The Canadian rapper and Woody Harrelson lookalike is keeping it fresh, peer-reviewed style
A performer famous for his internal rhymes, violent wordplay and obsession with the high life was the top act in town for years, until a newcomer came up and tossed him from the public eye with a barrage of mocking verses. But instead of giving it all up, the OG finds a rejuvenated determination to crawl his way back and overcome his usurper.
It could be a synopsis of the Nas/Jay-Z beef. But it could equally be the story of Deor, the 10th century scop who spat epic songs at court about war, love, and hard choices.
Baba Brinkman has a couple of degrees in Comparative Lit. under his belt, which makes his status as a rapper something of a novelty. Even today, it’s relatively rare to find academics who regard rap as anything other than disposable pop music at best; as Postcolonialist Studies 101 at worst [sic].
So when Baba opens up a set with “yo yo yo check it” and then flows into an rapped analysis of the current state of evolutionary psychology, or an urban appropriation of The Pardoner’s Story from the Canterbury Tales, there’s an obvious dissonance in the air. “For me”, he argues, with an earnestness that matches his stage persona, “for me keep it real means keep it cerebral”.
Phat beats, phat bombs and phatter caesuras
Baba started rapping while a student, but for the past 6 years has been delving into hard science topics and bringing them to life in front of audiences that range from teen hip-hop addicts to silver-haired academics. His performances are part concert, part TEDTalk (of which he’s done several). To ensure accuracy, his lyrics are vetted by a “peer review team” of experts in the field. With shows including Rap Guide to Religion, Evolution and Business, he’s “working [his] way through academia faculty by faculty”.
But at the heart of a Baba Brinkman show is a deft lyricism. When I ask him about the divide between ‘serious’ poetry and rap, he declares them “superficially dissimilar”. He likens rap’s 16 bar structure to the sonnet, and brings up the Scottish ritual of flyting: poetic insult-fighting that draws a lineage from the scop tradition of Beowulf and Deor to the rap battles of 8 Mile. The Canterbury Tales, he says, is “meant to be a story that you hear” – putting it in rap form is just bringing it back to its dynamic oral essence, where scatology and innuendo can co-exist with philosophy.
With a couple of Fringe seasons and off-Broadway runs under his belt, and a host of awards and 5-star reviews (including from this publication), Baba’s obviously doing something right. He sees himself as a “bridge-builder…bringing big ideas to a popular audience”, and the enthusiasm from his audience suggests that there’s a hunger for the vitality of rap with more erudite concerns than money, cash, hoes. Then again, given the foot-tapping I witnessed among the more mature sections of the crowd at his shows, it could simply be that we all prefer our lecture halls cut with the occasional breakbeat.
Real talk about cognitive science
One of the developments along these lines that Baba unveiled at the Fringe in 2014 was a show with his wife, neuroscientist Dr. Heather Berlin. Their show Off The Top mixed hard cognitive science with freestyle rap, in an exploration of the how and why behind improvisation.
When I asked Baba about freestyling, he was effulgent on the subject. Contemporary poetry is “diluted”, he suggests, with free verse a prime culprit. He prefers to work in the constraints of the Homeric oral tradition, shuffling refrains and epithets around like building blocks; “just with added technical constraints”. His preferred critics are the crowdsourced scansionistas and “street scholars” of Rap Genius, people who can appreciate both praxis and poetry but wouldn’t ordinarily be exposed to lines about neuroscience.
Fair enough. But I suspect that even the keenest Andrew Motion fanboy will struggle to stop themselves clapping along to the irrepressible Baba Brinkman.
Baba Brinkman’s Animated Rap Guide To Religion is on Kickstarter now
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