Monday, December 13, 2010

Epic Battle

On Friday we filmed an epic breakdance battle with Darwin facing down his detractors, Michel Foucault (representing social constructivism), Sarah Palin (representing the christian right), and God (representing Himself, of course). It was a satirical reconstruction of the evolutionary culture wars on the dancefloor and Darwin reigned supreme! Check out the new photos posted to the pitch page, or view them on facebook here.

The videos are shaping up amazingly well and we have our final two days of shooting Monday and Tuesday this week, wrapping up Hynotize, Sexual Selection, and Worst Comes to Worst. Then we move into the post-production phase, which will rely hugely on crowdfunding support. We're now 1/3 of the way into our alloted time and we've almost hit 2/3 of our target, so the end is in sight, but this is no time to let it slip! If you have already contributed, please tell a friend, and if not, now is the time! Click here to help fund the project.

Also just announced: I will be performing my two new rap/comedy/storytelling shows, The Rap Guide to Human Nature and Rapconteur one last time in London on December 20th. Both of these shows were written in 2010 and both of them premiered at the Edinburgh Fringe to great acclaim, so we are filming a live DVD of both shows next Monday starting at 6:30pm at the Alley Cat in Soho, two 50 minute halves with a 15 minute intermission. Last chance to see these shows in England for some time! Click here to check out the facebook event page.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010


The crowdfunding drive I started just over two weeks ago to increase the production value of our Rap Guide to Evolution DVD project is going gangbusters, with 143 individual funders so far, and the vast majority of them have chosen the vanity package: £30 for a pre-order copy of the DVD and the use of your picture somewhere in the animation. We're at 61% of our £10,000 target after just fifteen days!

It's awesome progress, but we're still a ways from the mark, so if you've been thinking about buying in but haven't gotten around to it, now is the time! Click here to check out the progress so far, or to buy your little slice of immortality.

By the way, if you're one of the 143 beautiful people who have already signed on, thank you! And if you're one of the extreme keeners who've written to ask me where to send the photo, or who just went ahead and emailed me your photo already, take it easy! I won't collect the images until we actually hit the target, because if we don't hit it within the 60 day time limit everyone gets their money back and no one's photo will be used, so please don't send me any more pics. It's not that you're not attractive, it's just that we'll do it all together with an upload page once we've reached the target : )

One of the most amazing things about the past two weeks is the degree to which blogs and social networking sites have taken up the cause. It's not yet a full-blown viral outbreak, but there are some promising early warning signs. The project was mentioned in David Sloan Wilson's Evolution for Everyone blog, as well as by New Humanist Magazine, by Andrew Potter writing for McLeans, on the Friendly Atheist blog, and in posts by Words of Science and Crowdsource Capital, so there is a fairly wide-range of interest. If you have connections to blogs or if you write one, please consider posting about this.

More news: here's an interview I did on the radio show and podcast Skeptically Speaking last weekend, which talks about the Crowdfunder drive and my new album The Rap Guide to Human Nature.

And if you want to see how I use rap to popularize science and science to help people understand rap in my live shows, check out the TEDx talk I did back in October.

As for me, I've just finished a series of college and high school performances in NJ, NY, and RI, and tomorrow I'm checking out Manhattan theatres and meeting with the team organizing the upcoming off-Broadway run, currently slated for March 2011. Then next week I'm back in the UK for more Wellcome Trust music video filming, plus Robin Ince's legendary Nine Lessons and Carols for Godless People comedy showcase, followed by Christmas with the family in Vancouver and some well-deserved rest.

Thanks again everyone, and keep the crowdfunding momentum rolling!

Monday, November 22, 2010

Crowdfunding Evolution


As many of you know, the Wellcome Trust awarded me a grant earlier this year to make a series of music videos for the Rap Guide to Evolution, a project that is intended to "promote the public understanding of science" using a new medium. Well, over the past few weeks I've been working with a professional film crew in London to shoot these videos and the results have been really exciting. We are now on target to finish the live filming by the middle of December, with the editing to be completed by February, give or take. Click here to watch our trailer video with some preview clips.

The challenge we face now is finding additional funding to support this project. The Wellcome Trust grant is enough (barely) to film and edit the videos, but we want to take them to the next level by weaving in original animation, digital effects, and high-quality nature footage licensed from sources like the BBC. Imagine a four-minute short film, part Eminem-style rap music video, part David Attenborough-style nature documentary, illustrating themes such as the common descent of all human beings from African ancestors and the processes of natural and sexual selection that shaped our bodies and minds and the rest of nature. We are making twelve such videos, one for each song on the CD. My hope is that these videos will be used by Biology teachers the world over to make evolution accessible to their students, as well as offering an entertaining entry point into Darwin's theories for non-Scientists in general.

The solution? A new concept called "crowdfunding", which allows you to pre-buy the DVD we are making before we are finished making it, contributing to the production value and ultimately the potential impact of the finished product. Together with SPL Productions, I have partnered with a website called "Crowdfunder" to run a campaign to raise an additional £10,000 to increase the production value of these videos. If we can hit our target in 60 days, the end result will be something amazing. If we fail to hit the target, the money is all returned to the funders and we fall back on the Wellcome Trust grant, which will still be enough to complete a good finished product, just one with a lot less mojo.

To give you a sense of what this all means, we've created a lovely Crowdfunder pitch page that lays it all out. Click here to see it.

If you like the project and want to support it, there are various rewards attached to different levels of funding. £10 gets you a download of the finished videos, £20 gets you a DVD, and £30 buys you immortality: we will put your photo in one of the videos, representing a branch on the human family tree. You can also book me for a performance if you contribute enough (click the above link to find out my going rate, slightly discounted).

And if you haven't heard the songs yet, you can click here to download the Rap Guide to Evolution CD.

I hope you will help me take this project all the way, and if you know any science teachers or friends of evolution, please forward them the link.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Fringe Science

Friends New and Old,

Well, the Edinburgh Fringe 2010 is concluded and I'm back in London, back on my grind, back on tour, reading and writing and gigging and muddling about. Sorry, that last bit was a post-partum pang.

How did it go? Exceptionally well! I performed over fifty shows in three and a half weeks and didn't die of exhaustion, or even lose my voice. My cavalier decision to list myself as part of the Edinburgh Comedy Festival (as opposed to "theatre") for the first time ever was vindicated by a five-star review in Chortle on the second-to-last day of the Fringe, an awesome (though scientifically very confused) write-up that helped me sell zero tickets but at least left me with a jolly after-glow. Click here to read it.

Even my little pet project, Rapconteur, got some love at the Fringe. The best review I got for it was a five-star praise-fest from Three Weeks, which you can view by clicking here.

Rapconteur was also my first foray into the Free Fringe, where the audience pays nothing and at the end of the show I stand by the door with a donation jar making puppy-dog eyes as they shuffle past, some paying and some avoiding my panhandling gaze. It was a bit of an experiment, and if you're curious to know how it went (financially and otherwise), I wrote up the results in one of my blogs for

I'm not just being ironic calling the Free Fringe an experiment either. After the show one day I was approached by some behavioral economists who are keen to experiment more formally with audience altruism and publish the quantified results, a prospect that makes me childishly excited, but more of that anon.

Speaking of experiments, in The Rap Guide to Human Nature I phoned my sister Dawn from the stage every single day for twenty six consecutive days, waking her up most mornings in the midst of her summer holiday (my Edinburgh show started at 7:45am Vancouver time). The point? I kept track of which days she answered the phone and which days I got voicemail and used the data at the end of the month to predict her ovulation cycle. If this makes no sense to you (hint: it's about evolutionary incest avoidance instincts), check out this article by Michael Shermer on the science behind the experiment:

And the results? Well, here's the calendar (used with Dawn's kind permission):

A very straightforward prediction follows from the Michael Shermer article. So how does that prediction square with her actual fertility cycle? I edited the results into a youtube video (the future of science outreach), which you can watch at the link below. Warning: this video contains information about my sister's fertility cycle. For educational use only! Click here to watch.

Hmm, how can I round out this highly eclectic newsletter? I know, with a link to a music video I made with some tree planter friends back in May, an ode to Canada's highly sheltered position (and policies) in regards to catastrophic climate change. It's like Cormac McCarthy's "The Road" crossed with the party at the end of Return of the Jedi. Get ready to travel down a path that may soon be very popular, the Road Northwest. Click to watch on Youtube.

Hasta la vista,


Wednesday, September 1, 2010

My Fringe Nightmare (Part Two)

Back in London post-Fringe, feeling dizzy with the shock of not performing multiple times every day. So quiet, so calm. Cabin fever now contends with relief and exhaustion. The nuts and bolts are simple and satisfying: I performed 53 full-length one-hour shows over the course of 3.5 weeks, without losing my voice or getting ill, and once again the reviews and audience response were strong. But this fringe was more than just an adventure – for me it was also an experiment in risk-taking and genre-switching, and the word that haunted me throughout is: “comedy”.

In the months leading up to the Fringe, from the time I registered my (as yet unwritten) Rap Guide to Human Nature show pretty much up until the first Edinburgh performance, I was plagued by recurring dreams of disaster, dreams of arriving at my first show completely unprepared and utterly failing to entertain (see my previous blog). I was bemused (and motivated) by these dreams, since I have been doing the Fringe since 2004 and it’s never happened before, but then, I’ve never listed as comedy before, always theatre. The “Theatre” genre is a big tent, big enough for comedy and tragedy and everything in between, but it’s unspecialized. You can be a cook without knowing how to make certain dishes, just like you can be a performer without making people laugh. There are two ways to become specialized: training and trial by fire (I went for the second option). The problem is, I still don’t know how to make people laugh. I can do it, but I can’t explain the process or teach anyone else how to do it, (which seems like the basic criteria required to really “know” anything). This was probably the source of my anxiety.

But not all of the dreams were bad. I specifically remember a bizarre one from early April that turned my nightmare scenario on its head. It was very similar to the others in the beginning: I’m in Edinburgh on the first day of the Fringe, and the crowd is already forming outside my venue, mere minutes before the first show. Panicking, I realize that I have absolutely nothing to say, nothing prepared, no material, how did this happen? Then I run into Justin (he was my venue tech at the Adelaide Fringe) who says enthusiastically: “Hey Baba, I really love the new show! When you were here yesterday doing your tech rehearsal, I was laughing so hard! People are going to lap it up!” A moment of confusion is followed by a spark of realization as I grab Justin by the arm and drag him aside: “What, you’ve seen the new show?!?” He looks perplexed: “Of course, we did the tech run yesterday, it was great…” I’m nearly hysterical now, pulling out my note pad: “Tell me what’s in it!” Justin looks even more perplexed: “But, you wrote it, and you just performed it…” I’m trying to remain calm, shifting into crisis management mode: “Listen Justin, I must be suffering from acute amnesia because I can’t remember a single thing from the show; in fact as far as I can remember I haven’t written it yet, so you have to tell me what you saw yesterday.” Justin plays along, obviously suspecting a prank, but also sensing my desperation: “Well, you started off with this monologue about… and then you did this rap with a chorus that went… and then there was this character you played…” And as he rattled off the material from the show I kept scribbling away at my notebook, like: “Brilliant, that’s a great idea! Where do I come up with this stuff?!?” Then I brought my notebook on stage with me for reference, set it on the floor, and proceeded to kill it, getting huge laughs and thunderous applause, just as Justin predicted I would.

When I woke up I tried to write down everything I had said that was getting such big laughs in the dream, and trust me it’s all crap. Not a single joke or character ended up in the actual show, but the feeling I woke up with was golden: this is going to work out. I knew it because I had experienced it, even if I didn’t know yet how to pull it off. That’s pretty much how I feel right now. I can remember funny things I said and I know they were funny because I got some big laughs, but I’m still not sure why they were funny, or how I would do it again, except to just go on instinct. Jamie (aka Mr. Simmonds) got some big laughs too for that matter; he turned into a right performer over the past month, a comedy DJ. I proposed to him on stage twenty-four times and he turned me down every day except the last, when he unexpectedly accepted. What’s funny about that? I guess you had to be there.

On the second to last day of the Fringe Jamie and I got a parting gift in the form of a golden review: 5 stars in Chortle. For the uninitiated, Chortle is the UK’s top comedy-reviewing website. It isn’t widely known outside of the comedy circuit, but comics and fans of stand-up comics follow it avidly. The review was untimely in so far as it didn’t help us to sell any tickets, arriving so late, and it’s riddled with scientific errors (for instance, the reviewer refers to all of “ovulating” material in the show as “menstruating” material, a pretty significant oversight), but it’s the most tangible evidence I now have that the Fringe this year was not a dream. I really did three shows, we really did sell lots of tickets, and we really were funny.

Sorry to write such a solipsistic final blog. I also saw lots of great shows, and some disappointing ones, but like I said before, I’m not a reviewer. For me this year’s Fringe was a challenge, an experiment, and an adventure, and on all three counts I feel great. Next on the agenda: in two days we commence Rebel Cell rehearsals here in London for our big fall tour of the UK, which begins in Cornwall on September 17th. First thing’s first though: twelve hours’ sleep, hopefully with some instructive dreams. Carpe Noctem.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Free Fringe Finale

On Friday I went back to the flat for a quick nap after Human Nature, feeling like a zombie after doing three shows a day all week, and managed to sleep through my alarm. I woke up with a gasp at 8:43pm – can’t remember what I was dreaming about – and realized with a sense of panic that Rapconteur was scheduled to start at 8:45. Now, it is a free fringe show, which means I can abridge it with no “value-for-money” issues, and I’m the last one in my venue, so nobody’s schedule would be thrown off terribly, but it was a horrible feeling to know that a room full of people was waiting to see my show on the other side of town and I was nowhere nearby. This situation very closely resembled another recurrent Fringe nightmare I have, the “can’t-get-to-my-venue-and-the-show-is-late” dream.

First I called a cab, then I started calling everyone I knew who might be at or near the venue, no answer, no answer, no answer, not there, can’t help you, sorry (and good luck). The mobile reception in Cabaret Voltaire is crap, so there was nothing for it. I arrived at 8:57 to find a crowded room waiting patiently for me to start. What happened? I had arranged to meet my brother Erik at 8:20 to set up for the show, and at 8:45 he made an announcement, telling the crowd: “Don’t worry, I just talked to Baba and he’s on his way, so we’ll be starting in a few minutes. Refunds are available for anyone who wants one.” I can’t imagine a more admirable lie, and I even finished the show on time. Capital guy, my brother.

Yesterday was the final Rapconteur show and the venue was rammed. I was sad to see the end of that show, at least at the Cab Vol Speakeasy (an awesome venue), but I am now home from my two-show day, well fed, and after writing this blog I can take an hour nap with no fear of letting anyone down terribly, myself included. Tonight is the Free Fringe wrap party (right after my nap), but I know everyone reading this must be wondering: how did it go? I said at the beginning that the Free Fringe was an experiment, my first time at it anyway, and to quantify it I kept meticulous records. The feel-good answer to “how did it go?” would have something to do with the amazing time I had, the thrill of performing, the smashing reviews (five stars in Three Weeks!), the great venue staff, and the general positive audience response. Hooray! But why beat around the bush? You are all thinking “Yeah, but the show was free, so did you make any money?!?”

This is essentially a question about human altruism, which we are all inherently (and perhaps rightly) skeptical about, not because it doesn’t exist but because it is difficult to predict and therefore difficult to count on. At the same time, our daily social interactions are constantly governed by (conscious and unconscious) attempts to predict the trustworthiness, generosity, and integrity of other people, so any information about what makes us tick is a public benefit. Participating in the Free Fringe took a leap of faith, because like you I wondered beforehand: Is it a sucker’s game? Or is it a beacon in the darkness of cynical, acquisitive human nature? Judge for yourself.

Shows performed: 19
Production overhead: £600 (give or take a few quid)
Total audience donations: £1358
Daily donation average: £71.47
Total CD sales: £640
Daily average gross income: £104.16
Net income: £1398

* The missing data here is the daily average number of punters, which I would estimate at around 40-45, but we didn’t do a daily headcount. It was difficult because the venue is a bar and people were coming and going a lot.

Would I do it again? Hell yes.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Tragedy Averted

Keep calm and carry on. The fringe has an odd way of subtly adjusting my threshold of what is and isn't worth reporting, so hopefully this blog isn't miscalibrated. On Friday I began what is certainly the most extreme fringe regime I've ever undertaken, performing three shows per day, the Rap Guide to Evolution at 12:30, the Rap Guide to Human Nature at 3:45, and Rapconteur at 8.45, each of them one hour long and each of them alike in that they consist of me running a constant monologue mixing rap and comedy and infotainment. Exhausting as that sounds (for me, not the crowds, smart-ass), I've still been finishing the last show with energy to spare and have been out dancing and watching comedy shows for the past few nights. It's a bit surreal and I keep expecting something to sideswiped me, but so far so robust, and my voice is solid. Piece of piss, as they say around here.

Hmm, what else? On Sunday morning at 11am I arrived at C Central for an event called the Naked Brunch, which is exactly what it was. Food was served, cabaret entertainment was in effect, a mix of burlesque and comedy (and evolutionary rap), and the performers (a dozen or so of us) and audience (about a hundred of them) were all 100% nude. This was one of those "sign up for something crazy to test my own limits" initiatives, but when I stepped onto that stage in front of a room full of naked strangers I didn't feel the least bit intimidated, even in spite of my awareness that the cool Scottish morning air was shriveling my endowment, credit crunch style. I just worked the word "shrinkage" into the freestyle section of "Performance, Feedback, Revision" (rhyming it with "Brinkman" and "delinquents"), kept calm and carried on (got a huge naked cheer too), then hustled out of there for my Evolution show at half twelve.

What else? A number of smashing reviews came out over the past few days: for Rapconteur I got a five star review from Three Weeks (which isn't yet online), a four star review from the Scotsman, and another really nice one from the Stage (they don't do stars), so that show has been really full lately. And for the Rap Guide to Human Nature we got four stars from Whatsonstage and four stars from Broadway Baby. Smooth sailing.

Today was my day off, but the main event was the Gospel at Colonus at the Playhouse Theatre with the Blind Boys of Alabama and a cast of about forty African American gospel singers reinterpreting Oedipus as a Southern Baptist revival. The music was incredible and moving, but the surreal part for me was reflecting that just before the show I was meeting with its New York producer, Sharon Levy, whose next project now that Gospel at Colonus' sell out run at the Edinburgh International Festival is finished is to bring the Rap Guide to Evolution to New York for an off-Broadway run. I can't imagine two more different shows stylistically; today she's producing a show with forty black people singing amazing harmonies about trusting in god, and her next show will be one white guy rapping about Darwin. But on reflection I guess rap Darwin and gospel Sophocles are not such distant artistic cousins, and I figure any producer willing to make that transition has to be pretty cool.

So tomorrow I start the final week of the fringe, feeling good, with good reviews and good crowds and in good spirits, upbeat and ready for the mere 19 shows (give or take) that I have left to perform. I almost wish i had something more edgy and calamitous to report, because I am aware of how saccharine this post is coming across. But screw it. This may be the calm before the storm or it may just be a calm stretch with no disaster on the horizon, but either way I plan to keep calm and carry on, and leave the tragedy to Oedipus.

Friday, August 20, 2010

The Burlesque Brouhaha

I’ve seen some shows I really didn’t enjoy over the past few days, but I’m not going to write about them. As far as I’m concerned, ostracism from all discourse is sufficient punishment for the crime of failure to entertain, but of course I’m not a professional critic or reviewer, and sometimes I’m thankful for that fact.

Yesterday I read with amusement Sally Stott’s utterly scathing Scotsman review of the Edinburgh burlesque scene. She reviews six shows in one mighty article, giving two of them three stars (equivalent to summary dismissal) and three of them two stars (equivalent to summary dismissal coupled with a poke in the eye), and the one she gives four stars to is credited with this distinction: “Out of all the burlesque acts I've seen, the ones that didn't involve women stripping were the best.” So is Sally just a prude? Is this like tut-tutting at women who wear revealing clothes on the street? Is she unfairly venting her spleen on Edinburgh’s fun-loving dancing girls, perhaps out of lingering frustration at the pay-gap between male and female Scotsman critics? I doubt it.

I haven’t seen any of the shows she reviewed, so I can’t say whether I agree with her critique or not, but I have met Sally a few times over the years and have been closely reading her Scotsman reviews for three consecutive Fringes now and I can say – in my esteem – that she usually has excellent judgment. That’s why I think her article is so brave. She must have known that she was about to draw the ire not only of a performer or two, but of a whole community, the dreaded burlesque community. When I read the article yesterday I just thought to myself “good job for taking a stand”, and I don’t mean a stand again burlesque (which I think is wonderful, as a whole), but a stand for the integrity of the reviewing profession, which is based on a (usually very subjective) combined emotional and intellectual response to a performance, articulated solely for the purpose of guiding the uninitiated through the chaos of the Fringe (because face it, you can’t see everything).

Sure enough, today in the Scotsman a second-page news feature (not even in the arts section) reported a planned protest by the burlesque community: “Burlesque dancers to hold demo at Scotsman office over harsh Fringe review”. The reason for the semi-naked protest (besides publicity)? The burlesque dancers are offended at Sally’s portrayal of their art form as demeaning to women. Her article begins “A woman with an expression somewhere between a crack addict and a blown-up sex doll takes off her bra and drops it on the floor.” And from there it gets harsher. But when I showed the article to a friend of mine who works at the Gilded Balloon, who is herself a burlesque performer, she read Sally’s description and said “Oh, well that just sounds like tacky burlesque”. Here’s why I find this situation so fascinating. Sally has obviously done her homework. She has read numerous books both for and against the new burlesque movement as a form of female empowerment (the article refers to a few of them). She went to see for herself, and she found the experience depressing rather than uplifting, and then she admirably did her job as a reviewer. I say, bad luck for the Edinburgh burlesque community, but it hardly settles the debate, and it’s hardly proof of bias, or grounds for a protest.

I can imagine a parallel universe in which there isn’t one evolutionary rap artist at the Fringe, but rather a half dozen or so, each spinning various aspects of hip-hop culture into humorous evolutionary parables. The Scotsman reviews us all as a package, and utterly savages our hip-hop skills and evolutionary knowledge, not to mention the overall poor entertainment value. It would be very easy to rally a protest claiming the review was ideological, that the reviewer was either a creationist or a racist (since the fear of a black planet seems to ironically extend into a fear of white rappers as well). Evolutionary rappers unite! But how would we be able to tell whether the reviewer had a grudge against rap, or evolution, or just against our particular take on these concepts? You can’t please everybody, but you can accuse everyone who dislikes you of being unfair and ideological. It’s a great self-esteem booster actually – you should try it.

And what do I think of the burlesque debate? I think the question of whether or not it’s empowering for women to get (mostly) naked in public is a debate best had by women. I’ve spent some time with the burlesque community in Vancouver and I genuinely think they’re doing it for the right reasons, for artistic self-expression and for the pure joy of it, the thrill, rather than for male visual gratification and easy money. Of course, the question of whether or not it would still be a thrill if there were no male visual gratification involved is one for evolutionary psychology to tackle. I released a rap song about this exact debate last year, weighing in from the (biased) perspective of a male voyeur (featuring Vancouver burlesque legend Miss Cherry OnTop). You can listen to the song here.

Oh yeah, and speaking of Scotsman features, here’s mine.

Monday, August 16, 2010


Today’s Human Nature gig was the best yet by far, despite technical glitches and an aborted ending. Sometimes the laughs just flow like wine, other times they just coagulate. Yesterday’s was pretty fun too. A family of six sat in the front row, two parents and four kids, boys of about 7 and 9, girls of about 13 and 15 (they were warned in advance about the profanity in the show and said it was no problem). Of course the parents got clowned about their fecundity, and queried about whether the mom was on the pill when they first hooked up (She’s Ovulating!) But the best part was during the intro to The Evolution of Gayness when I talked about homophobia in both hip-hop culture and in conservative religious circles, the latter version based on the biblical injunction of Leviticus (20:13) which says men having sex with men is an abomination punishable by death. But since the bible also prescribes very specific criteria for the correct method of selling your daughter into slavery (Exodus 21:7), it’s a pretty flimsy document as a basis for morality. That was my point: hate gays and sell your children, or find a different moral compass and do neither.

Since I had parents with daughters in the front row I decided to get them involved: “So, ma’am, if you should decide to sell one of your lovely daughters here into slavery, the important thing is to sell her to a member of your own nation, not a foreigner. Where are you from? England?” To which she replied: “We’re from Israel”. “Perfect!” I said, “the nation was only hypothetical before, but it turns our they are literally from the nation! So, according to your ancestors’ holy writ you can only sell your daughters to other Israelites. Do we have any other Israelites in the house? Any potential buyers?” The unexpectedness of it had the audience in hysterics.

I’m beginning to wonder if I’m even capable of doing comedy about non-taboo subjects. Last night Jamie and I did our first late-night drunken comedy gig at the Axis of Awesome and Friends. That is, the audience was drunk and rowdy (Jamie was a bit tipsy but fully functional). I was stone sober, and a bundle of nerves. Bugs on Me went down a storm, and then as a closer we did the Human Nature freestyle piece that ends our show everyday. So last night at 12:40am I asked the audience (about 160 of them) for three aspects of human nature to freestyle about, and the three they shouted out were “Homosexuality!” “Self-Awareness!” and “Abortion!” Gulp. Before I launched into the freestyle I asked them to reflect on the absurdity of the situation. When I started out as a hip-hop artist over a decade ago, I certainly never pictured myself performing for a drunken crowd at a comedy club in Scotland, and especially not a three-and-a-half-minute-long improvised rap about homosexuality, abortion, and self-awareness. Oh yeah, and make it funny.

Rest assured my self-awareness level was extremely high on that stage, but that gave me a jumping off point to launch into the evolutionary theories linked to these phenomenon, self-monitoring as a facilitator of social adaptation, the links between abortion and infanticide and parental investment theory, the bi-product and social-lubricant theories of same-sex mating, etc. And somehow I made it funny enough keep them laughing all the way through (it was a freestyle so don’t ask me what I said). I now realize that I have found my niche: I am an extremophile, an organism that thrives in hostile or potentially lethal environments. Or maybe I just got lucky. At the very least, I am learning to thrive in environments high in skepticism (my own and others’), which can be much like heat and ph and radiation in its effect on fragile egos. What a surreal night, but that’s why I love the Fringe.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Rewind the Tape

Stephen J. Gould was fond of pointing out that if you were to rewind the tape of evolution and play it again, there is little chance that humans would make the scene. If this poisonous slug had been eaten by that bird rather than this mammalian ancestor, or if that asteroid had collided with earth a few kilometers to the West, well, it might have been a canid rather than a hominid that achieved hyper-intelligence and world domination, or maybe even a reptile, who knows? Of course, if you believe in physical determinism, in physical causes leading to consequential physical effects, then a universe in a certain state of molecular position and motion four billion years ago should play itself out the exact same way no matter how many times you rewound the tape, so long as everything was literally the same each time you started. But this is not a friendly thought to us conscious entities, laboring under the illusion of free will, so we will leave it.

The point? I am fairly confidant that Gould’s notion, whether or not it is true of biological evolution writ large, is definitely true of the Fringe, and the main reason is the reviewers. Reviewers have the power to kill a great show and they have the power to uplift a mediocre one, perhaps even to give a mediocre show enough buoyancy and confidence to make it great (provided the problem was with the performance and not the material). I thought ENRON was one of the best plays I had seen in years when I watched it in London last fall, and yet its transfer to New York this Spring was scuttled by bad reviews.

Maybe a bad review for ENRON coming from a publication headquartered so close to Wall Street is akin to a bad review of the Rap Guide to Evolution coming from the Discovery Institute, but here in Edinburgh it’s much harder to dismiss reviews as ideological, mainly because they seem so arbitrary. The Scotsman gave Gyles Brandreth five stars, while Fest magazine panned him with one star (no question which review is going on the poster). Rachel Rose Reid was faulted in a three star review for misspelling the name of her show on the ticket (even though it was a box-office mistake). I haven’t seen her show yet, but come on. Yesterday we watched Jonno Katz perform his amazing show “Cactus, The Seduction”, the same day as his four star “Hot Show” review came out in the Scotsman. Kate Copstick raves about Jonno in the review, praising him up and down, while every other critic had been underwhelmed (I’m with her).

So if reviews are arbitrary, then what’s the point? Like so many areas of science, the truth emerges from a meta-analysis. One publication might give one star while another gives five, but a survey of five or six review will show which of those is the outlier. I have only seen about five shows so far at the Fringe (Mark Watson was brilliant tonight, and the Barber Shoppera were sublime on Saturday), but with such a cacophony of performers competing for my attention, it’s reviews, cumulative reviews, both in the form of publications and conversational buzz, that draw my attention to one show over another. Because let’s face it, time is short, and every choice is a sacrifice. So take heart, little neglected talents struggling for recognition at the Fringe. It might seem as arbitrary as a random person’s uninformed opinion, but opinions add up over time, just like other forms of data; it just usually takes longer than we hope, a lot longer. People still reject the truth of evolution, so you shouldn't be surprised if they don't appreciate your talents. Shame about ENRON though. That show would have been good medicine for New York.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

My Fringe Nightmare (Part One)

In early April I woke up from a familiar nightmare. I’ve been having the same recurring dream pretty much since Fringe registration closed back in March, a dream with varying specifics, but always the same scenario. In some versions it’s the first day of the Fringe, I’m walking through the streets of Edinburgh, taking things in, checking out the posters and familiar sights, and then it hits me: I don’t have a show! My poster is up, it’s advertising The Rap Guide to Human Nature in bold letters, plastered with positive reviews from last year, but as I search myself I realize with mounting horror that I haven’t written a word in preparation. I’m going to have to just step on stage on day one and wing it. What am I supposed to be talking about again? Evolutionary psychology? That’s heavy stuff. Oh man, I am going to die on my ass! In other versions of the dream I’m actually backstage, just about to step in front of a big crowd for my first show, and the same realization dawns, with the same sense of panic. And in yet other versions I’m performing, rapping and cracking jokes about human nature, fully aware that I’ve blown it and have no script. Then I wake up, look at my phone for the time, and the date, and breathe a sigh of mingling relief and anxiety: four months left to write it, no worries.

The squeeze that induces these dreams is the strange situation where venues will sign up known acts without seeing a script. I used to have to submit my material in advance (which meant the writing deadline was the registration deadline), but not anymore. Now I can just say: “I have a new show” and submit the reviews from my previous show, and viola, my name in lights (or at least in the Fringe catalogue). Of course, I didn’t actually have a new show until the past few weeks. The first words of Human Nature were written on the coach on the way home from Glastonbury back in July, and the last words were written about ten days ago, and that’s the just the fixed, scripted lyrics of the songs (about two thirds of the show). The rest of it is improvised. I detailed the reason for this late start in a previous post, and it has to do with my strange genre, which mixes comedy with science and rap, each of which have their own time demands (researching and recording).

Well, on day one of the Fringe, Wednesday, there were moments that resembled the dream and moments that diverged. Obviously I actually do have a script, but there were definitely awkward moments and moments where I was fraffing away while thinking “shit, what’s the next section again?” Good thing I have a great DJ on stage with me who holds me down like a rock. Jamie cues the records when I’m losing my way, and even tells me “Mate, you talk too much” when I talk too much, which I definitely do sometimes (plus it gets a laugh). The first show was ramshackle, but stepping off stage I at least felt assured that it was not going to be like my nightmare, that I did have a lot of great material in the show, and that I would not be stranded alone in front of a hostile crowd (thanks in no small part to Jamie on the decks). The shows were not very professional, but they were a good basis to build from, revising daily (performance, feedback, revision). And in today’s show we finally hit our stride, but I’ll save that for the next post, which will also include the most fascinating variations on the dream, the rare ones in which I’m kicking ass, even thought I have no material. These represent the El Dorado of dreams, but for now it’s late and I have my first Rapconteur show tomorrow, so I’d rather go prospecting than keep writing. The Fringe is getting good.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

The Rap Guide to Human Nature

Greetings from Edinburgh!

It's 2am on the eve of the world's biggest arts festival, and I can't sleep. Actually for the past three consecutive nights it has been the same, wired until 4 in the morning, then wake up at 7:30 or 8, racing with nervous energy. Given that this is my sixth (!) time performing at the Edinburgh Fringe, you might ask yourself why on earth I would be nervous. The short answer is that I have never been so uncertain of how the show will go, since this is the first time I have ever brought a show to the Fringe that has never been performed before. And tomorrow is the world premiere.

Sure, I have tested out some bits and pieces of new material, ten or fifteen minute excerpts, but never with the live DJ and slide show as an integrated one-hour whole, volume two of my "Rap Guide" series, The Rap Guide to Human Nature. And this year the show has a significant freestyle component, which is designed to draw audience feedback seamlessly into the experience. We shall see.

The main reason I feel so ill-prepared, however, is also the exciting reason I am writing to you at this very moment: I have a new album to share with you! For the past six weeks I have spent the majority of my time crashing as a house-guest of one of the UK's most talented hip-hop producers, Mr. Simmonds (Jamie to his friends), and together we obsessively crafted a hip-hop record with an ambitious scope. It is an introduction to evolutionary psychology and the science of human behaviour, but the record is not only about the scientific study of human nature, it's also about the various alternative explanations of why humans are the way we are (creationism, spiritualism, social-constructivism, etc), and about how these explanations differ, and what each of them has to say about the violence and misogyny in rap music and hip-hop culture, and how they each square up to the evidence.

As I said, ambitious. But once again I have taken care to get my work scientifically peer-reviewed, and in case anyone doubted me last time, this time I actually integrated the peer-review process into the album, with some hilarious results. Anyway, enough preamble. I am extremely proud of this record musically and lyrically and conceptually, and I hope you will give it a good listen. You can now download The Rap Guide to Human Nature for free (pay what you like), just click here.

I put the album online two days ago and without any promotion it has already been linked in a number of blogs and even been reviewed! Here's my favorite quote: "
It's actually a great album. Not an attempt at parody or a tribute, it's an inspired, groove heavy, high production values record with a wonderful lyrical touch."

I also have a new music video to share, a David Attenborough BBC nature documentary-style interpretation of the nightclub scene, entitled "Short-Term Mating Dance". If you've never heard the sound of a female elephant seal squealing in coital ecstasy, mixed with dance music, here's your chance (by the way, the video features me dancing and making a fool of myself in the club six years ago at the Edinburgh Fringe, filmed by my brother on a handycam). Click here to watch it.

And if you haven't heard my new storytelling album, Rapconteur, you can also download it for free at the link below. Rapconteur features new hip-hop adaptations of Beowulf, Gilgamesh, Kalevala, Poe's Raven, and a new Canterbury Tale with an evolutionary psychology twist, and I'll also be performing it here at the Fringe at 8:45pm daily starting on Friday. Check it out just for the amazing artwork by Sean Dove.

Finally, if you are interested in the story of how the adventure unfolds for Jamie and I over the next three and a half weeks, I am blogging the Fringe again this year at, Wish us luck, and have fun with Human Nature, the most gangster album I have ever made by a long shot.

Sunday, August 1, 2010


From my blog "Darwin on the Fringe":

Riding the train up to Edinburgh and the only way I can think to describe the mounting sense of anticipation I feel right now is with military metaphors. None of your clattering Saving Private Ryan carnage though, this is more like a sea voyage to Troy. The difference between the two wars says a lot about the relationship I have with this festival. For one thing, I still subscribe to the belief that the Fringe represents an oasis of meritocracy in a world beset by various forms of nepotism and arbitrariness. Your odds of surviving D-day as a foot soldier were virtually the same as playing Russian Roulette with several chambers loaded. On the other hand the siege of Troy was primarily a skills competition, at least if Homer is to be believed. Achilles and Hector don’t end up facing each other by accident; it’s because they both defeated every adversary up until that point. Isn’t that how we all want the world to be? Not a battleground, but a place where ability counts for more than class, race, gender, etc, and especially more than luck. Even people who are low in skill should want this. For instance, I can’t play the piano, but I’d rather listen to piano players who have gained recognition by practicing and performing and refining their skills, rather than players who were promoted by more arbitrary or Machiavellian means.

At the beginning of the Fringe, reputation is one of the only assets shows have (apart from the latent quality of the production, which on its own is not enough to get people in). Reputation will bring punters in to at least check out Jim Jeffries and Robin Ince and the Pajama Men. But if they haven’t put the work in to capitalize on their reputations, then the story will be a Busta Rhymes-esque “Legend of the Fall Off”. On the other hand, Edinburgh loves an underdog success story, the show with no reputation at the start of the festival, and a sell-out buzz by the end. Perhaps it’s the closest thing in the British Isles to the American Dream, the dream of prosperity as a direct result of effort and ability, rather than heredity. Unfortunately that was my story in 2004 when I came to the Fringe unknown with the Rap Canterbury Tales. Now I’m about to embark on my sixth Fringe, so reputation will sell me some tickets, just enough for judgment to be passed, but no more. I’m no Jim Jeffries (Achilles? Leonidas?), more of a self-styled Odysseus type, the trickster, a bit too clever for his own good (judging by the critical response last year). Not enough of a rep to strike fear into an adversary’s heart, but enough to give him (or her) pause, a flicker of recognition. The train speeds past Durham, the warrior with a middling reputation crouches in the hull of the Greek ship, feeling the sea spray and imagining the battle to come. Of course, when I get there it won’t be battle, it will be moving into the flat, grocery shopping, sorting out internet, doing my tech-in, admin meetings, blah, the pitching of tents on the Trojan beach. Here’s to glory!

Saturday, July 31, 2010

My Crash Course in Evolutionary Psychology

From my blog "Darwin on the Fringe":

In four days the Edinburgh Fringe previews commence and I’m not ready! A few hours ago I did my first full rehearsal of the Rap Guide to Human Nature with a director friend and it was chaotic as hell, not the material but the structure (okay, the material was a bit chaotic too). What happened?

I conceived of doing a new comedy rap show about Evolutionary Psychology (EP) at last year’s Fringe, while I was in the midst of performing The Rap Guide to Evolution daily at the Gilded Balloon. Actually it wasn’t my idea; David Buss suggested it to me. He’s the professor who wrote the EP textbook that’s used in most college courses on the subject, and apparently someone gave him a copy of my Evolution CD which prompted him to write me this endearing email message (verbatim): “This is one of the coolist [sic] things I've ever heard! I've passed it on to all of my evolutionary psychology colleagues. You should consider doing one exclusively on EVOLUTIONARY PSYCHOLOGY! So many cool topics to cover. If interested, I'd like to send you a copy of my Evolutionary Psychology text.” I probably shouldn’t make fun of him for misspelling ‘coolest’ in an email, since I’m prone to such gaffs myself, but I just thought it was funny considering the number of books and peer-reviewed journal articles he’s published. Call me a geek but I was proud to have induced a geek-out in such an alpha geek.

So anyway, send me his textbook is exactly what he did, by mail after the Fringe, and I have spent roughly the past ten months working my way through it and about a dozen other books on the subject. Why? Because if you’re presumptuous enough to try to say something of merit on the subject of human nature, you’d better do your homework. But how much homework? Well, that depends on how much time you think you’ll need to write the show. Research for too long and you end up with a pile of notes and nothing coherent to say. Research too little and what you end up saying is either wrong or inane. It’s like an intellectual game of chicken: who will swerve first, me or the Fringe? Of course I swerved first, but the Fringe is a punishing deadline. You don’t just have to swerve first, you have to swerve well enough in advance to regain your balance and mount a steady assault.

So I started writing the Human Nature text about six weeks ago, and finished it about two weeks ago. But if I’ve been finished for two weeks, why am I still in such a shambles when it comes to the live performance, why haven’t I sharpened it to a razor edge yet? Because of the strange niche I inhabit, the niche of rap comedy theatre, in that order. For the past six weeks while writing the show I’ve been crashing on the sofa of one of Britain’s most talented hip-hop producers, Jamie aka “Mr. Simmonds”, recording and editing music daily, and the day before yesterday we finally put the finishing touches on the album version of The Rap Guide to Human Nature.

Unfortunately, having a new full-length CD (that sounds awesome by the way) is not a triumph either Jamie or I can savor, because no sooner did we finish the master than our gaze shifted from the myopic chiseling process required to craft a quality recording to the broader horizon of the looming fringe, where we will be on stage daily performing the material. Swerve!

Getting things into shape for our first performance on Wednesday is going to be manic, but either way the record is dope. However shambolic the live show turns out to be, that’s how dope the CD is. Every critic who points out a flaw in the show, every audience member who scratches their head in bewilderment at something incoherent I babble about on stage, I’m going to picture each of them nodding their heads to those luscious beats and think “it was worth it”. That’s the beauty of hip-hop, the head-nodding doubles as appreciation and affirmation, regardless of the question (danger!).

Actually, that’s how I’m going to console myself when adversity rears its petty head, but in the meantime Jamie and I will spend the next four days rehearsing like convicts with a chance to sing for their freedom. And here’s the best part. You can download the CD right now, for free (or rather, name your price). Do it! If you like it, you can picture me making a fool of myself on stage next week and think, “it was worth it”. If you don’t like it, well, then you probably wouldn’t like the live show anyway. Warning: it's not for the faint-hearted or faint-minded!

Okay, here it is:

Wednesday, July 21, 2010



I'd like to introduce you to my newest offspring: "Rapconteur". The album follows on from the Rap Canterbury Tales, and includes five new rap adaptations of great literature, oral epics mostly, but also some newer pieces, and some that I simply stumbled onto. The album was recorded and scored by Brighton-based producer Mr. Simmonds (aka Jamie), who is a fountain of musical inspiration, and who will also be performing with me at the Fringe.

Rapconteur contains hip-hop storytelling adaptations of the Epic of Gilgamesh (the world's oldest written narrative), Kalevala (Finland's national epic), Beowulf (the masterwork of Old English), The Merchant's Tale (from the Canterbury Tales), and the wild-card of the bunch, an adaptation of Edgar Allen Poe's The Raven that I wrote when I was seventeen and have now set to Jamie's amazing music. In the spirit of sharing, and as a weary acknowledgment of the changing face of the music industry, I am offering Rapconteur as a free download on a pay-what-you-like plan. The album represents months of musical and lyrical composition from Jamie and I, so if you enjoy it please do contribute. Click here to get it.

As for me, I have been in the thick of it working on my other (!) new show/CD, The Rap Guide to Human Nature, which will also be released soon as a full-length record. Last night I put the final vocals down at 4:30 in the morning, finished editing them, and headed straight to Heathrow airport for a quick jaunt home, so I am now writing from lovely Vancouver! This is a brief visit for a friend's wedding and for a preview show in Nelson, then it's back to the fray, with the Edinburgh Fringe kicking off in precisely two weeks. I will be performing both shows every day (except Mondays) for the duration of the Fringe, an epic challenge for an epic set of stories.

Here's a link to the Edinburgh listing, but since Rapconteur is on the Free Fringe you can't buy tickets, first come first served!

More to come...

Monday, June 21, 2010

The hip-hop Richard Dawkins?

That's the title of a review article in the current issue of Trends in Ecology and Evolution (TREE), the highest-cited peer-reviewed science journal in evolutionary biology. The review was written by the journal's editor, Dr. Paul Craze, who just emailed me to say that the review is now the number one most-downloaded article on the TREE website. I was going to post a link and invite you all to read it, but like most science journals they charge by the article and if you aren't a subscriber it would cost you $31.50 to download the pdf! So here's the full text, which I have extracted for purely educational purposes. I like to joke in my show about how it's the first-ever scientifically peer-reviewed rap, but up until now that was a pretty tongue-in-cheek statement. Now it's literally true. Enjoy!

The hip-hop Richard Dawkins?

Paul G. Craze
Trends in Ecology and Evolution, Volume 25, Issue 7, July 2010

Evolutionary biology and poetry might not seem remotely suited to each other but nonetheless, some have experimented with bringing them together. Erasmus Darwin, grandfather of the more famous Charles, famously wrote his work on the transmutation of species in the form of verse [1] and much more recently, in the days before impact factors gathered enough tyrannical power to put a damper on anything the least bit quirky, this very journal re-published some of the evolution-inspired poems written by friends and colleagues of J.B.S. Haldane to mark his 60th birthday [2]. Suffice it to say, both works are of more note for their intrinsic interest than their literary merits.

Perhaps this just shows that evolutionary biologists are not much good at poetry and poets don’t see anything in evolution to inspire them. The first of those sentiments might well be true but the second has now been comprehensively disproved. Canadian rapper Baba Brinkman’s The Rap Guide to Evolution is an intelligent, lyrical, witty collection of performance poetry that also manages to be an accurate, popular-science discussion of modern evolutionary theory and its wider implications. Those of you with an aversion to rap music bear with me; this is not rap as you might know it. This is rap with an intelligent twinkle in its eye. It is rap with warmth and humanity, far removed from the stereotype of the style as aggressive, violent and divisive. It is also rap that doesn’t simply use its subject matter of evolution as an amusing gimmick but rather draws on modern Darwinism with accuracy and insight. The accuracy is ensured by instigator of the project Mark Pallen, Professor of Microbial Genomics at the University of Birmingham, author of The Rough Guide to Evolution [3], making this the first rap album ever to be peer reviewed (as Brinkman is justly fond of telling his audiences). The insight I’m sure is Brinkman’s own, particularly when he becomes self-referential and cleverly uses the process of writing and performing rap as an example of the evolutionary process on Performance, Feedback, Revision or of sexual selection on Hypnotise.

In common with many works of popular evolutionary biology, there is a bias towards those topics that appeal directly to our primate brains (Hypnotise, Sexual Selection and Sexual Selection Theory all exploiting that obvious, perennial primate favourite, for example). But given the wide and unusual audience the music is likely to reach, that can hardly be a criticism, particularly when the material is handled by someone with the wit and humanity of Baba Brinkman. For example, in Brinkman’s hands a rap inspired by a song promoting Black Nationalism (Dead Prez’s I’m A African) becomes a plea to recognize the unity of our common descent: genetically we are all Africans, which, in Brinkman’s words, makes I’m A African the most ironically inclusive song ever written. What makes this much more than well-intentioned humanism is the frequent reference to the scientific evidence. To continue with I’m A African, there is reference to the fossil and mitochondrial evidence for the Out Of Africa theory, all in rhyme and with a rhythmical beat. And again in Group Selection there is no vague philosophizing but instead the sometimes difficult ideas about altruism and cooperative behaviour are faced head on with exuberant openness. Find me another rap album that references endosymbiosis, the evolution of multicellularity, Dictyostelium and cheater detection, let alone one that uses this evidence to such high-minded effect or includes suggestions of further reading in the sleeve notes.

I have just two criticisms. Once or twice there seems to be an equating of fitness with physical strength. It would be a pity if such an insignificant part were quoted out of context, especially since Brinkman eloquently describes the complexities of fitness elsewhere on the album. My second criticism is not strictly a criticism at all. I wonder if the Rap Guide will remain something enjoyed by those of us in the know, those who already get all the jokes, the allusions to evolutionary theory and the references to biologists. As Brinkman himself regrets with a knowing wink in Sexual Selection; while educated, thinking, older women wait to talk to him after his performances, their daughters and granddaughters are at gangsta rap gigs, being exposed to a very different set of views. There is an opportunity here to communicate good science to those who might never think of it as having anything to do with them. Fortunately, Brinkman seems well aware of this and is working tirelessly to promote the work as widely as possible.

I will leave you with some thoughts on the album’s last track, Darwin’s Acid, in which Brinkman argues against the claim that an acceptance of evolution means an end to compassion and personal morality. It is quite the opposite, his rapping tells us over a gentle musical background: the choices we make directly influence the evolution of culture, current biological fitness and the composition of future generations. In Brinkman’s vision, Darwinism becomes the ultimate argument for personal and democratic morality and his humanistic version of directed reproduction means that "refusing to sleep with mean people" gives us a good shot at utopia. While the complexities of inheritance and human mate choice make this less simple in practice, such a sincere argument for a Darwinian morality at least points to the absurdity of claiming that an evolution-based worldview means the collapse of society into violence, selfishness and greed. To Brinkman, this personal responsibility combined with unity of common descent is the grandeur Darwin saw in the evolutionary view of life. With humility, Brinkman leaves the last word to Darwin with a reading by Richard Dawkins of the famous last sentence of The Origin of Species, in which there is grandeur and the evolution of endless forms most beautiful [4]: perhaps the one sentence above all others that shows evolutionary biologists might know a thing or two about poetry after all.


1 Darwin, E. (1803) The Temple of Nature, J. Johnson
2 Maynard Smith, J. (2001) Cautionary tales for aspiring species or the beast’s book of blunders. Trends Ecol. Evol. 16, 717–720
3 Pallen, M. (2009) The Rough Guide to Evolution, Rough Guides
4 Darwin, C. (1859) On the Origin of Species, John Murray

Wednesday, June 2, 2010



So when the review by Olivia Judson came out a few weeks ago in the New York Times, one of the main points of contention in the comments section was over my claim (in my online bio) that I have personally planted over one million trees. A number of commentators
cried foul (starting at comment #13 and precipitating from there), liberally exercising their cheater-detection instincts by opining that such a thing was impossible and I had clearly blown my credibility by making outlandish claims. The truth is I had indeed made the claim without knowing the exact number of trees I had planted, so yes, it was a rough estimate. All I knew for sure was that I planted for seven full seasons and six partial season and I was pretty fast with a shovel back in the day (my best day was 4400). I knew it was pretty damn close to a million, but what if I had claimed "over a million" and it turned out to be a few thousand shy? The shame would have been unbearable.

So today I went to the head office of Brinkman & Associates Reforestation in New Westminster to sit in on a meeting there, and I asked the head of payroll, a dear old family friend named Kitty Ypma and an excellent accountant and book-keeper, if she would be so kind as to pull my employee files going all the way back to when I planted my first tree at the age of 15 in 1994, and tally up my yearly totals to see whether or not I was full of it. Well, I just got the email from Kitty a few minutes ago confirming that my total trees planted from 1994 - 2010 is precisely 1,046,105, so thankfully I do not owe the New York Times or anyone else a contrite retraction, (though I admit I was holding my breath!)

Speaking of planting, I had been planting with my brother's crew for the past few weeks, but I left a week ago to fly to New York for my appearance on the Rachel Maddow Show last Friday, and when I returned Erik informed me that there was a truck broken down and he needed to lay someone off until it was fixed, so I volunteered. So I've been holed up in Vancouver for the past couple of days working on my Beowulf adaptation for the Edinburgh Fringe and writing video treatments for the Wellcome Trust
Rap Guide to Evolution videos, but tomorrow I'm heading back out to camp for another week or so of planting before I fly to the UK for the summer festival circuit.

By the way, at the camp party ten days ago we filmed a music video with Smoky Tiger for our song "The Road Northwest" so look out for that on my youtube channel in a few weeks, directed by Syd Woodward at If you aren't familiar with Canadian tree-planting sub-culture, check out the video for Smoky Tiger's anthem "The Tree Planter's Waltz" which we filmed last year in camp. 'Til next time, stay vigilant!


Thursday, May 13, 2010

Darwin Got It Going On

New York, New York, big city of dreams...

Well, the day before yesterday I returned from my first off-Broadway run, landed in Vancouver, and promptly came down with a wretched case of strep throat. My friend Dodd from NY wrote me a message to say "New York done broke you down!" and I wrote back to say "Yeah, well I stole the fire, so the NY gods had to punish me". Stole the fire? That's a little megalomaniacal isn't it? Judge for yourself.

The first show I did on Tuesday last week had an audience of 35 in a venue that seats 300, and although it was a good show, things weren't exactly looking good for making my mark. But like Perseus overcoming adversity with the help of Athena, a science demigoddess reached down from above to bestow a few gifts on me at just the right time (I didn't say I stole the fire unaided). The helper-spirit in this case was the biologist Olivia Judson, author of "Dr. Titania's Sex Advice to All Creation", who was the opening speaker at my show two weeks ago in Barnstaple, North Devon. Olivia also happens to be a columnist for the New York Times, and she went on to write the most gushingly positive review I have had yet, even going so far as to refer to me as "brilliant" and "burly" in consecutive paragraphs (evidently she was aiming to win me more than just an audience). Her review was soon at the top of the front page of, and was the number four most-emailed link of the day last Wednesday. Here's the link if you want to read it yourself: click here.

If you have time, take a moment to check out the comments, especially the hilarious debate about whether or not I've blown my credibility by claiming in my bio that I have personally planted over a million trees. Commentators with varying degrees of knowledge about the process of tree-planting weigh in as to whether it's possible (including myself, at the bottom of page one). The New York Times editorial staff also highlight their favorite comments, and here's one of the ones they selected (from Brazil, on page four): "It seems that every religion has the music it deserves. Christianity has Palestrina, Bach, Handel and Mozart; the new faith of evolutionism has Baba Brinkman rapping about Darwin." Ouch! I'd be offended if I weren't so tickled by the guy's wit, although I would add that every system of thought also has the intellectuals it deserves.

And the outcome? My website crashed from the traffic surge and I was glutted with an onslaught of approximately five hundred emails in three days, many of them from people downloading the CD or asking to join the mailing list (welcome aboard!) and many others from people inviting me to perform in sundry lands, my absolute favorite kind of onslaught. Other outcomes were that after Thursday we sold out the whole rest of the run, with capacity crowds on Friday and Saturday, and even the extra show we added on Sunday. Furthermore, I was invited to speak/perform at TEDxEast, the regional TED conference that took place in New York last weekend, where I got to meet Richard Saul Wurman, the founder of TED talks, as well as a score of other inspiring individuals. I even ended up on the main page of (the right-wing propaganda version of wikipedia) which accused me of "promoting evolutionary nonsense". There were other outcomes as well, even more tantalizing ones, but without inked agreements I will refrain from announcing anything prematurely. Suffice to say, I expect to be spending a lot more time in New York before too long.

So now I'm in Merritt, BC, where I'll be tree-planting with my brother's crew for the next few weeks, while also sorting through my email glut and working on new material for Edinburgh. Then in June I'm back in England for Glastonbury and other gigs, but the first order of business when I get to London, I'm sure you'll all agree, is to take Olivia Judson out to dinner to thank her. If you haven't read Dr. Titania yet I highly recommend it, and no, that isn't just reciprocal altruism talking. All the best from the Rocky Mountains,


Sunday, April 25, 2010

First We Take Manhattan...

Dear Friends with Friends in New York,

Because let’s face it, everyone knows someone who lives or recently lived in New York. In less than two weeks The Rap Guide to Evolution will be doing its first off-Broadway run at the Bleecker Street Theatre, with performances May 4, 6, 7 & 8. The venue is large and the city is bustling, so our challenge is to get the word out to all and sundry, especially theatre people, science people, education people, and hip-hop people. I say “especially” because those are the people most likely to pass on the invitation to their networks as well, even though the show really is for everyone with opposable thumbs, bipedal locomotion, language use, an enlarged cranium, African ancestors, a sense of humour, or any number of other traits that unite us as Homo sapiens.

The New Yorker recently emailed me asking for an exclusive quote to add to their listing (apparently they don’t stoop to quoting press releases) and I gave them this:
“Having performed The Rap Guide to Evolution in England, Scotland, Australia, Hong Kong, Canada and the USA, I’ve decided I need to focus my efforts on performing in the States. Why? Because it seems like everywhere else I’m preaching to the converted, but in America evolution is – bafflingly – still controversial. We’ll see how they feel when I get through with them.”
Hubris aside, my aim is to use this off-Broadway run as a showcase to attract a professional booking agent who will help me set up a major tour of the USA in 2011, because I do sincerely feel like that’s where the show will have the greatest impact and get the most passionate response, positive or negative. So I would be sincerely grateful if you would pass on the invitation to anyone you know who might like to come see it, or who might know someone who might like to come see it, since this is something of a make-or-break endeavor! The e-flyer is attached, and here’s the event listing on Facebook.

And what else have I been up to? I’ve been in England doing some gigs and also writing and recording lyrics for my two (count them!) new shows/albums which I’m currently writing for Edinburgh this year. The first is a sequel show entitled “The Rap Guide to Human Nature” about the scientific study of human behaviour, and the second is a follow up to the Chaucer show, which I’m calling “Rapconteur”. So far I have written and recorded rap adaptations of the Finnish Kalevala and the Epic of Gilgamesh, and I will be adding several more oral epics to the collection over the next few months (my end target is five in total). So get set for some seriously mind-blowing scientific and literary comedy rap this summer (oops, there’s that hubris again, just think of it as the cerebral equivalent of hip-hop swagger).

For those of you in London, I’ll be performing the Rap Guide to Evolution at the Greenwich Theatre Monday April 26th, so please come see the show if you can (we’ll be filming it for the Wellcome Trust videos). Here’s the link.

Or if you’re not on Facebook here’s the venue link.

And for those of you in Devon (South West England), I’ll be performing there this week as well. Click here for the listing.

And for those of you thinking: “yeah, great, but what about your trip to the Middle East?!?”, well, Egypt and Palestine really were the most exhilarating and challenging places we’ve performed the Rebel Cell to date, and I have written a few blog entries about it and will write more when I have a moment. Suffice to say, doing a politically-themed show for politically-engaged audiences in a politically-tumultuous part of the world is bound to be a complicated experience. Here’s what I’ve written so far, and bear with me for the rest.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

The Rebel Cell in the Middle East (Part 2)

Continued from Part 1

We arrived in Cairo a few days before our show and took some time to check out the city and go over our material. We were staying in a hotel just a few blocks from the Culturewheel venue, which was built in the concrete space beneath an overpass (what the British call a “flyover”) leading to a nearby bridge over the Nile. Large posters adorned the pillars and walls around the venue with our pictures and the heading: “Rebell Cell – British Hip-hop Band”. This may have been a “lost in translation” moment or it may have been a deliberate strategy by the venue to try to pull a crowd with the promise of a concert, but either way the result was misleading since the Rebel Cell is definitely a theatrical performance.
Rehearsing the show in our hotel room the day before the gig with the Islamic call to prayer lilting through the window, the familiar material we had performed so many times in England and Scotland felt freshly provocative and alien, the outcome uncertain.

The Rebel Cell is a kaleidoscope of satirical Anglocentric cultural references, complex lyricism, and overt calls for political and creative freedom. Its political debate is not left vs right, more like left vs further left, liberal vs libertarian. How would it be received in an Arabic-speaking country with a record of dodgy democracy and human rights abuses and a socially conservative Muslim population?
Our anxieties turned out to be misplaced, for the most part. At the request of venue management we had to make several adjustments including censoring the (two) curse words in the script, and Dizraeli’s freedom-invoking naked dance was done in a t-shirt and shorts instead of his usual birthday suit. This was yet another example of “phenotypic plasticity”, or the necessity of adapting to one’s environment (see my previous post about performing The Rap Guide to Evolution in the American South). It felt ironic that the political content turned out to be less controversial than the profanity and Dizraeli’s naked torso, but it also felt like an apt compromise, since swearing and stripping are luxuries when compared to voting and speaking your mind. Or, to put it another way, government oppression is a more pernicious problem in the world than simple prudishness.

And the political content of the play was very well received. The turnout was low, about 40 or so people in a venue that held over 200, but the comments afterwards revealed an engaged and politically astute audience, keenly interested in the different strategies of resistance articulated by the play. One woman said she loved our arguments but couldn’t bear to watch Dizraeli’s character limping around the stage after being beaten by police for his political activism, since she had experienced that herself. It was clear from their restlessness (and garish hip-hop attire) that some people sitting in the audience had come expecting a rap concert only to find a couple of white guys on stage having a Socratic debate in rhyme, but at least one of them stepped to us after the show (yo!) and said he was really disappointed at first but that we won him over and he really loved it by the end.

With a free day the next day we went to see the pyramids (complete with sphinx-side cypher) and the plan was to leave the following morning for Israel by bus in order to be in Tel Aviv that night for the Seder, the Jewish feast marking the first day of Passover. Noa was in Tel Aviv for the holiday and had invited us to stay at her mother’s place and join the ritual family feed, but Dizraeli and Billy (his documentary-making companion) had dropped their laundry off at a local place without checking when it opened the next morning, and it soon became clear that they would either have to ditch their clothes or miss the bus and spend an extra day in Cairo (they chose the latter).

Even though I had done all of my travel by air up until that point, I was intending to join in the overland adventure just for the Egypt/Israel portion of the trip. This was partly out of team solidarity with Dizraeli and partly to get a different view of the terrain and partly for the adventure but definitely not because I think consumer boycotts of air travel offer a viable solution to climate change. I agree that flying should be avoided when overland travel is a proportionate option, but in this case I was utterly unwilling to be held hostage and miss the Seder feast because of their laundry cock-up, so when the reality of the situation sank in I explained my position to Dizraeli and Billy (with regrets to the loss of solidarity) and hastily booked a plane, arriving in Tel Aviv the next day in time for lunch.
In the spirit of his unplaned project, Dizraeli pointed out later that I wasn't really hostage to his laundry, that I could have taken the bus on my own and still made it there by dinner, and he's right. So the bottom line is that I flew for the same reason everyone does: because it was easier and faster and I didn't need the hassle.

Next: I get stuffed at the Seder feast and do my one performance in Israel, and we experience both Israeli and Palestinian hip-hop, float in the Dead Sea, and perform the Rebel Cell in the West Bank.

To be continued…

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

The Rebel Cell in the Middle East (Part 1)


Two weeks ago I touched down in the UK after twelve days in the Middle East, including Rebel Cell performances in Egypt and Palestine, and a visit to Tel Aviv, and my impressions of the trip have been percolating constantly ever since, trying to find a smooth exit, but it's mostly been gridlock. However, the further I get from the experience the less of it I am likely to capture with any lucidity, so I'm going to try to piece it together.

The trip was originally initiated by a grant from the UK Economic and Social Research Council, which has a fund for promoting cultural exchanges with Egypt, especially ones with a political or democratic slant, and the play Dizraeli and I co-wrote in 2008 apparently qualifies. The play is about the politics of resistance and progressive change, set in a totalitarian future dystopia, and it takes the form of a Socratic dialogue between two ideological adversaries. Dizraeli’s character argues for the collectivist anarchist model of direct action and my character argues for participatory democracy and the social contract. At the root of this debate is the question of whether “the system” (ie capitalism and liberal democracy) is inherently exploitive and requires an overhaul (or overthrow), or whether it provides collective net benefits and only needs to be regulated and fine-tuned to correct specific abuses and injustices. This question is largely academic in England and Canada, since there are very few people here who would endorse an armed revolution (hence the dystopian future setting), but in Egypt and Palestine, where the right to vote, freely travel, peaceably assemble, and speak your mind are routinely suppressed with state violence, the question of “revolution vs reform” weighs much more heavily.

We were booked to perform the Rebel Cell at the El Sawy Culturewheel in Cairo on March 27th and had our travel and fees covered from the UK and back by the ESRC, just for a single performance, so naturally we decided to cast our net a bit wider. We reached out to contacts in both Israel and Palestine, hoping we could arrange performances of the Rebel Cell on “both sides of the fence”. Our rationale was that the subject matter of the play is highly relevant to both Palestinians under occupation and conscientious Israelis who oppose the occupation, and it would foster dialogue and possibly provide a small means to “reach across the divide”, etc, since that is essentially what the play is about: the importance of respectful debate and of friendships that cross ideological boundaries. If our motives sound naïve, I should add that Dizraeli and I are not particularly well versed in the politics of the region, nor did we really do our homework before embarking on this trip. My only excuse is that I’ve been too busy over the past few months, but busy is always relative. In retrospect I feel a bit like a kid who has been skipping through a field, oblivious to the sign nearby that says “Danger! Landmines!” Why does the child miss the sign, because he is merely engrossed in his thoughts, or because he has a psychological incentive to overlook it? And why do I suspect there is something quintessentially Canadian about this feeling? In the case of this trip, the sign said: “Danger! Cultural Boycott!”

Our first clear glimpse of the danger sign came when we were planning the dates of our trip: should we try to go to Israel/Palestine before Egypt or after? When we floated this idea to Dr. Caroline Rooney, the Zimbabwean professor of post-colonial studies who secured the funds and coordinated everything for us, she said it wouldn’t be possible to get us flights to Israel because of the cultural and academic boycott (ie: as an academic she would play no part in arranging this or funding it). So we had to get our flights in and out of Cairo and travel to Israel in between. Actually at this point I should mention that when I say “our flights into and out of Cairo” I am only referring to myself and the Rebel Cell DJ, but not Dizraeli. This is because Dizraeli undertook his journey to the Middle East entirely overland with a documentary filmmaker in tow, taking trains and buses from England through Europe, Turkey, Syria, Jordan, and finally to Egypt, ten days in each direction, as a form of climate change activism. The concordance between our travel decisions and the arguments of our characters in the play is uncanny and could inspire an entire doctoral thesis, but for now I will treat this as a tangent, since the bottom line is that we had to arrange to be in the same place at the same time, one way or another, in order to do the play. If you want to learn more about Dizraeli’s overland adventure and its purported political significance, check out

So what to do about this boycott question? When we heard the news from Dr. Rooney about our travel funding restrictions Dizraeli and I had a conversation: should we perform in Israel? What if we get offered gigs in Israel but not Palestine? What if we get offered gigs in both, by a peace-building NGO, but the funding all comes from Israel? What if the Palestinian venues won’t host us after playing in Israel? The two closest friends I have who are knowledgeable about the area are Daniel, a British MC living in Israel, who is also one-half of a Jewish/Muslim hip-hop group (the Jewish half), and Noa, an Israeli living in England, and both of them advised us to play both sides, essentially to ignore the boycott for the reasons cited above, ie to “keep artistic dialogue open despite possible disagreements”. Let's call this the "Leonard Cohen approach", since he recently played a concert near Tel Aviv, and answered the boycott call by attempting to set up a gig in Ramallah to "balance" the Israeli one (sound familiar?), which fell through in the face of strong opposition from the boycott campaign. He then offered the proceeds from his Israel concert to support peace-building efforts through a fund that was to be administered by Amnesty International, but Amnesty also divested in the face of boycott pressure, so the funds instead went to a charity called Parents Circle. However, Daniel was at the concert and he tells me Leonard Cohen made repeated calls for peace from the stage, calls for both Palestinians and Israelis to respect the suffering and humanity of the other side, and in his view this was a positive event that brought peace closer.

Noa and Daniel also both pointed out that when it comes to boycotting oppressive regimes, it would be pretty inconsistent to play Egypt (a politically-closed society with widespread censorship) but not Israel (a politically-open and self-critical society). So we decided to keep our options open and see whether any offers came through, but to use our discretion in terms of who was funding the gigs, venues, etc.

When the British film director Ken Loach (The Wind that Shakes the Barley) pulled his most recent film out of the Melbourne Film Festival because the festival was partially funded by the Israeli government, he and his co-producers defended their decision in the Guardian by saying “Israeli film-makers are not the target. State involvement is”. This was essentially our position as well: how could we reach out to individual Israeli citizens without providing support in any way for the state of Israel?

However, with our Cairo performance only ten days away we still hadn’t been offered any gigs in either Israel or Palestine, so the entire debate was beginning to look, once again, academic. Since we had already booked our trains and planes and committed to the dates it was starting to look like we would end up doing the tourist thing after all, visiting Israel and Palestine but not performing in either, and since you get to Palestine via Israel from Egypt anyway there seemed to be very little controversy. But then we got word from a contact of Dizraeli’s, Baha, that we would be performing the Rebel Cell at two different venues in the West Bank, in Beit Sahour (near Bethlehem) and Ramallah April 1st and 3rd.

I had read some arguments for and against the cultural boycott online in the run-up to our trip, but my instinct in such cases is to suspend judgment until I’ve seen for myself what is at stake. In the next installment, I’ll try to explain what I saw, and how it has affected my views on this quintessential question: what is the best way to promote justice?

To be continued...