What do hip-hop, Chaucer and Darwin all have in common? For one, they can each be credited with the introduction of new words into our vocabulary (Chaucer was the first to use the words "party," "syllable," "theater," and several thousand others).
They also are the inspiration for the theatrical hip-hop performances of Baba Brinkman, whose one-man show, "The Rap Guide to Evolution," will be at the ‘62 Center in Williamstown on Friday, Feb. 8 and Saturday, Feb. 9.
"The Rap Guide to Evolution" both elucidates and embodies the principles of evolution, using hip-hop as a kind oflive culture.
The project is a collaboration between Brinkman and producer Jay Simmons, and grew out of Brinkman’s earlier project, "The Rap Canterbury Tales" which began touring in 2005. "Before I was the science-theater-rap guy, I was the medieval-literature-theater-rap guy," Brinkman said.
In 2009, Dr. Mark Pallen, a biologist at The University of Birmingham in the United Kingdom, who was organizing a "Darwin Day" symposium of lectures and who had seen "The Rap Canterbury Tales" in 2006, asked Brinkman if he "could do for Darwin what he had done for Chaucer."
With funding from the British Council, Pallen paid for Brinkman’s plane ticket from Canada, and helped organize the show’s first European tour.
"I was already very interested in Darwin and evolution and sort of knew which side of that debate I was on," Brinkman said, "but I can’t say I really knew a heck of a lot about the field or exactly how natural selection works. I’d never heard about evolutionary psychology, for instance."
Since the project’s 2009 debut at the University of Birmingham, and later performances that year at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, where it won a Fringe First Award for Best New Writing, "The Rap Guide" has continued to develop, in a process of feedback and revision that itself reflects the process of evolution.
It has toured in the U.S., Australia and the U.K., and recently completed an extended Off-Broadway run at SoHo Playhouse, along with "Ingenious Nature," the show’s sequel, which looks specifically at human nature.
Throughout the research phase of the project, Brinkman consulted with Pallen so that the final product would be both entertaining and accurate. It has been billed as the first peer-reviewed hip-hop performance in the world.
Brinkman not only presents evolutionary ideas in a unique way, but also relates them directly to the art of hip-hop and the cultural phenomena surrounding rappers and their fans.
"The two inroads that I found," Brinkman said, "were cultural evolution Š or that way that ideas and words and phrases and song lyrics and stuff like that get stuck in our heads and spread differentially - some of them more effectively than others - and that creates a sort of Darwinian competition for people’s attention."
"The other one is evolutionary psychology, or looking at the ways in which human behavior today can seem to reflect the adaptive pressures of an evolutionary [inluence] of our past. And between those approaches, I sort of created a series of characters and stories and monologues that came together to do this show."
But the connections Brinkman drew between evolutionary theory and hip-hop began with Chaucer.
"The Canterbury Tales" were the subject of Brinkman’s master’s thesis, which argues that the fourteenth century work - presented as a collection of tales told by pilgrims journeying to Canterbury Cathedral - was a precursor both to evolutionism and to hip-hop.
The premise of the tales is that whoever tells the best story, based on listener response, gets a free meal on their way home.
Brinkman explained how Chaucer "creates a competitive framework by which survival of the fittest poem creates the graduated improvement in the poetry quality as the audience weeds out the wack poets or storytellers and rewards the talented ones.
"And I also argue that that’s exactly how hip-hop culture works and how [listeners] are constantly scrutinizing the quality of the performers and booing the wack ones off stage and cheering the talented ones - and because of the way people respond to positive versus negative feedback, the positive feedback Š creates escalating levels of talent in people and their confidence goes up and the negative feedback either has one of two effects: It either makes the rapper go home and quit because they can’t take the heckling, or it makes them go home and redouble their efforts and improve their skill level so that they can come back and get cheers next time.
"And either way the end result of that dynamic is that the quality of what’s onstage improves exponentially due to the audience response."
Unlike many fields and disciplines, where competition is implicit but often unspoken, Brinkman said, hip-hop is defined by its constant battle between styles, which often represent specific geographical areas.
"I’m using rap because it’s very overt," he said. "It’s explicit. Rappers are constantly bragging about how they beat the competition, how audiences prefer them, how wack rappers get booed off stage, how their rivals couldn’t cut it, etc. So the terminology of hip-hop is already explicitly Darwinian in a lot of cases."
Other artists have used hip-hop to bridge different fields and attract a wider, more diverse audience. Works by Shakespeare and Socrates have been adapted for hip-hop, and many rap artists have written songs that explore subjects like chemistry and math.
But Brinkman has taken the interdisciplinary aspect of hip-hop to a whole new level.
"I may have been the first to say, let’s go down this road further and see where we can take it, and turn it into a whole new approach to hip-hop where the actual core identity of the work is about using the art form to communicate ideas that are important and relevant but not usually associated with it."
While hip-hop offers a new way for audiences to encounter and contemplate the principles of evolution, evolution also offers audience members who may not have otherwise encountered hip-hop a new perspective that may change their assumptions about a controversial and often misunderstood art form.
"One of the things I try to do is get people to be more open to the theory of evolution," Brinkman said. "But I also love hearing from people of my parents’ generation - like baby boomers and that [group] - who usually don’t like rap, and they give the show a chance out of morbid curiosity, and then afterwards go, Wow, I never thought about it that way, and sort of look at it through new eyes."
So far Brinkman has only encountered a small handful of displeased audience members. On one occasion, at a high school in Tennessee, his performance was called "obscene" and his treatment of religion denounced as "Christianity bashing."
Although Brinkman sees his work as science advocacy, rather than Christianity bashing, he does assert in his performances that "creationism is dead wrong."
The show is not meant to attack religion, he said. "But it is meant to attack biblical young earth creationism because biblical young earth creationism is completely unreconcilable with the findings of science and the evidence."
With the rare exception, audiences have been open-minded and willing to engage both with the subjects of Brinkman’s performance and their mode of transmission - and not merely as an educational curiosity.
"The response has definitely been strong from college campuses and educational venues because the theme of the show has an educational side," Brinkman said. "But my goal was always to write something that would work for a public audience and that would be entertaining enough to hold its own off Broadway Š because if it’s not entertaining enough, then it’s not going to get the ideas across."