Monday, February 19, 2018

My Interview with Baba Brinkman, Rap Artist, Writer, and Author of the Rap Guide to Climate Chaos

Baba Brinkmann, courtesy of the artist.
Last spring I had the pleasure of seeing Baba Brinkman perform The Rap Guide to Climate Chaos at Hofstra University. I was deeply impressed by his performance and how he was able to address many nuances of climate change science and policy in his work. What is fascinating about his storytelling is that he weaves in difficult realities of the present moment such as climate change denial, climate chaos, and climate refugees, within a coherent entertaining show. Baba fully understands climate science, but takes a unique cultural viewpoint of climate change that sends you off on a musical journey with many twists and turns. He was kind enough to agree to an interview. His current show,  Rap Guide to Consciousness off-Broadway is opening in March.

One of the things about rap music that I think is unique is that the albums tell a story. Certainly other genres do this, but rap music has a way of building a memorable storyline that can be transcendent in unexpected ways. Why do you think rap is so effective at expressing stories and emotion?

I would say there are two parallel answers, and both reference Darwin. The long version is that our species has evolved an affinity for stylized storytelling. It’s literally in our DNA to be thrilled by a virtuoso verbal performance, which fulfills many of the same functions as animal displays (i.e. attracting mates and allies, solidifying group membership, alerting conspecifics about threats or opportunities, etc.) while adding a layer of symbolic information that no other animal display achieves. We evolved to love stories because they give us a wealth of insight into patterns of human motives and behaviour that would be too dangerous to acquire firsthand.

The short version is that rap is a specific cultural product, a relatively new set of symbols and signs that culturally evolved in the competitive urban setting of the Bronx, NYC, in the 1970s. The DJ would set up turntables and play beat-driven music for the party, with the crowd dancing and having fun, and the MC would get on the microphone and improvise (or recite memorized) lyrics over the beat. But as Pras from the Fugees very insightfully notes: there are “too many MCs, and not enough mics” which creates a Darwinian competition to be entertaining or get kicked off the mic. So rap evolved the most effective tools for connecting with and moving a live audience under those hyper-competitive settings.

It’s like cheesecake. To really understand what’s going on, you have to explain both the evolved taste for sweet/fatty foods and the circumstances by which those elements were refined and condensed into a hyper-stimulus.

I saw you perform the Rap Guide to Climate Chaos at Hofstra University and I have to tell you that I was blown away.  You basically covered an entire chapter of my textbook in rap in a way that was far more accessible than reading the chapter or hearing a lecture with Power Point slides. You reviewed a rich body of accurate scientific material and got at some of the policy nuances in unexpected ways. How did you prepare to write the Rap Guide to Climate Chaos?

Performing the Rap Guide to Climate Chaos.
Courtesy of the artist.
Thanks! As I mention in the show, and in the song “What’s Beef” featuring Bill Nye, my mom wrote her master’s thesis on climate change in 1992 when I was a teenager, so interest in and concern for climate change has been part of my worldview since before Bill Clinton was president. But it wasn’t until 2011 when I came to New York to perform my previous show, Rap Guide to Evolution, off-Broadway, that a climate scientist reached out to me and said “can we work together to get the word out about climate change?” From there I started drafting songs and reading up to try to really capture the current state of the science, the IPCC AR5 Report, and make sure I had good advisors to help focus on the right messaging. In the end it was Gavin Schmidt, Michael Mann, and Naomi Oreskes who provided the main guidance to get it right.

I think one of the most challenging issues we face is the disconnect between science and the rhetoric of very powerful politicians. I honestly cannot believe that smart people who deny climate change actually believe in what they are saying. How do you think we can deal with this crazy time when we have leaders saying there is no such thing as climate change when there is so much evidence for climate change all around us?

I regard climate denial as distinct from other kinds of science denial in many ways. Unlike creationism, there are a lot of otherwise secular, pro-science people who remain skeptical about climate change. The common thread is libertarianism and skepticism of big government. Unfortunately for libertarians, the atmosphere is not amenable to partitioning and privatization, so the only solutions that work to scale are at the institutional rather than individual level, regulations and carbon pricing schemes, which are essentially arms control agreements whereby the freedom to pollute the atmosphere is either taxed or restricted by law. If your goal is to shrink government, climate change looks like a suspiciously government-centric problem, hence libertarians reject the scientific evidence necessitating a coordinated response. It’s a striking example of motivated reasoning by otherwise very intelligent people, but it’s the only way to explain the overwhelming overlap between libertarianism (which cuts across the usual left/right political divide) and disregard for the scientific evidence.

You participated in a number of important climate change conferences. How have they impacted you?

Baba Brinkmann performing the Rap Guide to Climate Chaos.
Courtesy of the artist.
The main impact has been to impress me with the level of insight and clarity and energy that the research community brings to this challenge. I’ve never been to a climate skeptic conference but from the film and tv coverage I’ve seen they look like intellectually impoverished affairs compared to AGU or COP.

It’s easy to get discouraged by the constant “debates” around climate, but the academic conferences reinforce both the overwhelming degree of consensus among real scientists and the impatience they have with all the fake controversy.

Many creative forms, such as short stories or dramatic plays, have distinct structures. How do you develop a structure for your rap performances?

It’s pretty similar to the arc needed for a documentary film or a popular science article, you need to jump back and forth between presenting information and contextualizing that information with human-level stories about why it matters and how lives are being or could be changed. There’s also the challenge of building complex ideas out of simple ones, and choosing the right tone for each idea or scene, i.e. between evoking fear vs hope, indignation vs resignation, enthusiasm vs revulsion, etc.

Many of us in the climate change field try to live their lives in greener ways. My personal focus is on trying to be as climate neutral as possible in my transportation. I am not as good as I could be in my personal life on issues like food. In what ways do you try to live a greener life?

One of the main themes of my show is about how individual consumer-level responses to climate change are grossly insufficient at best, and a distraction from large scale institutional-level change at worst, so the short answer is: I don’t.   Or rather, I’m as green as I can be without putting unreasonable burdens on my time and finances, but in most cases living a greener life entails both, and it shouldn’t. Hence the need for a price on carbon pollution.

In one of my songs I describe voluntary offsets like this: “There are hundreds of gigatons that you would have to offset / You might as well donate your piggybank to the national debt.”

That said, over the course of writing and performing the show I did change my views on the value of consumer-level environmentalism, but it was because of new information rather than a crisis of conscience. It turns out the best predictor of whether someone gets solar panels on their house is whether their neighbors recently got them.

So there’s a knock-on effect among humans as social primates that goes further than our individual impacts, and as a consequence I now get most of my domestic power from the solar panels on my roof. Their impact on the planet may be negligible, but if they contribute to the social virality of green living, that’s an important contribution.

Not only do we both have the same last name, we also both grew up in the woods.  How do you think this upbringing impacted your environmental outlook?

It was never hard for me to answer the “why should I care” question that often dogs conservationism, because of how much time I’ve spent in natural settings and how much those experiences have shaped who I am.

You have created a number of other rap pieces (Rap Guide to Consciousness, Rap Guide to Religion, Rap Guide to Medicine, Rap Guide to Business, Rap Guide to Evolution, and others). Which piece do you think has made the greatest contribution?

I would say my projects on religion and evolution were the best received, probably because there are more and more people losing their religion in the modern world and those are the projects I made specifically about finding meaning within the scope of evidence-based beliefs. For instance, here’s a lovely recent comment from someone who’s 10 year old daughter listens to those songs.

Your current piece, the Rap Guide to Consciousness just dropped. What prompted you to take on consciousness as a theme?

Baba Brinkmann's new show is Off Broadway
at the Soho Theater. It opens on March 1st.
Sam Harris has argued, I think persuasively, that nothing is more important than consciousness because it’s the locus of all joy and suffering and anything we can say about morality or meaning or why something “matters” will always come back to the effect it has on the consciousness of a person or sentient being.

So the scientific study of consciousness has a lot riding on it, free will, the “soul”, artificial intelligence, animal rights, and the conscious experiences we are capable of achieving, among other things. What could be more intimate and relatable? And what could be more challenging and complex? How could I resist?

Is there anything else you would like to say?


If any of your readers are in NYC in March or April, I’ll be performing Rap Guide to Consciousness off-Broadway. Come see it!

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