Fresh Prince of East Van

June 1, 2011

It’s Sunday night at the Railway Club on Dunsmuir. Squeezed together in front of the tiny stage is a crush of 20- and 30-somethings. The women display décolletage, the men facial stubble; others in the crowd sport thick, unkempt mountainman beards—tree-planting buddies, it turns out, of Baba Brinkman, who has just grabbed the microphone.

Wide-shouldered and fit, wearing jeans and a Charles Darwin T-shirt, Brinkman launches into The Rap Guide to Evolution. The show, lyrically complex and culturally skewering, is a parody of a university lecture, complete with overhead projections: “Chapter Six—Group Selection.” The audience hangs on every backbeat-borne word, hollering the chorus to Brinkman’s “I am a African.” Evolution articulates a generation’s frustration with the polarized state of public discourse: “We came from Africa first; Charles Darwin predicted it / ’Cause that’s where modern chimps and gorillas live / So the green is for the envy in the eyes of intelligent design / Advocates and scientific illiterates.”

This clean-cut, freckled grad student of medieval and Renaissance literature seems a world away from the ghetto-spawned musical genre energized by a generation’s rebellion against poverty and racism. And Brinkman couldn’t be more middle-class: mom is Vancouver-Quadra Liberal MP Joyce Murray; dad Dirk Brinkman owns Brinkman & Associates Reforestation. But rebellion does fuel 32-year-old Brinkman’s no-fools-suffered rapping. His celebration of the scientific method and slap-down of creationism have antagonized audience members in the southern United States, causing them to storm out of his show (and try to evangelize him afterward).

Sharon Levy of Dovetail Productions in New York doesn’t think the city’s sophisticated theatregoing audiences will walk out of Brinkman’s show when Evolution opens off-Broadway this month at the SoHo Playhouse. Exploring how Darwin’s theories of natural and sexual selection intersect with hip-hop culture, the show is a draw for students, theatre devotees, intellectuals, and scientists. But will East Coast rappers come check out this white-bread Canadian? Levy thinks so. Rapping is poetry, she says, and “good art is universal.”

Effusively verbal since toddlerhood, Brinkman had, by age five, invented an algorithm enabling him to multiply huge math sums in his head. As a boy, he refused to read books, although he wrote poetry. “He didn’t want to contaminate his thinking with other people’s writings,” says his father. His mother recalls her eldest son’s eidetic gifts: he memorized “The Cremation of Sam McGee” at age 10 in about the same time it took to read its 32 pages. Brinkman chuckles at the memory: “I’d recite it to my class—be the class clown; I can still recite it end to end.”

The family spent summers in the B.C. wilderness with planting crews from all backgrounds: Buddhists, atheists, biologists, mystics, and First Nations. As a youngster, Baba scaled fir trees to reach eagle nests full of cormorant skulls. He once fell from the top of a 50-metre spruce during a night climb to ogle a full moon. Grabbing at the boughs on the downward plunge, he stopped himself before hitting the ground. Guardian angels? Nope. Natural selection, says Brinkman. “I definitely have a primate streak.”

A 6,000-seedling-a-day high-baller, Brinkman composed lyrics in his head as he toiled. “There’s a certain hermitage aspect to tree-planting,” he says. “You have room to think and breathe.” By age 19, while an honours English student, Brinkman began freestyling and battling. Such freestyling, he realized, was a throwback to medieval performance. For his master’s thesis, he connected rap to Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, about a group of pilgrims who try to outdo each other with their stories. After graduation, Brinkman began his own pilgrimage, taking The Rap Canterbury Tales to fringe festivals and campuses around the world.

A period of intense creativity followed: Rap Canterbury became a book; Brinkman cowrote the play The Rebel Cell, released Mine the Gap with U.K. Slam champion MC Dizraeli, and created Lit Fuse Records. The indie label’s prodigies include Vancouverite Aaron Nazrul, 26, whose reggae-infused ballads have been featured on TV shows like Heartland. Then, in 2008, a U.K. microbiologist asked Brinkman to “do for Darwin what he did for Chaucer.” The result has been not only evolutionary for music but revolutionary for social discourse. “Evolution,” says Brinkman, “is a great source of material for being a provocateur.”

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