ED2019 Caro Meets ED2019 Comedy ED2019 Interviews

Baba Brinkman: Rap Guide To Culture

By | Published on Saturday 17 August 2019

We’ve been appreciatively following the work of Baba Brinkman since he first came to the Fringe. And we’ve been quite proactive in our appreciation of that work too: we gave him one of our Editors’ Awards way back in 2007.

We like to celebrate new stuff at the Fringe, but also the veterans, especially when they don’t rest on their laurels and instead keep coming back to Edinburgh with new shows that are always fresh, informative and challenging.

So I spoke to Brinkman to find out more about his newest show and all the other things he’s up to at the Fringe this year.

CM: For anyone new to your work, can you start by explaining what style of performance to expect from your ‘Rap Guide To Culture’?
BB: There’s a lot of science on offer, but the bottom line is it has to feel like a fun show with plenty of laughs and thrills. My favourite description of the style is: one part stand-up comedy, one part rap concert and one part TED Talk.

CM: And now, on to the content of it: ‘culture’ seems like a wide topic, what’s your definition of culture?
BB: The best definition I’ve come across is “socially-learned information stored in brains that can affect behaviour”. This might sound overly-technical, but it encompasses every language, art form, norm, rule, law, religion, belief, fashion, style, musical genre, etc, and unifies everyone around a shared evolutionary inheritance. Culture is a wide topic, but ‘Cultural Evolution Studies’ is also a thriving field of scientific research that cuts across psychology, anthropology, and evolutionary biology, which I’m excited to share in the show.

CM: What aspects of culture do you address in the show?
BB: I’m looking at particular examples of culture as emblematic of how the wider phenomenon of culture works, the uniquely human capacity to learn by mimicking and modifying previous designs. This is an evolutionary process, parallel to genetic evolution but with packets of information or ‘memes’ instead of genes that we pass from person to person.

The interesting questions are about innate biases that make us attend to some memes and ignore others, which affects how culture evolves, and of course the most important question is how we can use this knowledge to consciously change culture for the better and incentivise cooperation, ie via institutions, politics, and norms.

I’m also interested in today’s ‘culture wars’ and how some topics become flash points for disagreement. For instance, there’s a whole section on the relative influence of reproductive biology versus socialised gender norms and how the rules around marriage and sex are changing, not just in the past ten years but in the past ten thousand and ten million.

CM: Can you explain the ‘culture is biology’ thing you address in the show?
BB: Some aspects of culture are ‘evoked’ aspects of our evolved primate instincts. For instance psychologists have shown that we have an instinctual abhorrence of incest, in addition to it being shunned or prohibited in most cultures. Other aspects of culture are more open-ended, transmitted norms and styles that can vary relatively arbitrarily, like the specific words of a language or the custom of using forks vs chopsticks.

But the idea of framing it as “culture vs biology” is wrong, since even the transmitted versions of culture consist of socially-learned information, and that’s neurobiology. Part of the point is just to establish that culture is not some secret sauce or fairy dust that can’t be rigorously studied. Individual differences matter, but the patterns and commonalities are interesting too.

CM: What’s the aim of this show? What message do you want people to go away with?
BB: I want people to be inspired by how powerful culture is, and appreciate how much it can constrain and reshape our biological instincts. But I also want my audience to get a better grasp of what those instincts are, how strong they are, and how culture interacts with them, enhancing some and suppressing others. I want to help people confront their hopes and fears for the future of humanity, and see the path to positive change more clearly. The main take away is this: if you think all bad behaviour comes from socialisation rather than evolved instincts, then you might be terminally unsuccessful in changing that behaviour. As they say, wrong diagnosis, wrong cure.

CM: How has the run gone for you so far?
BB: I will be honest, people are clearly uncomfortable with lots of what I say in the show, but I’m confident I have the facts right and I think the message is important, so my job is to land some explosive truths with as much humour and grace as possible. Some days I get the tone wrong, but I feel like I’m finding the groove, and the audience response speaking to people after the show has been really amazing.

CM: Can you tell us a bit about your other Festival shows?
BB: My wife Heather is a cognitive neuroscientist and we have done three previous seasons collaborating on a Free Fringe comedy show. This year we have a brand new one called ‘Impulse Control’ about the subconscious origins of guilty pleasures, cravings and addictions, and how those impulses are also key to creativity, improvisation, and all kinds of things worth celebrating, it’s a blast to perform each day and I’m learning a ton just listening to her talk in the show.

I’m also doing rotating encores of three other ‘Rap Guide’ shows from previous Fringes, ‘Evolution’, ‘Religion’ and ‘Consciousness’, each of which has gone on to an off-Broadway run in New York and other touring. Is it a mental challenge to keep all five of these shows straight on a daily basis? Hell yes. But each show is a whole deep dive into a new topic and I’m really loving doing the encores, especially since it gives me a chance to rewrite them for 2019. Last night I performed ‘Rap Guide To Religion’ for the first time in three years and it brought the house down!

CM: For those who haven’t come across your work before, can you tell us a bit about your career history, and how you got into this?
BB: I graduated with a masters in comparative literature in 2003 from the University Of Victoria near where I grew up, and in 2004 I took a show called ‘The Rap Canterbury Tales’ – which was largely based on my thesis – to six fringe festivals around the world, including Edinburgh.

I was the medieval rap guy for several years, and then in 2008 an evolutionary biologist named Mark Pallen saw my show and challenged me to “do for Darwin what I did for Chaucer” and the result was a new show called ‘Rap Guide To Evolution’, which came to Edinburgh in 2009 and started me on a ten-year science rap chapter, culminating in this year’s Fringe.

I now perform about a hundred shows a year in New York – where I live – and on tour around the world, mostly exploring a series of science topics, from evolution to neuroscience to climate change. It’s been an awesome ride, and I pretty much owe the whole thing to having taken a chance on Edinburgh fifteen years ago.

CM: What aims and ambitions do you have for the future?
BB: Baba Brinkman’s ‘Rap Guide To Everything’ will be a TV series if I get my way. I just need to persuade a few gatekeepers first…

CM: You’re very much an Edinburgh veteran – can you tell us about your ‘highlights’ of performing at the Fringe over the years?
BB: I did a show on the Fringe in 2008 and 2009 with the UK rapper MC Dizraeli and producer/DJ Mr Simmonds called ‘The Rebel Cell’ that ended up touring huge venues around the UK – produced by SPL Productions, who also did ‘Into The Hoods’.

It was a great couple of years of experimenting and collaborating that cemented my love for hip-hop theatre, an amazing couple of years on the Fringe, and it happened just before the science rap thing took off for me, so I often think of it as a parallel path I would love to have explored further, ie ensemble shows with more traditional narratives and characters, but still hip-hop and storytelling.

CM: What do you love about being in the festival city?
BB: I love the pace of things here, the feeling like you can barely keep up and it’s all happening, and right around the next corner is a great connection or review or opportunity.

CM: Do you see other shows? What would you recommend?
BB: Doing three shows a day and being here with two young kids I haven’t seen any other full shows yet – hopefully during the final week I will! – but Heather and I have daily guests in our brain/rap show and I’ve loved their acts, especially Patrick Monahan, Tom Crosbie and Lucie Pohl.

CM: What advice would you have for newcomers?
BB: Priority one is to make your show as great as you can, and priority two is to get as many people in to see it as you can, and beyond that, have fun and don’t forget to drink lots of water.

CM: What’s coming up next for you after the festival?
BB: The Soho Playhouse in New York named me Artist In Residence for 2019, so I have already done almost fifty performances in New York off-Broadway this year, with three of my ‘Rap Guide’ shows in rotation -‘Evolution’, ‘Consciousness’, and ‘Climate Chaos’.

I had six weeks off this summer to develop ‘Culture’ and come to the Fringe, and then, starting 9 Sep, I’ll be performing the first-ever five-show hip-hop theatre cycle, with ‘Culture’ and ‘Religion’ added to the off-Broadway run. ‘Culture’ is the main show since it’s the newest, but I’ll be rotating all five throughout the fall.

I’ve never tried this scale of repertory production so I’m excited to see how it goes, and also excited to see whether I can keep it all straight! Tickets are already on sale.

Baba Brinkman performed his ‘Rap Guides To…’ ‘Culture’, ‘Evolution’, ‘Religion’ and ‘Consciousness’ at Gilded Balloon and ‘Impulse Control’ at PBH’s Free Fringe @ Revolution Bar at Edinburgh Festival 2019.