Rap Scholar

Baba Brinkman has the musical genre down to a science, with enlightened riffs on evolution and religion.

´╗┐Like any rapper, Baba Brinkman has his role models–Jay Z and Tupac because of their range, The Notorious B.I.G. for his rhymes, and Eminem for "making it not suck to be a white rapper.''

Brinkman is a keen observer of changes in the genre for good reason: He’s something of a rap pioneer himself.

The 36-year-old Canadian is quite likely the first rapper in history to submit his lyrics to researchers for peer review; appear on stage at a science seminar with astrophysicist Stephen Hawking; write a rap version of The Canterbury Tales; and create two one-man, off-Broadway rap shows. 

It’s also safe to say he is the only rapper to have been born in a log cabin. 

All of which makes the red-haired “rapconteur” an oddity in hip hop but a perfect fit for the annual Orlando International Fringe Theatre Festival, where he will perform one of the aforementioned productions, “The Rap Guide to Religion,” which just ended a seven-month run at the Soho Playhouse in Manhattan. The patently irreverent but meticulously researched show is an examination of the part that evolution played in the development of religion. (Here’s a sample: You can take it from Carl Sagan/Religion evolved/Either Christian or pagan.)

A couple of reviews: 

“The best TED talk you’ve ever seen, interrupted by music.” That’s The New York Times.

“The cognitive and evolutionary science he incorporates is cutting-edge stuff. I was impressed.” That’s the chair of the Religious Studies Department at Hofstra University,
Dr. John Teehan, one of the scholars Brinkman consulted when he was developing his script.

Brinkman has created a series of stage shows, videos and rap recordings, mainly about socially significant science. His goal is twofold: to make complex ideas easily understood while proving that rap, as a genre, is quite capable of conveying them. “The shows work as a bridge in both directions,’’ he says. “I think of what I’m doing as the rap-music version of those ‘for dummies’ books.” 

He lives in New York City with his wife, Heather Berlin, a cognitive neuroscientist at Mount Sinai Hospital, and his 15-month-old daughter, Hannah. He was born to two dedicated environmentalists who had built themselves a log cabin in the West Kootenays, a heavily wooded region in British Columbia. When Brinkman was born, his father, struck by the infant’s calmness, nicknamed him “Baba”—a traditional honorific for a holy man.

His mother, Joyce Murray, is now a prominent member of the Canadian parliament. His father, Dirk Brinkman, owns the largest global reforestation business in the world. The younger Brinkman worked his way through college planting seedlings—a million of them, by the company’s own accounting system. He says the methodical activity of the task ingrained a sense of musical rhythm in him, just as the drudgery of picking cotton informed the gritty heartbeat of rhythm and blues. 

Brinkman entertained fellow students with improvised rap routines while studying literature at the University of Victoria. When it came time to write his Master’s thesis, he found a way to combine school and play. 

He compared The Canterbury Tales, Geoffrey Chaucer’s 15th century masterwork about a band of pilgrims trying to outdo each other with bawdy tales, to the linguistic mock combat of freestyle rappers. 

Then he created a hip hop play, “The Rap Canterbury Tales,” premiering it at the prestigious Edinburgh Festival of Fringe in Scotland, where it caught the attention of Dr. Mark Palen, a British microbiologist and author of The Rough Guide to Evolution. Palen asked Brinkman: “Can you do for Darwin what you did for Chaucer?” The result was “The Rap Guide to Evolution,” which first toured the U.K. in 2009 and became an off-Broadway show in 2011.

More reviews:

“Unlike more sophomoric hybridists of highbrow content and popular form, Mr. Brinkman brings genuine passion, curiosity and analytical skills to his subject.” That’s The New York Times again.

“Never since Charles Darwin have we had such an eloquent exposition.” That’s Dr. Pallen.

Not everybody is as impressed. Once, at a performance in Houston, several members of the audience walked out as he moved into a part of the show that skewered creationism:

Time to elevate your mental state
Celebrate your kinship with the primates
The weak and the strong, we got it goin’ on
We lived in the dark for so long
The weak and the strong, 
Darwin got it goin’ on
Creationism is dead wrong.

An audience member who sat through to the end ambled up to Brinkman. He advised him, in a soft Texas drawl, “I’m a creationist, and I liked your show. But if you want those other fellas to stick around to the end, you might want to change it up a bit.”

Brinkman took his advice and made an adjustment or two. Just don’t take that to mean he won’t continue to sticks to his guns: 

“The best way I can describe my attitude about this is to use a line from that show: ‘Let’s all be respectful—and still tell it straight.’ ”

It’s a philosophy that should come in handy for anyone with a particular interest in his next project: a rap guide to climate change. 


Get a sampling og the upcoming 2015 Fringe Festival lineup here.

Categories: Performing Arts