (e.g. in your song ‘Confessions of a Skeptic’). How important is education and the seeking of scientific truth in tackling issues such as climate change, and questions of human rights more broadly?
If you accept the banal precept that “facts matter,” most of the methods of science and skepticism inevitably follow from that initial predicate. But since science and skepticism and the other fruits of Enlightenment thinking are designed to optimally control for our natural confirmation biases and tribal epistemologies, its inevitable that your own (and my own) sacred cows will be tipped over by critical thinking and empiricism as well. So I try to prepare people for the cherished beliefs they might lose if they want to embrace the scientific worldview, and also show them how much good can come of it in terms of, as you say, human rights and wellbeing improving.
You rap in your Guide to Climate Chaos that the nature of human psychology makes climate change easy to ignore. Can you tell us more about that?
In evolutionary terms, short-term threats and opportunities tend to carry more fitness benefits than long-terms threats and opportunities, especially for individuals. Climate change is essentially a collective action problem or “tragedy of the commons”, but it’s the mother of all commons dilemmas because the commons in this case is not some river or grazing land but the entire planet’s temperature and weather systems. Each individual has a strong self-interest (and instinctual preference) to not be a sucker in the game theory sense. This is probably a complex mix of rational, conscious self-interest in the vein of Trump’s constant refrain about how other countries don’t do enough, and also unconscious, evolved heuristics that automatically attach stronger emotions to immediate challenges compared to ones that can wait. That’s part of why it’s such heavy-lifting to get political will behind strong emission reductions.
But that’s only part of the story. The other part is about disinformation campaigns perpetrated by the fossil fuel industry and their pet politicians, trying to keep the gold rush going a bit longer at the expense of all the rest of us. And it’s also a natural part of human psychology to be completely outraged and disgusted by that kind of self-serving, future-eating behaviour, and to call it out and levy punishments against it, including hopefully a lot of successful lawsuits in the near future.
Climate change is essentially a collective action problem or “tragedy of the commons”, but it’s the mother of all commons dilemmas because the commons in this case is not some river or grazing land but the entire planet’s temperature and weather systems.
Attendees at the Quantum Words festival will get the chance to see your Rap Guide to Climate Chaos. What can they expect?
Your readers won’t believe me, but they can expect to laugh and have a good time, throw their hands in the air, get invigorated, and get informed about the political and economic changes needed to solve the world’s biggest problem. There is no topic as difficult as climate change to make fun entertainment out of, which is why it has inspired so many somber documentaries and so few comedy specials. I’m here to change to that equation.
Right Now is a proud partner of Quantum Words Festival, Western Australia’s first writers’ festival dedicated specifically to writing about science, creativity and the spaces in which they intersect. Quantum Words is running in Perth from 8-10 November 2019. Find out more about the festival here, and more about the Quantum Word speakers here.