16 July 2011

The Rap on Darwin

[I’m always interested in the uses of theater and theater techniques in other disciplines and circumstances where theater and “the real world” overlap. When I read an article in the New York Times’s science section last month about a hip-hop performance on evolution, I was fascinated by the confluence of science, theater, and teaching. This was especially true because the piece, The Rap Guide to Evolution by Baba Brinkman, is being presented not as a science project or a teaching tool, but as a theater performance. I decided it was interesting enough to republish the article, and the review of the show that appeared on the same date in the arts section of the Times, on ROT. Just to round off the posting, I dug up an earlier New York Times blog article for an earlier appearance of Brinkman in his Darwin rap. ~Rick]

By Dennis Overbye

Don’t sleep with mean people.

That’s a lesson some of us learn painfully, if at all, in regard to our personal happiness. That there could be a cosmic evolutionary angle to this thought had never occurred to me until I heard Baba Brinkman, a rap artist and Chaucer scholar, say it the other night. Think of it as the ultimate example of thinking globally and acting very, very locally. We are all in the process of recreating our species in our most intimate acts:

Don’t sleep with mean people, that’s the anthem
Please! Think about your granddaughters and grandsons
Don’t sleep with mean people, pretty or handsome
Mean people hold the gene pool for ransom.

Imagine this to a hip-hop beat accompanied with intermittent snarls and scowls, gangster slouches and crotch grabs and you have “The Rap Guide to Evolution,” written and performed by Mr. Brinkman. The show, which just opened for a summer-long run at the SoHo Playhouse in Manhattan, is an hour-and-a-half lecture on Darwin and natural selection disguised as a rant on the history of rap, gangs and murder in Chicago, relations between the sexes and his own stubborn creationist cousins.

Evolution has had many prominent defenders and proselytizers over the years, including Thomas Huxley when Darwin was alive, and Richard Dawkins now, but few as engaging and rhythmic as Mr. Brinkman, who has performed at the prestigious Edinburgh Fringe Festival six times, winning an award for the best new theater writing there in 2009.

Writing on NYTimes.com last year, Olivia Judson, the biologist and author, called the evolution rap show “one of the most astonishing, and brilliant, lectures on evolution I’ve ever seen.” On a humid night last week the crowd spilled out of the playhouse and down the streets of SoHo after the show, chatting about the technical and social aspects of natural selection.

The scene reinforced my sense that “geek rap,” as Mr. Brinkman calls it, is becoming one of the most popular and vital forms of science communication. Few exegeses of the Large Hadron Collider match Alpinekat’s “Large Hadron Rap” for punch and rhythm, and Stephen Hawking’s robot voice and puckish wit have spawned a host of imitators, like M C Hawking, rapping about black holes and entropy.

But when it comes to mixing the personal and the cosmic, it’s hard to beat the combination of evolution and hip-hop. As an illustration of the Darwinian principle of biomimicry, Mr. Brinkman compared the menacing persona of gangsta rappers to the bright colors adopted by a nonpoisonous snake to appear poisonous and thus scare off predators in a hostile environment.

Mr. Brinkman is no gangsta. By the usual cultural signifiers, Mr. Brinkman does not fit the rapper stereotype at all. A tall blond Canadian of Dutch ancestry, he was born in 1978 in a log cabin built by his hippie parents and their friends in the West Kootenays, a mountain range in British Columbia. His father runs a company replanting trees after logging operations—more than a billion replanted so far. His mother is a member of Canada’s Parliament.

Over a plate of oysters and tuna last week, Mr. Brinkman said that he had wanted to be a rapper ever since he was 10 and had performed on and off since he was 18, making up songs and singing to the rhythm of tree planting at his father’s business.

He was also a literature nerd as a child and wound up getting a master’s degree in medieval literature from the University of Victoria. Along the way he began writing a rap version of Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. “Chaucer needed to be better presented,” he explained.

Mr. Brinkman took “The Rap Canterbury Tales” to the Edinburgh festival, where it sold out in 2004, which led to “a whole lot of gigs” and a book, he said.

Along the way his work came to the attention of Mark Pallen, a biologist at the University of Birmingham and author of “The Rough Guide to Evolution,” who had just done a reggae treatment of Darwin for a Jamaican colleague, and had also been using evolutionary methods to study Chaucer manuscripts. He invited Mr. Brinkman to Birmingham and, as he puts it, “we quickly slipped into an evolutionary groove.”

Dr. Pallen asked Mr. Brinkman if he could do for Darwin what he had done for Chaucer.

“Probably,” Mr. Brinkman answered. The only hitch was that it had to be done in five months, in time for the 200th anniversary of Darwin’s birth, on Feb. 12, 2009, which was the occasion for a worldwide celebration of Darwin and evolution science.

Mr. Brinkman bought an audio version of “On the Origin of Species” and listened to it. Then he transferred it to an iPod Shuffle and listened to it again, with the chapters played in random order. “New connections emerged,” he said.

The result was what Dr. Pallen called “the first peer-reviewed rap.”

Mr. Brinkman performed the show at various venues around Britain for Darwin’s February birthday bash and then later on at Edinburgh and one sold-out week in New York in 2009. At one point, he said, he did 53 shows in three and a half weeks.

Fittingly, the show itself evolves. What was once a line about not sleeping with mean people, for example, has been expanded to a whole section. But the road has not been without bumps. Mr. Brinkman said that in Texas people walked out on a section of the rap which features a call and response of “Creationism is”—“dead wrong!”

When he was 19, Mr. Brinkman said, he wanted to be Eminem, selling a million records a year, but now he thinks he can see a lot of opportunities in geek rap. He said he was thinking of doing his next rap about climate change.

He paused over his pepper-crusted tuna, and said, “I’m very keen to do it, actually.”

[This article appeared in the print edition of the New York Times on 27 June 2011 (Sec. D [“Science Times”]).
The Rap Guide to Evolution opened 26 June for an open-ended run at the SoHo Playhouse, 15 Van Dam Street, South Village. For tickets and performance information, contact (212) 352-3101 or rapguidetoevolution.com.]

* * * *

By David Rooney

If Terrence Malick’s majestic depiction of Darwinian natural selection in “The Tree of Life” was a little too solemn and symphonic for your taste, you might consider the more loquacious hip-hop alternative of “The Rap Guide to Evolution,” at the SoHo Playhouse.

An award winner at the 2009 Edinburgh Festival Fringe, this ever-evolving show is written and performed by Baba Brinkman, an affable white rapper from Canada with a master’s in medieval and Renaissance English literature.

A 90-minute interactive musical lecture with amusing visual aids—courtesy of the projection designer Wendall K. Harrington—the show was developed at the invitation of Mark Pallen, a professor of microbial genomics at the University of Birmingham, England, after he saw Mr. Brinkman’s “Rap Canterbury Tales.”

Clearly Mr. Brinkman is not intimidated by challenging material. Nor is this simply a smarty-pants vehicle in which an erudite hipster flaunts his mad skills by molding his scholarly insights into “The Origin of the Species” to unorthodox beats (provided onstage by Jamie Simmonds, the DJ and music producer). Unlike more sophomoric hybridists of highbrow content and popular form, Mr. Brinkman brings genuine passion, curiosity and analytical skills to his subject.

Creationists may sneer, but Mr. Brinkman mounts an argument against intelligent design that is both brainy and entertaining. “It’s time to elevate your mind-state/And celebrate your kinship with the primates,” he raps.

Lest this sound purely science-geeky, the show also uses theories of natural selection and evolutionary psychology to chart developments in hip-hop: “You could thrive like Timberlake on a Timbaland beat/Or go extinct like Vanilla Ice and ’N Sync.” O.K., so the meters won’t give Stephen Sondheim sleepless nights (though pairing “huge manatee” with “humanity” has undeniable charm), but the rhythms are punchy.

Mr. Brinkman draws parallels between animal kingdom behavior and rap as a survivalist expression of power, pride, menace and sexual magnetism. And as he wryly points out, what is the ostentatious plumage of the male peacock but nature’s bling?

Tightly directed by Dodd Loomis, the production closes with a Q&A period in which audience input feeds some free-style addenda. While this stretches the performance somewhat, it also shows that Mr. Brinkman is more than an obsessively overstimulated Darwin fanboy with a talent for recitation.

His “them = us” thread about nurturing the group above the individual gives the show an overarching message. “All this hippy-dippy, love-thy-neighbor bio-socialism isn’t just me editorializing as a Canadian,” he says with disarming self-mockery, going on to explain how society might be reconfigured to eliminate hostility and fear.

Sure, it’s a rose-colored vision, but by the time Mr. Brinkman shares his “Lysistrata”-inspired anthem of sexual selection, “Don’t Sleep With Mean People,” you might start singing along.

[David Rooney’s review appeared in the New York Times on 27 June 2011 (Sec. C [“The Arts”]).]
* * * *

By Olivia Judson

The lights go down. The room fills with music—a pulsating hip-hop rhythm. And then, over the music, you hear the voice of Richard Dawkins reading a passage from “On the Origin of Species” by Charles Darwin: “Whoever is led to believe that species are mutable will do good service by conscientiously expressing his conviction. For only thus can the load of prejudice by which this subject is overwhelmed be removed.”

So begins one of the most astonishing, and brilliant, lectures on evolution I’ve ever seen: “The Rap Guide to Evolution,” by Baba Brinkman.

Brinkman, a burly Canadian from Vancouver, is a latter-day wandering minstrel, a self-styled “rap troubadour,” with a master’s degree in English and a history of tree-planting (according to his Web site, he has personally planted more than one million trees). His guide to evolution grew out of a correspondence with Mark Pallen, an evolutionary biologist and rap enthusiast at the University of Birmingham, in Britain; the result, as Brinkman tells us, is “the only hip-hop show to have been peer-reviewed.”

It is also, I suspect, the only hip-hop show to talk of mitochondria, genetic drift, sexual selection or memes. For Brinkman has taken Darwin’s exhortation seriously. He is a man on a mission to spread the word about evolution—how it works, what it means for our view of the world, and why it is something to be celebrated rather than feared.

To this end, he has concocted a set of mini-lectures disguised as rap songs. When he comes to human evolution, for example, he has the audience sing along in call-response fashion to “I’m a African”—a riff on an earlier song of that name by the radical, pan-Africanist hip-hop duo Dead Prez. The point of Brinkman’s version is that because humans evolved in Africa, we are all Africans: pan-Africanism meets population genetics. A few moments later, he’s showing a video of individuals of the social slime mold Dictyostelium discoidium streaming together while rapping about how cooperation evolves.

(Dictyostelium is notorious, in some circles, for its strange life-style. Usually, an individual Dictyostelium lives alone as a single cell. But when food is scarce, the single cells come together and form a being known as “the slug”; this crawls off in search of better conditions. When it finds them, the slug develops into a stalked fruiting body, and releases spores. But here’s the mystery: not all members of the slug get to make spores—and thereby contribute to the next generation—so why do they cooperate?)

It’s surreal stuff. But the clever part is that the show works at different levels. If you are up on evolution you will be amused by the in-jokes and amazed by the erudition. If you know nothing about evolution, you will certainly be entertained, and you may even learn something. (The delivery is so fast, and the material so broad, that it’s hard to tell how much will stick on one hearing; but for enthusiasts, there’s a CD. It’s good; I’ve been listening to it all afternoon.)

The lyrics are, for the most part, witty, sophisticated and scientifically accurate; and they lack the earnest defensiveness that sometimes haunts lectures on evolution. I spotted one or two small slips—a confusion of the praying mantis with the Australian redback spider (oh no!)—and there are a few moments of poetic license that a po-faced pedant might object to. Otherwise, it’s pretty rigorous.

Brinkman can’t resist taking a few pot-shots at creationists (“Darwin got it going on / Creationism is . . . dead wrong . . .”), and he devotes one rap to refutations of creationist arguments. But by and large, he proselytizes about evolution not by attacking its deniers, but by revealing the subject’s scope, from natural selection to the evolution of human culture and language. At the same time, he teases the audience, sends up post-modernism, mocks himself and satirizes the genre of hip-hop, all with fizzing energy and spell-binding charisma. Like I said, astonishing.

I saw “The Rap Guide to Evolution” last week in Barnstaple, a small town in the west of England. But this week, Darwin got it going on for a few days at the Bleecker Street Theatre, off Broadway. If you are in New York—go.

[Olivia Judson’s article appeared on her New York Times blog, “The Opinionator,” on 4 May 2010 (http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/05/04/darwin-got-it-going-on/).

[Dirk Murray Brinkman, Jr., was born on 22 October 1978 in Riondel, an isolated town in British Columbia. Known as a "Lit Hop" artist and poet, Brinkman seems to have used the nickname “Baba” at least as far back as college, perhaps because of the family lore that he was born with a “Buddha-like” countenance. Brinkman and his family moved to Vancouver in 1980, where he still lives, between gigs, with his brother. After his 1996 graduation from high school, where his poetry and rap interests were born, Brinkman received a BA in English from Simon Fraser University in Vancouver and then an MA in medieval lit from the University of Victoria in Greater Victoria, B.C. His studies included rhyming and he wrote an essay in 2002 called "The Beste Rym I Kan: The Emergence of Rhyme in English." While working in his family’s tree-planting business—he claims to have planted over a million trees himself over ten years—Brinkman began performing at music and fringe festivals in 2001 and earned recognition as a local talent when a video he produced was aired between programs on CBC Television. He began his rap career in 2003. During the winter, Brinkman appeared at local schools and in 2004, he produced
Rap Canterbury Tales, based on his undergrad thesis. Starting his own publishing outlet, Babasworld Prioductions, Brinkman published the rap and it gathered acclaim at home and in the U.K. after he presented it at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival (three times). With BBC Slam Champion MC Dizraeli, Brinkman formed the hip-hop group Mud Sun in 2008 and they released two albums. The Rap Guide to Evolution in 2009 spread Brinkman’s renown from Canada and the U.K. to the English-speaking world, including the U.S., though it has run into disapproval in the American South when he launches into a rejection of Creationism. Brinkman claims the script has been vetted for accuracy by both scientists and historians, however, and some of his raps have been incorporated in school curricula in the U.K., Canada, and Australia. In 2010, he released the Rap Guide to Human Nature, created for the 2010 Fringe Festival at which he also premièred his newest rap, Rapconteur, drawn from oral epics including Beowulf, Gilgamesh, and the Finnish Kalevala.]

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