WritingEssays, articles, and blogs about rap, literature, and science. Baba's first book of poetry "The Rap Canterbury Tales" was published by Talon Books in 2006.
PublicationsPublications The Rap Canterbury Tales (Talon Books 2006).
Illustrated facing-page paperback featuring Baba's rap lyrics and the original Middle English source, with illustrations by Erik Brinkman (Baba's brother).
ArticlesDarwin on the Mic - Published in the journal Evolution, April 2015
Hip Hop Music As Brain Food (pdf) - Published in The Informal Learning Review No. 121
The Speciation of Rap (pdf) - Published in The Evolutionary Review Volume 2
Finding God in the Female Orgasm (pdf) - Published in The Evolutionary Review Volume 3
Category Archives: Blog
Starting on December 27th 2018 the Soho Playhouse is launching a new off-Broadway encore series featuring three of my Rap Guide shows in rotation for an initial run of nine weeks. Check out the full calendar of events here:
I’ve done three different shows back-to-back in three days before, but not like this. The series will feature Rap Guide to Consciousness (Weds/Thurs), Climate Chaos (Sun/Mon), and Evolution (Fri/Sat) making its off-Broadway return for the first time since 2012. So now I’m in the process of rehearsing and revising the shows to get the content up to date, and of course promoting the run. Here’s the press release, and if you’re planning to be in NYC or if you have friends here, please come see a show and help spread the word!
In other news, my wife Heather recently appeared on Stories from the Stage on PBS, telling a charming story about how I accidentally put her in the hospital when we were in Sydney, Australia a few years ago. The moral is that facing your fears is a good thing, but not necessarily all at once. Speaking of which, I have roughly four hours of solo hip-hop theatre content to prepare so I’d better get back to it.
My latest music video features a rapping alien assessing the biological diversity on yet another planet, ours. Do we qualify as an “intelligent civilization”? And what evolutionary processes produced the odd technology-using apes that currently dominate this planet?
The song (downloadable from here) was commissioned by Cambridge University Press and inspired by the book The Ape that Understood the Universe by Steve Stewart-Williams. For more about how the song and video came together check out my latest Patreon post. And if you want to order the book directly from Cambridge, you can use the discount code “BABA20” for 20% off.
I believe in the scientific method…
The timing of this release might seem odd since it isn’t explicitly about the most important election in modern history, which is tomorrow. Americans have a chance to forcefully repudiate the most corrupt, dishonest and dangerous science-denier ever to hold their highest office, and the world is collectively holding its breath hoping for a blue tsunami course-correction. Is there any reason to hope for a single Republican to win a single seat, given their wholesale subservience to Trumpism? I can’t think of one. That said, my new video is about the longer battle between superstition and tribalism on one side, and reason and evidence-based thinking on the other.
The making of “Confessions of a Skeptic” was supported by Michael Shermer and the Skeptics Society, and also by the monthly contributions of my Patreon supporters, but conceptually you could say it was a project ten years in the making, since that’s roughly how long I’ve been a skeptic. I grew up in Vancouver, Canada as part of a “tribe” of my own, a left wing alternative subculture that rejects mainstream science on some topics (alternative medicine, GMOs, vaccines, spiritual energy, the mind as a “blank slate”) while embracing it on other topics (physiological evolution, climate change, wildlife conservation). As recently as 2008, when I was 29 years old, I was still turning to homeopathy and acupuncture for my ailments.
So what happened? That’s when I was commissioned to write my first science show: The Rap Guide to Evolution, and my research into precisely how and why we can say with confidence that “creationism is dead wrong” led me to also question the cherished beliefs of my own tribe. In short, I reviewed the evidence, considered the arguments with a renewed openness to opposing views, and became a skeptic, committed to changing my views whenever the facts contradict them.
For example, verse two of the new song is about one of the last barriers to fall: my tribalistic belief in spiritual energy or “chi energy”, the kind of energy that acupuncture supposedly stimulates, and Dr. Strange supposedly manipulates in the Marvel film. I had recently read the book Trick or Treatment by Simon Singh and Professor Edzard Ernst, and in late 2009 I was hanging out with Simon backstage at a comedy show and talking to him about why I grew up believing in chi. The argument he made in that conversation was simple and devastating: we can use scientific instruments to detect tiny atomic particles like neutrinos, which pass through us at the rate of hundreds of billions every second without affecting us at all, but no scientific instrument has ever detected chi. Hence, if you think chi really does something to our health or vitality, it has to be more powerful than neutrinos, in which case why can’t physicists directly detect it with an instrument? The logical conclusion is that chi doesn’t exist, but we believe in it because of cognitive errors like selective memory, confirmation bias, and mistaking correlation with causation (I did acupuncture, and then I got better!)
Charles Darwin famously said that telling people about his theory – ie telling them modern species change and evolve from earlier species – felt “like confessing a murder”. In a way, confessing to skepticism feels the same, because it inevitably means you are tipping over someone’s sacred cows, both to the political left and right. However, tipping acupuncture and homeopathy cows to the left merely annoys hippies who may be wasting their money on ineffective treatments. Tipping cows to the right, on the other hand, is urgently needed to save the world from the clutches of white nationalist demagogues. The President’s pseudoscientific rejection of climate change science, his smearing of fact-finding journalism, his disinterest in the public health benefits of guaranteed healthcare and stricter gun laws, and his reactionary tendency to side with sexual abusers, combine to make him a much more urgent target for cow-tipping and political action.
So to my US-citizen friends: push hard tomorrow. Cause earthquakes with the impact of Trumpism’s sacred cows falling to earth in the election results. And once tomorrow passes, I hope you’ll join the ranks of the scientific skeptics who tip cows in both directions, and sing along with us: “I confess it, I’m a skeptic. I believe in the scientific method. I believe in reason and evidence, and things bein’ tested.”
Whatever course you choose, I believe in you.
Senescence Has Arrived
With my 40th birthday coming up later this month, it’s high time for a rap music video about the evolutionary biology of aging. Why do our bodies degenerate as we age, giving us a natural life span? Some mammals only live for a few years, others like the bowhead whale live for more than 200 years, so aging is obviously malleable. So what shapes it? Do we grow old and die so we can make way for the next generation? (Hint: not even close). Evolution gives us some surprising answers though, and I’ve tried to summarized them in my new rap video, Senescence. Please share the links with friends if you enjoy it!
If you’re curious about what else I’ve been up to, check out my recent interview on the MC Lars Podcast, a long-form conversation on hip-hop, theatre, science, literature, and how I found my lane in the rap game as a young poetry nerd and tree planter in Canada beginning twenty years ago. I wrote my first rap song in 1998, released my first record in 2004, and have been mutating and evolving the craft ever since. Senescence may come for me eventually, but for now I’m staying ahead of it.
After fifty-five off-Broadway performances in New York since March 1st, I took a short break over the past few weeks for some family time, and also to attend the legendary Sci Foo Camp at Google in California. The organizers curated a group of 350 scientists and science innovators, and one science rapper, to discuss the present and future of human problem solving acuity. The highlights? Talking with geneticist George Church about the possibility of consciousness in the organoid brains his lab is growing in vitro (probably soon), and talking with Larry Page about whether Google’s AI systems will ever be conscious (he doesn’t think it’s a coherent question).
I also had a blast teaching my first-ever freestyle rap workshop to a group of scientists and computer programmers at Google. I wasn’t sure whether I could get total rap novices to perform in just a one hour session, but the enthusiasm and spirit of play took hold and the results were hilarious and impressive. Until you’ve seen a senior particle physicist going head to head in an 8-Mile style battle with a stem cell biologist over a G-Unit instrumental, both for their first time ever, you haven’t fully explored the limits of hip-hop’s potential.
And now Rap Guide to Consciousness continues off-Broadway for another five weeks of fun, starting tonight. The official press release with showtimes and review quotes is available online here, and even though most of you on this mailing list are not in the media, maybe you know someone with a blog or a news platform you could forward it to. Or if you’ve seen the show please add a review of your own to my listing on Show Score, the Rotten Tomatoes of NY Theatre.
In recent podcast news, Heather and I recently told the story of how we first met and fell in love on a wonderful science podcast called Story Collider, and Star Talk recently released an updated version of my guest appearance at BAMfrom a few months back, in which Brian Greene, Chuck Nice, and Neil deGrasse Tyson mix it up for half an hour on the origins of the universe and astrophysics, and then I’m given five minutes to summarize their discussion in a half-written, half-freestyle track about free will and the brain. My favourite line of the freestyle is: “I can’t stop, I’m stuck here tryin’ to bust raps / I could no more stop than Neil could shave off his moustache!” Should we think of free will as the freedom to make arbitrarily random swerves in our behaviour? Or the freedom to explore opportunities in accordance with our goals? Obviously I could quit rapping and Neil could change his signature look, but that doesn’t sound to me like the kind of freedom worth wanting.
Philosopher Daniel Dennett proposes a “hard question” of consciousness to replace the supposed “hard problem”, in an excellent essay entitled “Are We Explaining Consciousness Yet?” that sparked my original interest in the subject more than eight years ago. The hard question is: first some activity occurs in the brain, and then what happens? The idea is that it’s the aftermath of neural events that determines whether those events count as conscious or not, rather than the events themselves. But this principle applies to life as well. What are the important moments, achievements, and ideas in our lives? It all depends on the sequel events that follow them.
First you have an idea for an experiment, first you meet someone and feel an attraction, first you write a hip-hop theatre show about consciousness, and then what happens?
Deepak Chopra and Freestyle Battles… Oh My!
Broadway World just announced a one-month extension for Rap Guide to Consciousness at the Soho Playhouse, with off-Broadway shows added until May 31st. If you have a social media channel, please share the good news! And here’s the official press release for regular old unsocial media.
“You learn about science via Rap Guide to Consciousness the same effortless way you learn about history via Hamilton” – YesBroadway
In other surprising news, I have been entering freestyle competitions off and on since moving to New York in 2011, and on Monday night I finally won a trophy for rapping. Not science rapping, just rapping. Check out the post from Supreme Bars, announcing their April 2018 champion rapper and producer. I’m not sure how newsworthy this fact is, but the rappers in New York are formidable and I’ve been into freestyle for a long time, entered my first battle in 2002, and still love the thrill and sport of it, so indulge me a victory lap.
On a slightly different note, Deepak Chopra seems to like my latest song “Heaven’s Gate“, which samples his voice in the chorus. He tweeted it out to his followers and even agreed to join me at the show for a talkback and audience Q&A on May 13th, which will be interesting since our views on the nature of mind are clearly divergent. Still, if I can get both Dan Dennett and Deepak to rock out to the same show, the overall harmony of the world must be increasing.
“Rap Guide to Consciousnessis a delight for the intellectual, a delight for the rap junkie, a delight for stoners and for STEM fielders” – Theater Is Easy
Finally, tomorrow night’s show is going super meta. A research group called Lab of Misfits is studying the effects of live performance on the brain, and tomorrow they will have a whole row of audience members hooked up to EEG brain scanners during my performance, capturing the real-time activity of human brains experiencing brain science-themed rap. I’m not sure how long before we can release the results of the study, but I for one am fascinated to see what my show does to brains. Most nights I only get to see and hear the external behavioural effects, which is already reward enough to keep me going.
Consciousness in New York
Two weeks ago I performed my favourite gig since moving to NYC in 2011. The venue was BAM, a 2,200 seat concert hall in Brooklyn, and it was sold out for Neil deGrasse Tyson’s StarTalk Radio taping. On stage with me were Neil, physicist Brian Greene, and comedian Chuck Nice, as well as significant other Heather Berlin, and my song “Can’t Stop” about freestyle rap and the neuroscience and philosophy of free will received a standing ovation, and prompted some very funny banter on stage afterwards. I wasn’t there for the banter, because I had to run straight off stage to a waiting car to get to my off-Broadway show later that same night. But you can now listen to the whole thing on the just-released episode of Star Talk.
Audience responses to the show have been amazing over the past few weeks, and I’ve been getting friends to film crowd response clips outside the venue and editing them into 30-second highlight reels for social media. You can watch the first three of these trailers here, here, and here.
Actually, there’s one slight exception to my “audience responses have been amazing” hot take. A group of Donald J. Trump fans stormed out of the show in protest two weeks ago, after enduring one joke too many at the expense of their idol. They yelled, called me a fascist, and (unsuccessfully) demanded their money back. It was surreal, but I won’t go into detail in this missive. Here’s a facebook post and thread if you’re curious.
So far the show has been reviewed only twice by New York media, with DC Metro Theater Arts calling it “an ingenious look at the hard problem, filled with information and wit, and set to a sensational hip-hop score” and PXP Magazine calling it “the funniest, most impressive, dopest f**king science lesson you’re ever going to experience.” Reviews from both critics and audiences for New York theatre are aggregated by a site called Show Score, so if you have seen the show, please drop by and write a review!
Finally, I recorded a couple of new tracks for the off-Broadway version of the show, which I’ve decided to also add to the Rap Guide to Consciousness album as bonus tracks. You can listen to the first one, “N.E.R.D.”, which is now available as a free download, and features me singing a lullaby to the nerds we’ve lost, and the ones with whom we still have the rare privilege of interacting for a too-brief interlude.
Rest in peace, beautiful nerd.
Three performances into my off-Broadway run of Rap Guide to Consciousness and the crowds have been a blast, with over 100 people in the house last night for my Saturday night opening weekend show. Some kinks to work out on the tech and some script variations I’m still testing each night to get the timing and wording right, but definitely off to an exciting start, with awesome feedback so far. Also, here’s an excellent theatrical review from DC Metro Theater Arts.
Directed by Darren Lee Cole with a perfect balance of high physical energy and spot-on delivery, the eminently likeable Brinkman alternates his solo performance between segments of rap music and illustrated scientific lectures, incisive jokes and serious ruminations, personal reflections on his own life and direct engagement with the audience. He actively moves around the stage, employing familiar hip-hop moves for emphasis, inserting relatable pop-culture references for easy comprehension of the challenging subject matter, soliciting our opinions on still-unanswered questions of probability and theory, and amazing us with his extraordinary skills at rhyming, rhythm, and free-style rap to a pre-recorded beat.
Come see the show while it’s still running! Tickets available here.
I’m currently hard at work on the script, music, visuals, and stagecraft for Rap Guide to Consciousness, which opens at the Soho Playhouse on March 1st for a two month off-Broadway run!
If you’ve seen any of my previous science/rap performances you won’t want to miss this one, or if you’ve never seen one, this is the ideal first exposure. The show is all about your subjective experiences (and mine, and anyone else who’s ever been awake and aware of something), approached from the perspective of neuroscience and the evolution of brains. Many of the songs are also featured on the Rap Guide to Consciousness Album, which I released last fall.
Use the code “QUALIA” to get discount tickets, and feel free to reach out to me if you have ideas about who I should invite to the show!