Meet Baba Brinkman, a Science Educator with a Beat
A Canadian rapper shows audiences the rhythm and rhyme of climate change
It’s an unexpected marriage, to say the least. But now that hip hop rap and the topic of climate change have formed a perfect union, you’re wondering why this pairing has taken so long to happen. The officiant: Canadian rapper Baba Brinkman. The album: The Rap Guide to Climate Chaos.
Released on September 30, Brinkman’s album deftly explores the science, politics, and psychology of this century’s toughest challenge, with 24 tracks that range from witty to contemplative. In “Laudato Si,” for example, Brinkman channels Pope Francis to grapple with the perils of our unchecked consumerism.
This earth is our home; there’s nowhere else to go / We're worshipping a false god: unlimited growth. . . . As a Christian I can say that today’s “market fundamentalism” / Is worse than any fundamentalism found in religion.
In “Exxon Knew,” he summarizes in 83 seconds the groundbreaking investigative report by Inside Climate News of Exxon’s climate science obfuscation.
They funded skeptics, but Exxon knew / What they told the public was just not true / Internal memos going back to the seventies / Show they studied the question scientifically.
All of his lyrics are reviewed for accuracy by leading climate scientists, including NASA climatologist Gavin Schmidt and Harvard science historian Naomi Oreskes.
Brinkman has already performed many of the album’s songs around the world. Not only has he taken the stage at small-scale performance halls and music festivals, but also his lyrics have earned him an invitation to last December’s Paris Climate Change Conference, where he entertained the world’s most important leaders during their momentous negotiations. “My job there was actually to sit in on several of the meetings and then write a rap on the fly about what the negotiation of the Paris agreement text was in that meeting,” Brinkman recalls. “I guess my job was kind of like court jester because I had to make fun of the power struggle of politics and leave the ministers, whose job it was to accomplish the negotiations—leave them with a sense of levity, lightness, and fun at the end of an, often, very grueling process.”
While growing up, Brinkman would never have anticipated his current career, but his upbringing influenced his journey to eco-conscious rapper. In the 1970s, his father founded a tree-planting venture, so Brinkman split his formative years between Vancouver, where he attended school, and the remote Canadian wilderness, where he spent his summers living in 40-person bush camps while reforesting landscapes. “It was kind of like a mix of entrepreneurialism and hippie commune,” Brinkman says.
His experience planting trees in the bush camps gave Brinkman an appreciation for the environment. It also taught him the importance of self-responsibility (“you reap what you sow”), communal interdependence (“we take care of each other and nobody gets a free ride”), and healthy competition (“if the person next to you is going faster, then you hustle to keep up”). “A lot of these values blended in this album,” Brinkman notes. For example, the balance of competition and cooperation he learned while growing up inform the balance of pro-market solutions and public-private collaboration that Brinkman sees as necessary for tackling climate change and which infuse his lyrics.
In retrospect, his inauguration to rap doesn’t surprise him. “The weird thing for me when I look back now isn’t why did I start rapping, it’s why didn’t I start rapping sooner?” As a teenager, he dreamed of becoming a poet, inspired by Shakespeare, William Blake, and John Donne. With the money he earned during his summers, he financed a bachelor’s in comparative literature and a master’s in medieval literature. It was while he was writing his undergraduate honors thesis that it dawned on him to “look at rap as an inheritor of the traditions of Chaucer and Shakespeare and Homer and Beowulf, and look at the way they used rhyme and rhythm and storytelling techniques” to enrich his own verses.
After completing his thesis on the similarities between rap and literary poetry, he went on to produce his first academic album, a tribute to Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales. For several years, Brinkman made a living performing his rap rendition, and as his recognition grew, he realized that he had “a winning formula that could be applied to any subject.” So, when a British biologist contacted him one day asking him to apply his verse to Darwin, Brinkman was ready to launch a full-fledged pursuit of rap as a science communication platform.
Brinkman says his humanities training brings an important angle to his climate change coverage. “The physical basis of climate change is fairly easy to understand—that only takes up a couple of songs on the album. Then it’s like, what about the social science side, what about the psychology, the sociology, the economics? That’s where the really interesting challenge lies because it’s about patterns of energy use and subsequent lifestyle opportunities and challenges, what people are and aren’t willing to give up, what paths they’re willing to take to lead to what outcomes.” All these reflections are jam-packed into his hits, laced with the “irony, satire, personas, and literary devices” of his medieval poet predecessors.
With Climate Chaos’s release, Brinkman is already looking forward to his next album. “I’m narrowing down the topics, but I haven’t decided yet,” he says. His short list? Neuroscience and consciousness, artificial intelligence and the singularity, war and peace, Black Lives Matter and race.
Although Brinkman enjoys proffering lyrical “brain candy” to intellectually inclined audiences, he harbors deeper aspirations over the long-term. He admits his rap performances aren’t necessarily suited for mainstream radio but sees them possibly evolving into a web series with “a mix of music videos and sketches and investigative journalism pieces.” A Rap Guide to the Universe, if you will. “I’d love to work with some visual designers and directors to see if we can make a viral version or popular consumption version that actually picks up the mantel of what Bill Nye was doing in the nineties. I think he was a real leader in making science cool and making people genuinely intrigued by the world of ideas. If I could do a hip hop version of that, that would be a pretty high calling.”