Science is a story. Think about it: It has heroes and villains; noble quests to discover great riches; triumphs and devastating defeats. Each hero surges forward, bolstered by those who came before them. Each victory brings untold riches upon them. Except the quest is for knowledge, and riches are shared with the entire world, for the betterment of humanity. Science is the greatest story still being told today.
But one does not simply walk into Oslo.
It was 5:30 on Sunday evening. I was tearing clothes out of a laundromat drier, hastily throwing on a grey button-down shirt. A hot shirt straight out of the drier was the last thing I needed on a sweltering afternoon. But this was the last chance I’d get to do laundry before my big move, and I needed that shirt.
Upon getting home, I put on the rest of my nice black suit, and stuffed the pockets with my metrocard, housekeys, and a pocket square. Perfect. I strolled through SoHo to the venue, a long, cozy room with a small stage, a low ceiling, and a bar in the basement. As I made my way to my seat—second row, on the end—I was feeling pretty VIP. I sat down, drank my beer, updated twitter, and waited. I was at a rap concert.
Mind you, not just any rap concert. Though, in all honesty, if you got me to go to a Lil Wayne show, I’d probably still wear a suit. This was the opening night of Baba Brinkman’s Rap Guide to Evolution, a unique, hip-hop take on another great story—the story of life on Earth and its journey through time. The show had been in previews for about a week at this point, but this was the big night, and earlier that afternoon, I got a call from Baba asking me to come down to the show and after-party, like I said, I was feeling pretty VIP.
Though I have to come clean, the call didn’t exactly come out of the blue. I had met Baba and DJ Jamie Simmonds earlier in the month during the World Science Festival, where Baba was performing at one of the events I was helping live stream on the web. So I got a chance to get to know them over those few days. In fact, Jamie is one of only a handful of people on Earth who have borne witness to what a terrible singer I am. He might not know it, but he’ll carry that knowledge to the grave; we’re brothers now.
The lights are going down, and the crowd hushes, lit only by the stage lighting above, the projected images of Charles Darwin on the left, and a page from his notes on the right behind Jamie’s turntables where he had been warming up the crowd with some music. Note, if you want the show to be a complete surprise, feel free to skip to the TL;DR.
With little fanfare, Baba took the stage and began to set up his premise. He’s a tall, fair, Canadian with a Cheshire grin that disguises both his rap skills and literary depth. Just as the crowd was getting into Mr. Simmonds’ beat and Brinkman’s rhyme, he laid all his cards on the table as a recording of Richard Dawkins, reading the words Darwin himself wrote over a hundred years ago, proclaims:
“The view which most naturalists entertain…namely that each species has been independently created, is erroneous.”
“Creationism is dead wrong.” Alright. My kind of show. I couldn’t help but grin. Brinkman wasn’t pulling punches. But aside from these opening statements, this was not a show about taking creationism apart, but that of building up the edifices of evolutionary theory. Rather than show why creationism is wrong, Baba chose to explain why evolution is right. Clever man. Darwinian theory needs no help to disprove Christian mythology. Once you become aware of the evidence, the stories of Genesis fall apart. It becomes like comparing R.L. Stine to Edgar Allan Poe.
What followed that night was a combination of hip-hop, sociology 101, and a dissertation on the similarities between evolution and rap music. Aided by rhyme and beat just as much as charts and data points, Brinkman hits the audience hard with the chilling facts about the conditions we create in this country—mainly the widening gap between the rich and the poor—that give rise to violent crime.
Under evolutionary biology, teen pregnancies become an adaptive strategy in the face of a lower life expectancy, and with no other outlets for adolescent competitive tendencies, poor, urban youths turn to violence to stake their claims. This is not a solely inner city phenomemon though. This happens across the board, around the world. But as one graph shows, it’s just sickeningly worse here in the US.
Baba continues to weave the similarities between rap culture and natural selection. Weak, untalented rappers fall like sick gazelle, and giant gold chains become the peacock’s garish plumage. In contradiction to the braggadocio of gangsta rap, Brinkman reminds us who’s really in control of the selective conditions under evolutionary theory: Women. With the mantra “Don’t Sleep With Mean People,” he drives home the fact that if there are genes that express themselves as douchebaggery, they can be bred out of the pool by the empowerment of women. Selection is exactly what it means, it’s about choices.
At the end, Baba reached out to the audience for feedback. For those familiar with his work, you may start to get an inkling of what’s going on. Brinkman’s deft poetry is on par with his eloquent prose. He answered each question with so much confidence and skill that I could only sit there with my jaw agape, wondering if every audience member was actually a plant. Then he freestyled it. During the lyrical bridge of his song “Performance, Feedback, Revision”—the anthem and unofficial theme of the Rap Guide—Baba improvised verses based on the topics brought up by inquisitive viewers. It was like an improv comedy show, except you didn’t know that you were seeding the act.
TL;DR—Baba Brinkman and Jamie Simmonds tell the story of life on Earth through rhyme and rhythm. Part rap show, part evolutionary biology lecture, all entertaining, Brinkman shows that gangsta rap and evolution aren’t all that different. The Rap Guide to Evolution promises several things:
- An expansive, entertaining primer in Darwinian evolutionary theory.
- A rap show spiked with humor and knowledge. Baba is a wry, self-depricating storyteller one minute, and a bombastic clarion call the next.
- An ever-evolving performance, with one show different from the next based on feedback and revision. “The first peer-reviewed rap show.”
- Did I mention it’s entertaining as hell?
Whether you like hip hop or not, whether you subscribe to evolutionary theory or not, this show will entertain. Some have expressed that the Q&A freestyle was a jarring interlude, but I thought of it more like a stage-rush after a lecture, combined with an encore performance. The show is an intellectual thrill ride, with twists and turns, mind blowers, hooks, and more. With a new understanding of evolution, Baba Brinkman will make you to stand up and proudly announce your common African ancestry, even if you’re a half-asian polack like me.
Many, many thanks and congratulations to Baba and Jamie for the invitation to the show. I was honored to be there, and like I said, I felt very VIP. Cheers, guys, here’s to a long run!
On Thursday, this Science Storytelling series continues with a post about the Brooklyn Story Collider.