Beats, cuts and climate change | Global Ideas | DW | 05.05.2015
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Global Ideas

Beats, cuts and climate change

Baba Brinkman is nature's entertaining and fast-paced voice. He says rap is the genre of choice to deliver the message about environmentalism because it has more words per minute than other music styles.

Rap has always been a music genre with a message. Traditionally, it has addressed social problems, tough lives in neighborhoods or conflicts among different groups of people. Rap has always been political. Canadian rap artist Baba Brinkman’s lyrics have a message too. But his focus is broader - he also deals with the well-being of our environment and nature. Global Ideas talked to the musician about the ideas behind lines like this: "I just feel like wilderness is dope // I’m tryin’ to get a dose // I feel better minutes later when I get exposed // I be readin’ National Geographic for centrefolds."

Global Ideas: Why did you choose rap and not (as many others) another music style, such as ethno or world music?

Baba Brinkman: The simple answer is that I am a rapper by profession. I chose rap long before I had any clear idea about what subjects I would address, just because I love the art form, the beat, the rhymes and the wordplay, and once I got good at rapping I found it was also a potent vehicle to speak out on social and environmental issues.

Where does your love for rap come from?

I was influenced by great storytelling rappers like Slick Rick, Eminem, Notorious BIG, Jay-Z, Nas, Common, and Atmosphere. I was also influenced by a lot of dead poets - Chaucer and Shakespeare and Coleridge and Byron, since I have an English literature background. And lately, I’ve taken more and more inspiration from comedians as well: Louise CK and Chris Rock, John Stewart and Tim Minchin. Comics are great at speaking truth to power.

Are certain music styles more suitable for spreading the message than others?

In a way, rap is potent because you can simply fit more words per minute in a rap song. The cadence is much faster. But rap also has a very authoritative voice by tradition. It’s not hesitant or conflicted, it’s confident and powerful, and that’s a sure way to make an impact with your message, whatever it happens to be.

What is the best way to make people think about the 'unsexy' topics of climate change and/or biodiversity?

A good tactic is to start by acknowledging that these are unsexy topics, so that you make a connection with the audience, but then finding a way to subvert expectation and explore an unexpected sexy angle on them. I have a track called “Walden Pond” which references Thoreau’s refuge, which is supposed to be a place of tranquility, but the song is a very aggressive upbeat banger, so it creates this bizarre juxtaposition that somehow works. I’ll get a whole crowd of people shouting “Walden Pond!” at the top of their lungs in the chorus, which is surreal but effective.

Is there a scene of musicians, artists like you, or are you 'lone wolf'?

There are musicians and artists who explore each of the topics I do, but I don’t know of anyone else who explores the whole range of topics. My brand isn’t about environmentalism or science or social justice or medieval literature per se, but it’s about the common thread that runs through all of them. That thread is “complex good ideas” which is what I’m always out to communicate to the world, something that’s important but difficult at first.

You take the music on stage, how do you do that? As a musical show, a stage performance, a concert?

My shows have been best described as “one part rap concert, one part comedy, and one part TED Talk”. I mostly perform in theatres, but I try to create the feel of a rap concert in the theatre, and sometimes it’s like a lecture, or like a stand-up comedy gig. I like theatre because you can bring together lots of different genres under one roof.

Explain your background - are you a scientist with a musician’s soul, or more an artists with a wide variety of interests?

I see myself as a rap artist first and foremost. I just happen to be interested in big ideas, science, and society. People often dismiss rap as a “low” art form, but there’s cultural prejudice bound up in that judgment. I see it as a very complex form that can encapsulate any idea, if the rapper is up to the challenge.

Education is important. Do you go into schools or universities, do you hold lessons?

Yes, I perform for groups of students quite often. I’ve done hundreds of those performances and workshops over the years. I like performing in schools to keep a finger on the pulse, but if I were writing my material only for schools I think it would fall short. It has to be universal, for a popular audience, and then it will do better in schools as well.

You are on stage all over the world. Where and on what occasions?

Too many shows to list. I’ve toured Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Europe, the UK, and the US, and even did gigs in Egypt and Hong Kong a few years ago. It’s been quite a ride.

Where does the money you need come from - record sales and collaborations?

Mostly from live performances and commissions where I’m hired to write songs about something or to perform at an event. I make some money from record sales but it’s less than what my live shows make. Ideally I can reverse that trend, so I can afford to spend more time creating and less time on tour, but for now it’s all about the gigs.

Where is there a greater need for education about climate and nature issues - developed countries or developing countries?

Developed countries are responsible for the bulk of emissions and their lifestyle changes can make the biggest difference, so that seems to be the greatest need right now, but as developing countries gain infrastructure it’s also important for them to avoid the dirtiest technologies and move more quickly to greener solutions. Thankfully, every country doesn’t need to go through the same learning curve, since we can share knowledge gained the hard way.

Thank you very much for the interview.

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