EDINBURGH 2019: Baba Brinkman Q&A
Science rapper Baba Brinkman tackles the culture wars and identity politics in his latest from the much loved and highly acclaimed Rap Guide series with Baba Brinkman'S RAP GUIDE TO CULTURE, coming to Edinburgh Fringe Festival this August. Ahead of that Baba chatted to BroadwayWorld about his new show.
Tell us a bit about Baba Brinkman's Rap Guide to Culture.
In a way it's exactly what it sounds like: a comedy rap show about how culture evolved in our species' history and how understanding the science of cultural norms and tribal affiliation can help us bridge divides and achieve world peace.
Of course, the show title contains nested levels of meaning, so let's break it down.
"Baba Brinkman" is a white rapper from Canada who started making hip-hop theatre shows about science ten years ago, won some awards, moved to New York City, and has performed five hundred times off-Broadway since 2011. Each show is a "Rap Guide" to something, the previous instalments were Evolution, Human Nature, Religion, Climate Change, and Consciousness, and Culture is the latest.
Calling something a "Rap Guide" is fraught with peril, both because lots of (older, whiter) people are weary of hip-hop as a reliable information channel, and also because lots of (younger, more diverse) people are sceptical that science rap will hold its own, as good hip-hop. So, part of the fun of the show is that I get to blow all of those stereotypes and preconceptions away in real time.
Plus, setting "rap" aside, anything you call a "guide to culture" sets up parochial expectations like "Oh yeah, well what about MY culture?!" So, I'm focusing on the scientific study of how culture evolves, including languages, technologies, the arts, and norms of behaviour. If I get it right, everything in my show is about the things all cultures have in common, as well as the specific forces that produce cultural diversity.
Does that sound too ambitious?
Did I mention how hip-hop I am?
How long have you been rapping?
Part of the show is about how I found my way into hip-hop culture as an outsider. I got my first rap cassette tape when I was ten and went to my first live concert when I was twelve, but I didn't start rapping until I was nineteen. I'm forty now and have made a living entirely from rap for the past fifteen years. Why the seven-year gap in my teens? I was navigating the boundaries, constructing a niche, trying to find a lane that was authentic to my background. It took a while to find one that didn't feel like cultural appropriation, which is what made Vanilla Ice the butt of every white rapper joke.
I talk about this experience in the show, not just because it's my story, but because it shows how cultures work in general, policing their boundaries with taboos and shibboleths that participants have to learn if they don't want to be marked as free riders and ejected from the village. Race is only one potential marker of tribal membership, and it's one of the most provisional. Once you work out the common norms, people readily give preference to other markers, like knowledge of history and symbols, and ability to freestyle. That's called a "credibility enhancing display" in the scientific literature.
Why do you think this is an important show?
Is it just me or are the culture wars escalating? Divisions seem to be getting deeper, whether they are over Trump, Brexit, immigration, gender, race, sexuality, religion, or the norms of discourse (aka political correctness). I'm taking a step back with this show and talking about all of those things, but in the context of social psychology and the evolution of our species, both genetically and culturally. If we understand the forces that shape us, we can help to steward them in the directions we want, and I don't mean with CRISPR. Our species has already "self-domesticated" to an incredible degree. We can evolve our cultures towards tolerance for diversity, both of identity and of ideology, if we learn to be good horticulturalists of norms.
Where might we have seen you before?
I have performed on MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show, on BBC's Nerdstock (Robin Ince and Brian Cox's science comedy show at the Hammersmith Apollo), on Neil deGrasse Tyson's Star Talk. I opened for Stephen Hawking at the Seattle Science Festival and have over a million views on my science rap YouTube channel. But if you've been to Edinburgh Fringe you probably saw me there live. This will be my tenth full festival run since 2004.
And you have a second show as well?
I didn't just have to navigate the norms and boundaries of hip-hop culture, I had to navigate the norms and boundaries of science as well! Talk about strictly enforcing the rules, the tribe of science ejects pseudoscience with just as much ferocity as the tribe of hip-hop ejected Vanilla Ice. Luckily, I was able to marry into the tribe of science. My wife Dr. Heather Berlin is a neuroscientist and an expert in impulse control disorders like pathological gambling, addiction, OCD, etc.
She has also studied the effects of psychedelics on the brain, and what happens in your brain during a freestyle rap. So in our new show "Impulse Control", she is presenting me as an impulse control disorder patient, and I'm trying to defend the benefits of sometimes giving your impulses free rein. For instance, in a freestyle rap! Of course, there's a slippery slope between freestyle rap and heroin addiction...
Baba Brinkman's Rap Guide to Culture is at Edinburgh Festival Fringe from 31st July-26th August. Tickets and more information: https://tickets.edfringe.com/whats-on/baba-brinkman-s-rap-guide-to-culture