Thursday, March 10, 2016

Q&A with Rap Artist Baba Brinkman

Canadian rap artist Baba Brinkman creates one-man shows using rap and projections to educate and entertain about scientific or literary topics. His latest is The Rap Guide to Climate Chaos. He's been interested in the topic of global warming from a young age. It was dinner table conversation growing up, since his mother wrote a thesis on climate change. After debuting the show at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival last year, he performed it at the Paris Climate Conference. He just opened the show at SoHo Playhouse, where it's playing through April 24.
Baba Brinkman in The Rap Guide to Climate Chaos. Photo credit: Olivia Sebesky 
On the night I saw The Rap Guide to Climate Chaos, Bill Nye the Science Guy was a special guest for the Q&A portion, which leads into a freestyle rap performed by Brinkman. Each week there will be a performance with a special guest. The next will be Gavin Schmidt, NASA's chief climate scientist.

I spoke to Brinkman about the process of writing a rap guide, the effect Hamilton has had on audiences being more open to rap in theater, and more.

Q: What is your process like for writing one of these rap guides and how long does it typically take?
A: I was probably researching and reading for this one from March through June all last year. So it's probably three to four months of just reading climate change books and articles and blogs and everything I can get my hands on really. And then it took me about two months to write a draft for a script, so I wrote the script all through June and July and by the end of July I had a version I was performing, and then I probably scrapped about half of that. I'd say about 2/3 of the show that I'm doing Off-Broadway now was written since December, but it's based on the frame of something I wrote this summer, so that's usually how I do it. I'll do a version for an audience and treat that as a beta test and then go back to the drawing board on some of it and talk to people about what's clear and what's unclear. 

Also, the process includes this whole peer reviewed concept where I do actually send drafts of the script to scientists and get them to comment and send me back feedback, so then I can feel like I'm representing the scientific consensus view.

Q: What was the biggest surprise in your research for this show?
A: I think the scale of some of the dangers or tipping points I was pretty stunned by. It reinforced the whole we're playing with fire mentality. And also the Exxon knew revelation that Exxon was doing climate research in the '70s and their internal scientists are saying the results of this will be catastrophic for the planet and they turn around and fund climate denier groups and their public statement is that the science is uncertain. It's just a blatant lie and one of the worst examples of corporate malfeasance that I can think of, so I was pretty surprised. I talk to a lot of climate deniers and I give them the benefit of the doubt that they're actually sincere--that they really don't think that there's climate change. You can kind of forgive people that. People have their ideologies or their tribal views or they see the world through a lens and they focus on the data that satisfies what they're looking for. I start the show out with that. I get the crowd shouting along with me, "When I say confirmation, you say bias," just to keep that idea in mind that we're all doing that to a certain degree. But sometimes you get a really blatant example of something that is not just confirmation bias. It's cynical manipulation out of a profiteering motive. And when you look at it from the perspective, that's when it starts being permissible to get mad about it.

Q: Do you ever change your mind about something while writing one of these rap guides?
A: Yeah, I actually totally changed my mind about something. In the version of the show I was doing last summer, I came down pretty heavy that consumer action is not getting us anywhere. All this feel-good altruistic response is a total waste of time and all we need is a carbon tax and a legislative level policy shift. And the thing that I was surprised about in Paris, which I tried to convey in the show with more of a balanced multilevel perspective, is the degree to which other factors besides federal governments are playing a role in the response. Like the mayors of 1,000 cities signing up to commit their local economies to becoming 100% renewable by 2050 whatever the national policy ends up being. I was sort of surprised and inspired by that. Richard Branson was there in Paris and he was doing press conferences. He said, "I own three airlines. I speak for the business community. And we want carbon pricing. We demand it. We recognize the scale of the problem and we're going to move as business as quickly as we can towards decarbonization but clear regulatory frameworks are going to help us, so that's what we're calling for." But I didn't expect the business community to be there so forcefully on the side of the good. I went into the Paris conference thinking business is in the way of saving the world and my mind was changed there to some degree. 

Q: Do you worry about preaching to the choir? I think if you're going to see a show called Rap Guide to Climate Chaos, you're already concerned about global warming. How do you reach the skeptics?
A: I think the hard-core skeptics, the best you can do is quarantine them. I don't think you're really going to convert them. But you can innoculate other people against their views. I think there are a lot of people out there who care about climate change and there are a lot of people out there who know about it and know they're supposed to care, but don't really know why. I think that's the people outside the choir who I'm trying to connect with. People that are on the fence about whether they should care or if they do care, what they should do about it. I'm not so easy on the choir either, if the choir is the people who already believe in climate change and think it's a big deal, but what they're doing about it is riding their bike to work instead of driving a car to work, but not taking it seriously from a policy perspective or a legislative perspective. If they say they don't support a carbon tax, but recycle plastic bottles, then actually they're not the choir, they're totally deluded. I'm actually going after some of the green fallacies in the show as much as I'm going after the more skeptic views. Hopefully that means that everybody who comes hears something that challenges them or makes them rethinks their views.

Q: Obviously, you've been doing this for a long time, since before Hamilton, but do you think the popularity of that musical will make audiences more likely to check out other theater with rap in it?
A: We've only been open for a week, so it's hard to say how much that's going to cause a flood of audiences, but one of the reviewers who wrote about the show said, "I wouldn't have gone to this show if I hadn't like Hamilton so much." So, there's some evidence right there that it's going to open people's minds. I think there is a major effect because I did a hip hop theater show Off-Broadway in 2011 and when I told people what I was doing, I'd have to explain that it's like a play, but it's with rap, and that took some processing to wrap their head around what that would be like. But now you can just say it's like Hamilton but it's about climate change and then instantly people are like, "Rapping and theater, of course. Those goes together great." Hamilton has had the effect of making it intuitively obvious that it's a good idea to put theater and rap together whereas people before needed some convincing of that fact, which is I think a very good thing. Although Hamilton and my show are different in genre because that's a musical and I don't do much singing in my show.

Q: You've already tackled religion, global warming, and evolution. Do you have other topics that you want to explore?
A: I'm starting research and looking into a new show about artificial intelligence. I'm pretty interested in biotechnology and genetic engineering and what could happen with that as well. Still science related, but I do tend to gravitate towards controversial subjects. I think there's entertainment value in that because if you can get a feel for what kind of emotional reactions people have to it, whether it's excitement or revulsion or indignation or whatever, then you can navigate and negotiate those creatively and provoke reactions and then subvert those reactions. That's where a lot of my artistic craft is based, provoking outrage in ways that somehow are still funny.

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