Friday, July 01, 2011

This Sounds Interesting . . .

Baba Brinkman
Photograph by Eric Siegel
(Image from New York Times)

My homeschooling of my 14-year-old daughter now includes reading aloud some newspaper article together every day. Yesterday, we read the article accompanying that photo above of the man with the odd name "Baba" -- or if not 'odd', at least unexpected with the surname "Brinkman" -- and the perhaps even odder title, "Survival of the nerdiest."

Well, that was the title in the International Herald Tribune, our hard copy of the international version of the New York Times. The online NYT original is titled "Paying Homage to Darwin in an Unconventional Format: Rap" (June 27, 2011), and it's written by Dennis Overbye. I rather prefer the IHT title.

The article starts off with a rap that my daughter -- trying to catch the beat -- rattled off out loud:
Don't sleep with mean people, that's the anthem
Please! Think about your granddaughters and grandsons
Don't sleep with mean people, pretty or handsome
Mean people hold the gene pool for ransom.
I looked at her and wondered if we should be reading the article, so I asked, "Sa-Rah, do you understand that?"

I was somewhat relieved to hear that she thought that it meant actual sleeping and that mean people would take all the covers or kick you out of bed or whatnot. But in the interests of intellectual integrity, I explained that the lines were about reproductive strategies and were exhorting us not to reproduce mean people.

According to Overbye, these lines come from The Rap Guide to Evolution, a theater-length rap piece "written and performed by Mr. Brinkman":
The show, which just opened for a summer-long run at the SoHo Playhouse in Manhattan, is an hour-and-a-half lecture on Darwin and natural selection disguised as a rant on the history of rap, gangs and murder in Chicago, relations between the sexes and his own stubborn creationist cousins.
Hmmm . . . this sounds interesting. A gangsta rapper rapping on evolution? Maybe not exactly that:
Mr. Brinkman is no gangsta. By the usual cultural signifiers, Mr. Brinkman does not fit the rapper stereotype at all. A tall blond Canadian of Dutch ancestry, he was born in 1978 in a log cabin built by his hippie parents and their friends in the West Kootenays, a mountain range in British Columbia. His father runs a company replanting trees after logging operations -- more than a billion replanted so far. His mother is a member of Canada's Parliament.
Nineteen-hundred and seventy-eight! Isn't that just a tiny bit late, for some postmodern's birth to rate a Lincoln kind of destiny date?

Sorry, but rap is contagious . . .

Anyway, Mr. Brinkman grew up listening to rap and wanting to be Eminem, but he had more going for him than just that:
He was also a literature nerd as a child and wound up getting a master's degree in medieval literature from the University of Victoria. Along the way he began writing a rap version of Geoffrey Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. "Chaucer needed to be better presented," he explained.

Mr. Brinkman took "The Rap Canterbury Tales" to the Edinburgh festival, where it sold out in 2004, which led to "a whole lot of gigs" and a book, he said.

Along the way his work came to the attention of Mark Pallen, a biologist at the University of Birmingham and author of "The Rough Guide to Evolution," who had just done a reggae treatment of Darwin for a Jamaican colleague, and had also been using evolutionary methods to study Chaucer manuscripts. He invited Mr. Brinkman to Birmingham and, as he puts it, "we quickly slipped into an evolutionary groove."

Dr. Pallen asked Mr. Brinkman if he could do for Darwin what he had done for Chaucer.

"Probably," Mr. Brinkman answered. The only hitch was that it had to be done in five months, in time for the 200th anniversary of Darwin's birth, on Feb. 12, 2009, which was the occasion for a worldwide celebration of Darwin and evolution science.

Mr. Brinkman bought an audio version of "On the Origin of Species" and listened to it. Then he transferred it to an iPod Shuffle and listened to it again, with the chapters played in random order. "New connections emerged," he said.

The result was what Dr. Pallen called "the first peer-reviewed rap."
Inspiring. Makes me want to get up on my hind legs and rap something, too. I wonder how St. Paul's epistles would sound as rap . . .

At any rate, the man's a success:
Mr. Brinkman performed the show at various venues around Britain for Darwin's February birthday bash and then later on at Edinburgh and one sold-out week in New York in 2009. At one point, he said, he did 53 shows in three and a half weeks.
And if you want to hear him rap and explain rap's cultural and even biological signifiers, you can watch this twenty-minute TED lecture by Brinkman. Or if you're more literary than scientific, here's the 'brink man' rapping Chaucer's story in the pardoner's words. He plans his next "geek rap" to be about climate change.

For more on Brinkman, visit his website.

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At 6:19 AM, Blogger ilTassista Marino said...

Don't sleep with mean people, that's the anthem

Jack the Rapper.


(meanwhile, the word verification is WORTH...)

At 6:30 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"I was somewhat relieved to hear that she thought that it meant actual sleeping and that mean people would take all the covers or kick you out of bed or whatnot."

Contrast the innocence of your teenaged daughter with the carnal knowledge of two second graders in my school, who were overheard discussing pole dancing strippers.

"But in the interests of intellectual integrity, I explained that the lines were about reproductive strategies and were exhorting us not to reproduce mean people."

And did she understand the formal expression "reproductive strategies" versus the colloquial language used in the rap?

On a visit to my cousin's dairy farm a few years ago, her nine-year-old daughter held up a giant syringe and confidently explained how to inseminate a cow. Didn't think to ask her if she thought people made babies the same way.


At 7:47 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Did the Ripper also have a reproductive strategy?

Jeffery Hodges

* * *

At 7:52 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Sonagi, she understood.

Sa-Rah knows the facts of life. For one thing, she learned them in Korean school back when she was still attending.

And we don't try to keep her ignorant. But we do attempt to teach her about the dangers, and we don't allow crude words. I was therefore concerned about where the article was headed.

I guess she just happened not to know the euphemism.

Jeffery Hodges

* * *

At 2:35 PM, Blogger ilTassista Marino said...

Did the Ripper also have a reproductive strategy?

His "breed" is widespread...

At 4:10 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Yes, I'd read about that technique of his . . .

Jeffery Hodges

* * *

At 11:13 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I was wondering whether she understood the formal terminology, not whether she had a basic understanding of human reproduction, but thanks for the clarification.


At 6:00 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

No, she didn't at first, but when I explained, she grasped quickly.

Jeffery Hodges

* * *

At 7:13 AM, Blogger Al-Ozarka said...


At 8:09 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Yeah, to think that rap music might save the educational system!

The Chaucer rap is actually quite good . . .

Jeffery Hodges

* * *


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