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The Rap Guide to Evolution

Posted Jun 03 2011 7:01am

Last Wednesday I found myself at the Prince Charles Theatre, Leicester Square, for the premiere of rapper Baba Brinkman’s new project, the teaching version of The Rap Guide to Evolution . I had been looking forward to this, having come across Brinkman at a rather dodgy bar in North London last year.

Randal Keynes

Randal Keynes

The evening was introduced by Charles Darwin’s great-great-grandson, Randall Keynes . The project is a collaboration with the Wellcome Trust, with the aim of making the teaching the science behind evolution more accessible to schoolchildren. Brinkman’s successful stage show, The Rap Guide to Evolution, is being split into 12 videos which will be available for free online, complete with links to further resources so people can do their own research and learning. There’ll also be DVDs for use in the classroom.

The Prince Charles seemed pretty full last week. Brinkman is popular, after all. But the evening didn’t get off to an auspicious start: we were late starting, and the very first video didn’t run. Brinkman said that there was a bit of conflict behind the scenes, behind those who wanted to demo the project and the editors of the videos who were saying they weren’t ready, and you could either have a working demo or a project that finishes on time. Darned editors, hey? So there were apologies on and off throughout the evening, and this must have been very frustrating for someone as talented and polished as Baba Brinkman.

Brinkman himself is very good. He has the whole rapper shtick down pat, and his work is thought-provoking and full of humour. His lyrics are also peer-reviewed by real scientists! (Brinkman himself is an English major.) But I came away from the show with a sense of unease.

Baba Brinkman

Baba Brinkman

Rap is, by its nature, combative. The idea of a breakdance-off between Charles Darwin and various intellectual opponents must have seen like a good idea on paper, but it fell flat. Sarah Palin is hardly an intellectual challenger, and nobody seriously believes that the right-wing cadre she was meant to represent is anything other than a political movement, rather than a scientific one. Michel Foucault, although certainly a worthy intellectual opponent, also seems to be a missed target–he talks about the framework in which we do science rather than opposing scientific method or evolution. And God? A barn full of straw men, I’m afraid.

There’s a funny and interesting video of the Brinkman family at dinner, complete with creationist cousins and hippy sisters (all characters played by Brinkman himself) which while entertaining didn’t seem to be overly educational. The style of argument seems to be a mix between shouting louder, blasting the opponent with contextless scientific data, mocking religion and being convinced of one’s own rightness. A lot like Science. It works, bitches . There’s no discussion of the method, there’s no sense of the joy in finding out things that are new, it’s purely confrontational and it’s not the way to win hearts or minds.

One of the cleverer videos is titled ‘Performance, Feedback, Revision.’ This draws a parallel between writing a song and the evolutionary process: multiple drafts, trying to find out what works. My quibble here is that evolution doesn’t have a guiding intelligence behind it, trying to find what the audience likes. Evolution isn’t ‘trying’ anything–it can’t! It’s random, and the organisms that randomly reproduce fastest in each niche will produce more offspring than any other. While clever, this analogy could play right into the hands of the Intelligent Design crowd, the very people Brinkman was railing against two videos previously.

Performance, feedback, revision

Performance, feedback, revision

Survival of the Fittest ‘ places violent crime and teenage pregnancy into an evolutionary context. This video comes complete with graphs from published papers, comparing murder rates with life expectancy and describing how evolutionary theory might predict the very behaviour we see in under-privileged communities. There was a lot here, too much for a single song, and it would be worthwhile going into the numbers more carefully. Relevant rap.

There was a bit of heckling in the Q&A session at the end of the show. Someone accused Brinkman of being misogynistic, because one of his (most famous) lyrics has the line “See, I’ve been reading up on you scheming sluts.” Now, there’s a simple answer to that–it’s a literary device and it’s in character for a misogynist rapper (is that redundant? Probably). In context it makes sense, and it’s not part of the educational material. But there is, if not misogyny then at least sexism, in two of the videos that are part of the Wellcome package. After the first, which has Brinkman surrounded by scantily clad women, he called it his ‘male wish-fulfilment’ fantasy. It was his Robert Palmer moment, fair enough. But he immediately followed it up with another track that was eye-candy for heterosexual males. I’m not entirely convinced that any of this is appropriate, let alone necessary, in a classroom setting.

But then, you see, Brinkman goes and blows away your expectations with his cover of Dead Prez’s ‘I’m A African’:

Yeah, the red is for the blood in my arm – it runs in the veins
Of all my cousins from the same African mom
And the black is for the melanin, which I guess I lost
A mutation with benefits that offset the costs
At least in the North, after massive glaciation
My family passed through some adaptive radiations
We started as Africans, and then became Eurasians
And then one final migration made us Canadians
But it’s back to my origin, ’cause I understand
For every colour of man, Africa is the motherland

Baba Brinkman is extremely talented, and these are clever and provocative lyrics. But using a single form of music to make science seem cool is misguided. Science is already cool. I’d go so far as to say that he’s more likely to get scientists interested in rap rather than the other way round. I applaud the Wellcome Trust’s willingness to experiment with projects like this (Brinkman doesn’t need their help to be popular after all, but hey, it’s their money), but I think this one is a flop.

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