Words With a Science Rapper
On May 21st, Skepchick.se contributor Kaylee met up with the evolutionary rapper Baba Brinkman, whom is famous in Sweden for being the man behind the song “Off That (Rationalist Anthem)”, the theme song for the Swedish sceptical podcast, Skeptikerpodden. He’d popped over from England for a few days to perform in Stockholm. I had the pleasure of meeting this excellent guy in my own home, and I’m now proud to share with the international Skepchick community the result of Kaylee’s very interesting interview!*
Welcome Baba Brinkman! Did you know that Skeptikerpodden is at the moment the most popular sceptical podcast in northern Europe, making your song very famous amongst its listeners?
I didn’t know that until you told me but I’m pretty excited to hear it because that was my highest hope when I made that song. When calling something an “anthem” there is a degree of presumptuousness behind that. Because it’s only an anthem if a whole bunch of people get behind it, and it was an attempt to articulate a certain world view and my hope was that sceptics would resonance with this. That’s why I’m loving what’s happening right now.
I’m sure the listeners would like to know more about that song, but before that, could you tell us a little bit about yourself?
I grew up in western Canada, in Vancouver, British Columbia and my family runs a tree planting company. I planted trees though out my late teens and early twenties paying my way through university. I ended up getting two degrees of BA and a Masters and the whole time I was going to school I was nurturing an obsession with poetry that eventually spilled over to an obsession with rap music. I decided that to in order to distinguish myself from mainstream rap artists, to channel my education through my lyrics as much as possible.
Tell us a little bit about your academic education and how you came to combined it with your rap music turning it into the Rap Canterbury Tales.
I first got into the degree and was doing English as my major, then started to fish around for a thesis while these two major interests in my life was competing for my time. I tried to think of a way to bring rap into my studies and I formulated a thesis concept which viewed rap as the latest expression in the history of oral storytelling traditions. […] My argument was that differences between cultures oral traditions are due to having evolved in different places, but really they are part of a universal human instinct of trying to making sense of the world through rhythm, rime and storytelling. The Rap Canterbury Tales was a way to articulate the concept of my thesis creatively by showing people some of the parallels between oral storytelling traditions and hip hop, instead of just trying to explain it as an intellectual concept.
So from Chaucer you made the leap to Darwin, with your Rap Guide to Evolution. How did that album come about?
It was commissioned by a scientist, Dr Mark Pallen. He’d heard of me doing the Rap Canterbury Tales, saw me perform it, and then contacted me and said, “How about making your next project the Origin Of Species?”. This was in 2008 and he was in the process of planning the Darwin Day celebration, for February 12th 2009, which would celebrate Darwin’s 200th birthday. […] I thought that was too cool of a challenge to turn down, so I spent about six months reading my way through a stack of evolutionary biology and popular science books, like Richard Dawkins, just trying to get the breadth of the theory and then try to synthesise the main concepts into rap songs.
This is the first rap album to be peer-reviewed?
Indeed! It was one of Mark Pallen’s conditions because he sort of took a chance on me. He recognised at the same time that there was a liability involved if I didn’t accurately represent the theory. So Mark Pallen said: “you can have the job but you have to send me previews of your lyrics so that I can check them for scientific accuracy and make sure you’re not perpetuating any of the misconceptions around Darwin”. Which I thought was a totally fair condition and nor did I want to sort of misconstrue anything that had to do with evolutionary biology. So when I stepped on stage in front of the scientists for the first time, my job was to make sure it was as entertaining as possible and I didn’t have to feel I had to worry about anything of the things I was saying being challenged as inaccurate or a misrepresentation of Darwin.
(Editor’s note: This project won the prestigious Scotsman Fringe First Award at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 2009 for best new theatre writing.)
You took this tour across USA in celebration of Darwin’s 150th Anniversary of the publication of the Origin of Species. How was this received in America?
I was in a bit of a sheltered environment because all of the performances where at biology lecture halls. So this was a collage campus tour and I was booked by the biology department a number of different schools. With the exception of one show actually. Every year in Dover, Pennsylvania, there’s a reunion for “the evolution defenders” from the trial on intelligent design; the school teachers, the lawyers and basically everyone involved who was part of that victory for science in school. And they hired me to perform for them which was a great honour.
When listening to the Rap Guide to Evolution one might assume that you have always been a sceptic. Would you agree with that?
No, definitely not! I was raised in a rather un-sceptical family actually. Not religious, but I’d say sort of spiritually leaning. My parents were into meditation and yoga, and not all of that falls under the Woo category. There is a nice exercise component to yoga and a there is a nice psychological calming component to meditation. But there were metaphysical beliefs that went along with all that stuff that I wasn’t really sceptical about growing up, at all. My scepticism came from studying evolution and when I got the challenge from Mark Pallen I probably would have described myself as an agnostic at the time: “There might be something out there, I can acknowledge that there is no evidence that there is any supernatural or that there is a God, but are we really going to say that it’s for sure not the case.” I did sort of buy into that, ‘acknowledgement of the possibility of supernatural equals open-mindedness‘. That argument used to hold more sway for me […] But once you have identified the scientific method as the way we find out the difference between beliefs that are based on reality and believes that are not, which is the only way to separate creationism from evolution, then all kinds of other things just falls by the wayside as well. You can’t reject creationism and keep homoeopathy, it just doesn’t work that way. Because the same criteria is used to reject both of them.
What was the reaction from friends and family of your scepticism?
Uhm, I think there is some resistance to it for sure. I certainly haven’t convinced or converted them all, but I don’t back down from arguments. I think they have the impression that I’ve become more hardened, or something, by scepticism. I used to be in conversations where I’d hear somebody saying something and in the back of my head thinking ‘that’s obviously not true’ but I wouldn’t actually challenge it. Because I’d be like ’what’s the harm’? And I used “harm” as my yard stick for if someone had a totally irrational and clearly deluded belief that wasn’t hurting anybody, let them have it. […] But some of the writers like Ben Goldacre, Simon Singh, Richard Dawkins, Dan Dennet and Sam Harris, just showed that the moderate view of irrationality and pseudo science creates a front by which the more extreme stuff can hide behind and cause its harm, using the more moderate stuff as a shield. As soon as I started to see more and more examples of how that works in the world and how sceptical inquiries, the scientific method and good effective medicine are being hamstrung by people with irrational beliefs that seem to be harmless but promotes the world view of being uncritical which can cause all kinds of harm. As soon as I saw my way through that I thought, ‘Ok, I’m going to take my stand on rationality’ and not let “harm” be such a yard stick any more. Sometimes I don’t challenge people out of politeness, in situations where I’d just ruin the moment if I called ‘bullshit’ on somebody. But in general I tend to say what I think a lot more around people who would disagree.
Is this about the same time you wrote Off That (Rationalist Anthem)?
Absolutely, yeah! I’d just come from TAM London, recently before that […] and got exposed to the whole community and thought these people really have a clear view of the world. Right around the same time Jay-Z put this song out, “Off That”. His version is about fashion and he’s talking about all the styles of hip hop that they don’t associate with any more “oversized clothes and ho’s – we’re off that”. He’s talking about how all those things are sort of played out and you got to move with the times and evolve your style. I thought the sentiment and the tone of the song, the clarity and confidence of it was great, but thought fashion was a pretty frivolous thing to be dismissive about. I see were he was coming from but there are more important things we need to ‘get off’ than played out styles, like played out ideas, and thought I could adapt the whole thing over to the scepticism movement. And yeah, it sort of just fits naturally.
The sequel to Rap Guide to Evolution is the Rap Guide to Human Nature album. Which of these albums have been most controversially received?
I thought that the Rap Guide to Human Nature’s material was much more controversial but I haven’t really had anybody come after me on that one too much. I’ve had more response to the Rap Guide to Evolution, maybe because the Human Nature one is off the creationist’s radar or something like that. Because Human Nature doesn’t set off alarm bells for them the way the word “Evolution” does. When I called it the Rap Guide to Human Nature that was me creating a more accessible title than the one I was thinking of first, which was the ‘Rap Guide to Evolutionary Psychology’, which is really what [the album] is about. Maybe it hasn’t had enough listeners to get me lynched yet, but maybe I’ll hold on for that to happen.
Last Thursday you preformed in Stockholm arranged by the Swedish Sceptics, Vetenskap & Folkbildning. You gave a great performance and the sceptics in the audience where ecstatic! You performed some new songs for us that night, including a song based on the book “Dr Tatiana’s Sex Advice to All Creation”. Most of your Swedish fans won’t have heard about it so could you please tell us?
Sure, that book is by Olivia Judson’s and she was recently the science writer for the New York Times magazine. Her book is ‘Dr Tatiana’s Sex Advice to All Creation’ and it is like an advice column for animals with really weird sex behaviour. It is a really hilarious written book […] and it goes through the whole evolution of biology, ‘monogamy vs. promiscuity’, ‘inbreeding vs. outbreeding’ or ‘eating your mate for protein vs. co-parenting for a long time’ and all the different sexual strategies that have evolved by treating them like they are people with funny fetishism. It’s quite an accessible way to get your head around what’s going on in evolutionary biology of sex.
(Editor’s note: The book has been published in Swedish under the name “Dr Tatianas råd om sex och samlevnad för hela skapelsen”.)
Tell us about your current projects!
On Wednesday, the 25th of May, we have a launch event at the Prince Charles Cinema at Leicester Square, London. We’ll be premièring a series of rap music videos based on the Rap Guide to Evolution. […] The charity Wellcome Trust that funded the album in 2009, have a program for disseminating the public understanding of science, so our grant proposal [back in 2009] was to make music videos on the Rap Guide to Evolution in order to make the concepts of the songs sort of more visually intuitive. […] We’re hoping they will become a resource that teachers will use for teaching biology and the event on Wednesday is the world première of these videos.
… And what’s happening in New York?
New York is another incarnation of the show and it’s going to be an off Broadway run at a 200 seat theatre in Manhattan. Starting on the 17th of June I’ll be performing the show eight times a week […] and it’s going to be a full theatrical adaptation of the Rap Guide to Evolution. Part of the reasons for doing this new remix of the album with Dr Tatiana and all the new songs is to have some brand new material to unveil at the same time as the off Broadway show launches.
Today, as we conduct this interview, it is actually the rapture day, May 21st. We can conclude that it, by now, did NOT accrue. But just before this interview I learnt about a mother in USA that tried to kill her two daughters to spare them of the rapture by slitting their throats and wrists, before doing the same to herself. Luckily all three survived, but what do you think, when hearing a story like this?
I think maybe there should be more stringent advertisement guidelines. Putting up billboards that say the world will end on May 21st is a blighted example of false advertising. You can’t put up a billboard that says Coca Cola cures cancer because it’s gonna cause a lot of harm, and it’s a fraud. I think there should be laws against promoting frauds that are based on religious beliefs, just like there are laws against promoting frauds that are based on commercial interests.
How big has the rapture campaign been in Canada?
You know, there were billboards in Vancouver. I probably should have taken the initiative to severely vandalise and deface them, but I didn’t. Maybe I should’ve reported them to the advertise standard commission.
I spoke to a random Swedish person before this interview, about what she’d heard about the rapture day and her thoughts on that. Basically she said that, upon first hearing about it, she just thought it as “silly”, and I think this is the general consensus amongst most Swedes. What was the general take on it in Canada?
I don’t think it was on the radar very much in Canada. I didn’t really hear anybody talking about it except for a couple of posts on Facebook saying ‘Look how stupid these people are’. But I didn’t hear much indignation about it, you know, or interest. It was generally ignored as far as I can tell.
For additional questions from Skepchick.se readers and the listeners of Skeptikerpodden, please read the rest of the interview on Skepchick.se!
*Note from Kaylee: Although the interview was meant for Skepchick.se, since I was recording it, I’ve given the finished recording to Skeptikerpodden where you will be able to hear it as of May 31st. For obvious reasons I have shortened the written interview here, so I do recommend you to have a listen to it as well.