How a rapper is tackling climate change | Music | DW | 02.11.2016
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Climate Change

How a rapper is tackling climate change

Baba Brinkman is a Canadian rapper who sings about climate change. His songs are fact-checked by experts. In an interview, he explains why he thinks rap is the perfect medium to create awareness about global warming.

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Listen to the interview with Baba Brinkman

DW: Baba Brinkman, you're a self-proclaimed "nerdy rapper" who writes "lit-hop" or "literatary hip-hop." You sing about bookish topics like evolution and medicine. In your latest album, "Rap Guide to Climate Chaos," you are now tackling climate change. Who is your music targeting exactly?

Baba Brinkman: I'm trying to cast the net as wide as I can in terms of my audience. I'd like to reach people that don't think climate change is a problem and make them realize that it is, and that it needs to be addressed.

I did this show off Broadway in New York for five months earlier this year and performed for thousands of people who came to see it. Some people came up to me after the show to say: "I'm convinced. I came to this show thinking that there is no problem and now I realize there's a big problem." So that's definitely a big part of my audience.

Künstler Baba Brinkman (Oliva Sebesky)

Brinkman is also a playwright, who combines hip-hop music with literature, theater, and science

I think a lot of people come to the show or turn on the album assuming that they're on board. They're thinking, yes, climate change is a problem and I am dealing with it, because I take shorter showers and I take my bike to work and changed my light bulbs so that they're not incandescent.

Part of the message of the album, which is counterintuitive to a lot of people on the left who think they are already on board with the solution, is that that's not good enough. That's not even going to come close to solving the problem. The only way it can be solved is via mass-scale intervention, like carbon taxes or carbon trade systems that change the entire economical infrastructure. So I'm advocating for people to be citizens more so than just consumers.

Some of your songs include battle rap elements. One song for instance starts with the lyrics: "Yo momma's carbon footprint is so fat."

The song is called Battle Line and it's kind of making fun of some of the contentiousness around the topic of climate change and how it's really combative in public discourse. So I relate that to battle rap comparisons. One line goes: "The mismatches on either side are shocking. It's like Sarah Palin against Stephen Hawking.”  Because I think their level of intellectual discourse can be pretty mismatched.  


DW: Being factually correct is important to you, you even draw on experts to check your lyrics. How does that work?

I've kind of created this formula over the years. Each of my records from the "Rap Guide” albums is peer-reviewed by experts in the field. So as I'm devising the lyrics, I'm reaching out to scientists and the people who really study this stuff first-hand, and I'm saying: Can you look at my lyrics, can you tell me if there's anything that misconstrues the science? And if there is something, then I'll change it. So I'm soliciting feedback.

DW: Why do you think music is such an effective medium to talk about big issues like climate change?

Baba Brinkman (Baba Brinkman)

Baba Brinkman is not jus rapping to save our planet, he's personally planted more than one million trees

I feel like there's a memorability factor. Music is designed to be catchy and to get stuck in your head and to get you singing along. There's a lot of lyrical witticism, punch lines and metaphors in there; just ways of thinking about climate change that would be counterintuitive but are designed to be memorable. That's not just my music, that's what all music is like.

I think rap music specifically is a storytelling medium. And stories are more memorable than just concepts. So I feel like the tools were already there. It's just that a lot of rap music is telling certain stories, like the stories of the individual rappers - here's my neighborhood, here's where I come from, here's my aspirations, that kind of stuff. A lot of it is strictly autobiographical.

And I do some of that in my album as well. I talk about my background and how that makes me interested in climate change. But I also talk about the question of how do you get to be a suburban, white, middle-class Canadian that's a hip-hop artist rapping about science for the masses? I do make it personal in that way. For me, music is a medium for connecting with people in a way that a lecture can't.                            

One of your songs is called "Fossil Fuel Ballers." What does that term mean?

In hip hop there's this trope of a "baller," somebody who ostentatiously flaunts his wealth. And in the context of recent human history, western civilization could be said to be balling. Let's put it like this: Western civilization is a bling-heavy phenomenon. And fossil fuels are really the driver of that; it drives most of the economic growth. Global stock markets are still hugely tied to the oil price.

I'm an example of a fossil fuel baller, but so are you if your financial stability comes from the benefits of burning fossil fuels. Which is the case for most people, because 80 percent of the global economy is driven by fossil fuels right now.          

Where are you drawing your inspiration from?

I think it's mostly hip hop. My musical influencers are mostly rappers. All throughout my album I'm referencing a lot of my favorite rappers. You'll hear scratches and cuts from Jay Z, Eminem and MC Lyte. There's references to Nas, Mobb Deep and De La Soul. My musical influences tend to be a little old-school, from the 1990s and 2000s, and not so much the rappers that are big today. I'm in my 30s, so that's the rap I grew up on.

One of the references I make is for instance "Mo Carbon Mo Problems." It's a paraphrase of a Notorious B.I.G. song called "Mo Money Mo Problems," which was a big hit in the 90s. In that chorus he said: "The mo money we come across, the mo problems we'll see." Carbon is the main driver of climate change because methane and CFCs and CO2 are all carbon-based greenhouse gasses. So carbon in the atmosphere is the summary problem that we have to overcome and the more of it we have in the atmosphere, the more problems we end up with on earth.

Out of your entire new album "Rap Guide to Climate Chaos" - which song is your favorite and why?

I think I'd have to say the song "Carbon Bubble" because it's fun and dancy. It's actually really a dance song. It's got a bit of a Lily Allen or Amy Winehouse flavor to it. I got an amazing soul singer named Mariella, who is based in New York, to do the hook.

But the song is actually all about carbon finance models and how you can think of the carbon bubble concept as the subprime mortgage bubble of 2008, which crushed the global economy. Potentially, our reliance on fossil fuel and valuing the fossil fuel reserves as part of a company's stock is actually a huge mistake financially. It's irresponsible, because if we really have to keep all the fossil fuel on the ground, then those companies are worth a lot less than we think and so are the economies based on those companies' values.

So the song is a very nerdy policy-wonk-analysis of cap-and-trade versus carbon tax versus business as usual from a financial perspective, but at the same time it's a super fun, bouncy dance song, which has some great saxophone and horn lines in it. So it's about as much musical whimsy as you can imagine mixing with as much policy complexity in the form of one song, and that's really what I'm all about. 

What do you want your listeners to take away from your music?

I don't know of I want them to be entirely persuaded and indoctrinated by everything I say, but I hope I give them a sense of curiosity and have provoked them to go look this up more and take more of an active interest. I think if I can snap people out of apathy and make them feel like: yes, this matters and yes, I need to get informed on it, then that'll be enough.

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