We never thought we’d come across a hip-hop show that’s been peer-reviewed, but here we are. In 2009, New York-based Canadian-born rapper Dirk Murray ‘Baba’ Brinkman created an original rap-meets-theatre show that tells a tale of modern evolution and origins of hip-hop culture.
It’s not as surprising as it sounds when you consider that Brinkman is a dyed-in-the-wool geek with encyclopaedic knowledge – he’d previously turned Beowulf and Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales into ‘lit hop’. He insists he’s not concerned that knowledge is on the decline, however.
“The modern digital world is leading to an explosion of knowledge,” he argues, “and it’s of no less strategic value today. The question is: knowledge of what? The proliferation of new forms of knowledge are competing for space with the foundational knowledge you get from literature, science, philosophy, history, etc. Part of what I do is show people why that foundational knowledge is no less relevant than ever, because it can inform and frame the emergence of the new. For instance, I think you can understand rap better if you know about the lives and works of Chaucer and Shakespeare… not to mention Darwin.”
It was Professor of Microbial Genomics and author of The Rough Guide to Evolution, Dr Mark Pallen, who challenged Brinkman to write a show about evolution, specifically the evolutionary origins of behaviour. It’s a reaction to the teaching of Christian Science in some American schools, “and a response to everyone who rejects evolutionary explanations at every level, whether creationists in the American South (or in Australia) or social constructivists in a university Humanities Department.”
Brinkman found some pre-existing rap songs that deal with evolutionary themes – ‘I’m a African’ by Dead Prez, ‘Survival of the Fittest’ by Mobb Deep, and ‘Hypnotize’ by Biggie Smalls, which he could deconstruct for starters. For the rest of the set, “I took a similar tack to Darwin himself, beginning with ‘artificial selection’ or domesticated animals and plants, and drawing an analogy with hip-hop artists who ‘go pop’ by trading their street cred for comfortable celebrity.”
He cites The Black-Eyed Peas, “who luckily also happen to be named after a domesticated species.” From there he moves to “unity of common descent, then human behaviour, aggression, cooperation, sexual selection, and finally the moral and philosophical implications of accepting Darwin's view of life in its entirety. It's a process of moving from simple and less controversial to complex and more controversial, with lots of signposting and examples drawn from rap songs and pop culture along the way to keep it fresh.”
Brinkman has toured his show, featuring DJ Jamie Simmonds and some impressive audio-visuals, around the world, winning the Scotsman Fringe First Award in Edinburgh, a Friend of Darwin Award and a nomination for a Drama Desk Award off-Broadway. He brings the show to Australia in between filming scenes for a documentary, Darwin’s America. “So far we’ve filmed in Mississippi, Alabama and Texas. We come into a community and seek to build a dialogue around the show, interviewing educators, students, evangelicals, and Darwin defenders and deniers of every stripe. Even if they reject the science content, it's possible to engage in a meta-level conversation about what is being taught in university classrooms and why. We've had some amazing encounters so far, and we've only done about half our locations.”
And what’s next for Brinkman? Nothing too controversial. “Coming soon,” he promises, “the Rap Guide to Revolution.”