Let’s go out on a limb and assume that Baba Brinkman is the first and only rapper to go on The Rachel Maddow Show and use the term “phenotypic plasticity”. Very broadly, the term refers to an organism’s ability to adapt to environment, in case you don’t have a background in either genetics or award-nominated educational hip-hop. After touring his Rap Guide to Evolution around the world for three years, with wildly successful runs in Edinburgh and New York, Brinkman has a little of both. Starting Tuesday (October 29), the Vancouver-born performer tests his own phenotypic plasticity in a new setting when he brings his show to the Cultch. Or maybe we’re the ones being tested.
“Hopefully I try to not just preach to the converted, but I get a reaction in places in the American South that is a very different kind of reaction than I get in places like England or Vancouver or New York, where most people are on board with evolution anyway,” Brinkman says, calling the Georgia Straight from his home in Long Island, New York. “But, you know, there’s being on board with evolution and there’s being on board with evolution.” Meaning, Brinkman explains, that there are still elements of the critically lauded show—“Smart, funny and seriously meta!” is how Time Out New York put it—which he expects might be a little “controversial” out here on the West Coast.
“A lot of people in Vancouver believe in karma,” offers Brinkman, whose youth here included a 10-year stint as a tree planter and getting dragged off to yoga retreats as a kid. “So I sort of take that psychology and use it to explore the evolutionary and scientific roots of altruism, which are really about group cohesiveness and reciprocity, and show how there’s a way to sort of scientifically redeem the concept of karma, and how you can actually say, ‘What goes around comes around.’ But the reason what goes around comes around is because of cheater detection and social norms and evolved deterrents to free-riding behaviour, and those are the subtle undercurrents or glue that create the impression of karma.”
With a chuckle, he adds: “I definitely channelled some of my Vancouver hippie friends when I was writing that section of the show. ‘Can’t we all just get along, man?’ Well, potentially, in certain environmental contexts with the right psychological adaptations.”
Sounds a little dry? Relax, there’s ample evidence on YouTube of Brinkman’s energy and humour, not to mention the “spell-binding charisma” noted by the New York Times. Indeed, while he name checks Kanye, Jay Z, and the Notorious B.I.G. for “swagger and flow and lyricism”, Brinkman reckons his enthusiasm for cerebral comics like Australia’s Tim Minchin should give us a better idea of what he’s striving for. “It’s artists that have found a way to mix levity with serious subjects that I really respect,” he says. “It’s funny that comedians come to mind more quickly, but Bill Hicks as well, and Chris Rock, people that can really take a heavy subject and make people laugh at it but also think about it at the same time.”
If there’s an ever-so-slightly zealous side to the project, meanwhile, let’s put that down to what Brinkman half-jokingly calls a “peer review” process for the show. The Rap Guide to Evolution originally came about when Mark Pallen, a professor of microbial genomics at the U.K.’s University of Warwick, challenged Brinkman to popularize Darwin after seeing the rapper tackle Chaucer with Rap Canterbury Tales. Brinkman submitted his first draft to Pallen but the show “is constantly being tweaked”. When evolutionary biologist Olivia Judson called him out in the New York Times over some misinformation about the mating habits of praying mantises, Brinkman adjusted accordingly. But he also got what amounts to a standing ovation from the scientific community at large when he shared a stage with Stephen Hawking at the Seattle Science Festival last summer. When he noticed the world’s foremost theoretical physicist watching from the wings, Brinkman mustered enough phenotypic plasticity to include Hawking in his freestyle portion of the show.
“I did this rhyme, where I’m, like, ‘He’s looking at me now, and it feels like a credit check, ’cause I bought his book years ago, and I haven’t read it yet,’” he recalls with a laugh, adding that he caught Hawking cracking a smile over the line. “If I had a bucket list that included making Stephen Hawking laugh,” he says, “I could check that off.”