Evolution, Ethology, and Eminem: An Interview with Rapper Baba Brinkman

Working in mid-level management at a science museum has its perks.  Last October, I got to attend the ASTC (Association of Science Technology Centers) Conference.  There, I witnessed two performances by Baba Brinkman, a hip-hop artist who raps about science, literature, and other unconventionally intellectual topics.  I thought his act would be cheesy. I ended up loving it.

Baba knows his science.  His Rap Guide to Evolution spits enough facts to make even the staunchest Creationist think.  The Rap Canterbury Tales and Lit-Hop reflect an equally complex passion for reading- his first love.  Baba's latest album is The Infomatic EP, and he just wrapped up an Off-Broadway show, Ingenious Nature. 

If you love science, books, or just hearing from a guy that appreciates women for their brains (mostly), Baba Brinkman's work is for you.  Read on for a full interview, and be sure to click the links within; I often reference anecdotes from Baba's own blog.

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Baba Brinkman
Geek Girl Chicago: "I'll start with an easy one.  Where does the name 'Baba' come from?  I heard you mention you've had it since you were a baby!"
Baba Brinkman:  "In India, the term 'Baba' is an honorific title for monks, teachers, and holy men.  Apparently, as a baby I looked like a little Buddha (which all babies do), but I guess for my dad the effect was overwhelming.  Also, I was born not crying, just looking peacefully around the room, so my dad naturally assumed I was the reincarnation of an enlightened being from a previous era. You know, typical corny nick-name story."

 

GGC: "You rapped about literature before science became your forte.  Have you been passionate about the sciences your whole life, or was all of this ignited by the challenge from Dr. Mark Pallen?"
BB: "I was intensely curious about science, and if there was an Evolution vs. Creationism debate, I always knew which side I was on.  I hadn't looked closely at all of the arguments or really confronted the potency of critical thinking and the scientific method.  Mark's challenge ignited some dim spark within me, which continued to burn with mounting zeal- some would even say zealotry."

 

GGC:"As a follow up, what is your favorite branch of science?"
BB: "Ethology."

 

GGC: "What other geeky things do you love?  Are you a fan of sci-fi?  Fantasy?  Gaming?"
BB: "I avoid gaming like the plague, but that's because I'm a recovering addict.  In my early teenaged years, I would play video games all through the night for hours, sneaking away into dark corners to get my fix.  This was cured around the time girls started giving me the time of day, along with the advice that pasty video game addicts are not their first choice to make out with.  I understand gaming culture may have changed somewhat in the past sixteen years, but I dare not risk a relapse.
Baba lookin' professional
I also try to avoid reading fiction like the plague, especially fantasy and sci-fi.  Mostly this is just because there is so much to learn about the real world that I feel like I'm wasting time when I read novels.  But I'm known to slip.  In March 2012, I picked up Game of Thrones on a whim and read a few pages, having enjoyed the HBO series very much.  One month later, my skin hadn't felt a photon's touch, but I had finished all five novels...

 

GGC: "You've performed for Jack Horner and Stephen Hawking.  Who are your idols in the science world?  How about beyond the scientific community?"
 BB:  "Steven Pinker's books have been a big influence on me, especially his most recent two.  Also, I am generally in awe of the intellectual courage of Sam Harris, who revels in saying things that are probably true but no one else dares to say...  I respect that.  I'm also a huge fan of the comedian Tim Minchin, whose work probably approaches my entertainment ideal.  If I can achieve with rap what he achieves with comedy songs, I will be creatively fulfilled."

 

GGC: "My boss's boss immediately compared you to Eminem.  It seems you get that a lot.  Do you think this stems simply from you being a white hip-hop artist, or something more?  How do the comparisons make you feel?" 
 BB: "Eminem has definitely influenced my lyrical technique quite a lot, so it's a fair comparison, and also one I make fun of because it comes up so much.  I think the comparison is easier to make because we're both white, which will make people overlook similarities between my flow and African American or Latino rappers who influenced me, but I think that phenomenon is psychologically interesting as well.  It doesn't bother me, especially because Eminem's style has evolved over the years and it's the Eminem of a decade ago that had the most influence on my flow, not the Eminem of today."

Baba performing

GGC: "I was completely enamored with the tale of Union County HS, TN, on your website.   Have you considered altering your material for children, or would you prefer finding an audience that accepts your work in its current form?"
 BB: "I try to adapt to the audience at hand for any given show, but I don't adapt completely into their comfort zone.  Rather, my goal is to be just provocative enough but not too much that they react with total indignation and get nothing from it... In retrospect, I definitely should have cleaned it up more for that show and not flipped the bird at them.  It would have been edgy enough to just be in rural Tennessee shouting, 'Creationism is dead wrong!' on stage."

 

GGC:"I also really loved reading about your Creationist cousins.  Do you think the world will ever come to consensus about hot topics like evolution or climate change?  In your opinion, what would it take?"
BB: "I think the world will come to a consensus that evolution is true, but it might take a few more generations. Copernicus isn't controversial any more, and Darwin won't be either, with time. For the moment he needs defenders, though, and I find that a pretty entertaining task.

As for climate change, I think that consensus is a lot closer... It's really just right wing conspiracy crackpots who flatly deny climate change at this point, but unfortunately their voices have been loud enough to convince a lot of otherwise intelligent and impartial people that there's some kind of scientific controversy about it.  Each hurricane Sandy will nudge people closer to taking the idea seriously, and 'political will' follows closely behind."

 

GGC: "While there are a ton of references to women and sex in your work, you also make it clear that you're into intellect.  What would you like to say to the geek girls reading this blog?"
BB: "From what I've read, there's strong evidence to support a psychological sex difference in preferences for intelligence when it comes to short-term vs. long-term mating interest.  Tragically for geek girls, you are unlikely to attract a guy for a one-night stand on the strength of brains alone, whereas a geek guy who talks a good game will have better odds of getting laid on the strength of just his brains, regardless of how he looks.  This is one of those terribly unfair asymmetries we seem to have inherited biologically, kind of like the fact that all you geek girls will probably live a decade longer than this geek guy, on average.

On the other hand, the good news is that intelligence is a very high priority for men when it comes to long-term relationships and commitment.  I can attest to this personally, and it means that your brains are far from worthless as ornaments of sexual selection.  Whether short-term or long-term mating is the result, I'll take good conversation over dull conversation every time, all other things being equal.  Unfortunately, all other things are virtually never equal for shallow, fertility-obsessed primates such as ourselves.

For those of you protesting, "Say it ain't so!", take a moment to gaze upon and contemplate the graph below, produced by Doug Kenrick's psychology lab, measuring the degree to which men and women prioritize intelligence at different levels of commitment. The graph is adapted from its original published form in Kenrick et al, 1993.

Intelligence and Mating Graph - Kenrick, et al, 1993.

((NOTE:  Baba's Off-Broadway show, Ingenious Nature, featured an entire scene exploring this graph.  In it, a first date turns into a TED Talk-style presentation.  Baba does his best to convince a woman that he's in it for more than just one night.   If you'd like a transcript of this scene, e-mail geekgirlchicago(at)gmail(dot)com.))

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For those GGC readers into trivia, Baba's favorite dinosaur is the Diplodocus, he was Donald Trump for Halloween, and loves the song "If You Want Me to Stay" by Sly and the Family Stone.  What a guy!
Infomatic Cover
To purchase The Infomatic EP, a "new rap album about allo-parenting, prosimians, oxytocin homologues, cladistics, population modelling, climate change, pseudo-science accommodationism, the homophobic paradox, and the applicability of Game of Thrones and Breaking Bad references to science rap," name your own price HERE.  :)  I highly recommend the song Mad Scientist (Talkin' Nerdy); I've heard it live and recorded, and enjoyed both- a rare feat!  Also, Mr. Simmonds, Baba's DJ, is extraordinarily talented.

My sincere thanks to Baba Brinkman for both performances ASTC weekend, and for this interview.  I'll let GGC readers know if and when he's in Chicago.

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