Two weeks ago, Baba Brinkman was speaking at the Nelson Arts Festival in New Zealand. Last week, he was a guest speaker at the University of Alabama as part of their ALLELE Lecture Series. The week prior he was busy participating in the 10th Annual World Wilderness Conference in Spain, and last month he performed at Universities all over the UK, as well as at MIT as part of their public science engagement lecture series. Needless to say, Brinkman is a busy man. However, this doesn’t come as a surprise; with 14 lit-hop (literary hip-hop) albums under his belt, Brinkman is one of the only rap-artists who has had their work peer-reviewed by scientists, or who has been commissioned to write an album for the NYU Stern School of Business. Brinkman’s love of words comes from a Masters Degree in Medieval and English Literature from the University of Victoria, where he focused on the relationship
between epic poetry and contemporary hip-hop culture. Since graduating, Brinkman has been touring the world performing his unique blend of theatre and rap, on topics from Beowulf and Gilgamesh to political revolution and evolutionary psychology.
For only a few more days, The Cultch is lucky enough to have Baba home to perform his latest show, The Rap Guide to Evolution. The ground-breaking show was first presented, and awarded for best new theatre writing at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 2009. The show is inspired not only by evolutionary scientists and theorists such as Charles Darwin and Richard Dawkins, but also by the history of hip-hop culture itself and the role that individual selective process, especially with the advent of new technologies, takes in defining the path of a cultural phenomenon.
We were lucky enough to be able to ask Baba a few questions:
I suppose my first question for you is simply how you ended up where you have ended up; rapping about science, economics, psychology , and or ancient literature is not a common career path. Was this something that you have been interested in from a young age, or a skill you accidentally happened upon?
In my teens I wanted to be a writer, but didn’t have a clear idea of what sort, whether journalism, novelist, playwright, etc – I just knew I was good with words and wanted to use that skill. I pictured traveling around the world, composing new work in diverse locations, and making a living from my wits. At nineteen I started writing rap rhymes and was very quickly drawn into the art form. I had been listening to rap since age eleven but hadn’t written any raps of my own. It wasn’t long before I was bringing science and literature references into my rhymes, which seemed natural to me because I was a university student at the time so I was immersed in the world of ideas. Finding an audience for that concept took some time, but I pretty much live like I pictured, traveling, writing, performing, and getting paid to do so.
So would you say you entered hip-hop through academics, or did you find academics through hip-hop?
I was a rap consumer from a young age, but not a participant. Once I started writing and performing I got into the culture more heavily, freestyling at house parties, rapping at open mics, and signing up for freestyle battles. But at the same time I was always academic-minded. I decided my best contribution to hip-hop culture would be to push its boundaries and build bridges to other cultures and art forms, so I focused my English Lit degree on the parallels between hip-hop poetics and traditional English literary poetics. Once my energies were channeled my grades got a lot better, and so did my lyrics, so you could say I found academics and hip-hop independently, but I only got
fully engaged with each by merging them.
What inspires the topics for your productions? You have written about such a variety of themes – where do you begin? Where did the impulse to write The Rap Guide to Evolution come from? Are you ever commissioned to write raps about topics you have no interest in?
People suggest new topics to me all the time, but not all of them take hold. Most of the time I just go “yeah, sounds interesting” and don’t follow up. But with the The Rap Guide to Evolution, I was very keen as soon as the idea came up. It helps that it was a paid commission of course, because with money on the table you can put other work aside and give a project the time it needs. I have pretty wide interests so no, there isn’t a topic I’ve written about on commission that I’m disinterested in. Then again, I have a lot of creative leeway so I can put an interesting twist on pretty much anything.
The projects either start with an idea, some underlying deep connection or tension I see that I want to explore in the writing, or else it starts with a challenge, someone hiring me or recruiting me to write something, prompting me to hunt for ideas to accomplish the task. I tend to gravitate towards subjects where there’s a disconnect or gap that I think I can bridge, like the perceived inaccessibility of medieval literature vs the actual appeal of the stories, or like the scientific consensus around evolution that is still rejected by major sectors of the population. The surprise and friction that lives in those kinds of spaces is my main attraction.
Lastly, you have travelled all over the world presenting your work. What have been some of the most surprising responses to your shows you have received?
I’ve had all kinds of negative responses, from creationists offended on behalf of their religion to feminist social constructivists offended on behalf of women to white liberals offended on behalf of black people. The show brings an evolutionary perspective to all of those subjects: race, religion, gender, and not always in a politically-correct way. Then again, I think everything in the show is scientifically defensible, and it was written to be strategically provocative, not for the sake of being offensive but for the sake of causing people to rethink their assumptions and question the basis of their beliefs and taboos. So in a way none of the negative responses are surprising. The most surprising response was having a New York theatre company offer to produce the show for a major Off-Broadway run, and having it run for five months and get rave reviews. I can’t say I expected that when I started writing the show!
The Rap Guide to Evolution is playing at The Cultch until November 10 in the Historic Theatre. Tickets can be purchased online at: https://thecultch.com/tickets/ , or by calling the box office at 604.251.1363