Blackout, blackout, too late to back out
From New York City to Krakow, no turnin' back now
We demand infinite power that never taps out
And the shutting of all fossil fuel smoke stacks down
Don’t forget to ask "how?" Use every single tool
Got that solar bling on my roof, all of my neighbors are thinkin' it's cool
Renewables are beautiful, get them connected to every cottage
But the crucible is: can they get us city-level wattage?
— "Bright Future"
Baba Brinkman, 41, of East Meadow has been a full-time rap artist since 2004 — "no day job."
"I started rapping when I was 19, and did not imagine doing it in my 40s," he says. "But that's the beauty of a young art form, is that people get to define what it means to be an old rapper in real time."
Brinkman, originally from Vancouver, has found his niche as a "peer-reviewed rapper" and science communicator. He usually works with a science consultant who's an expert or researcher in the field to review his songs.
His recent music video "Bright Future" advocates for nuclear power as a solution to climate change. It's loosely based on the book "A Bright Future" by University of Massachusetts-Amherst research scholar Joshua Goldstein and Staffan Qvist, a Swedish nuclear engineer.
We talked with Brinkman about "Old King Coal," respect from his echelon-appropriate peers — and "The Rap Canterbury Tales."
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Q: Why did you release this video at this moment?
A: Climate change has been a topic that I've cared about and focused on for decades, been rapping about for years. I put out a record in 2016 called "The Rap Guide to Climate Chaos," which was about various kinds of climate solutions, and mentioned nuclear, but didn't really focus on it. It's the elephant in the room. It's something that is crucial and needs to be boosted as a source of clean electricity, and the longer we wait to take meaningful climate action, the more important nuclear becomes as part of the solution. There may have been a chance to transition to more renewables and less nuclear, but the emissions scenario gets worse, the emissions stay high, and people need a reality check.
Q: How did you become a "peer-reviewed rapper"?
A: My degree is in comparative literature. I did my thesis on "The Canterbury Tales," and I drew parallels between the oral poetry tradition of medieval England and hip-hop culture, and how both of them were rhymes, storytelling art forms that did social commentary and that people used to elevate their position in a highly hierarchical, stratified society. That was my "'The Canterbury Tales' is like a rap battle" thesis. And I did some medieval poetry-based rap songs and shows. I put out a record called "The Rap Canterbury Tales" in 2004 — that's not really peer-reviewed, but it was academic rap. And then a biologist heard my "Canterbury Tales" rap and said you can do Chaucer, do you think you could do Darwin? I loved that idea. I was a fan of Darwin and evolutionary theory, so Mark Pallen and I worked together in 2008, 2009, and I made a record called "The Rap Guide to Evolution." It was Darwin's impact on the modern world and why it's still relevant. That was the first peer-reviewed rap.
It wasn't even a concept that I came up with, it was this scientist who reached out to me and said I need entertainment for my evolution conference I'm organizing, would you like to write a bunch of rap songs and be the entertainment? But you have to send me the lyrics in advance so I can fact check them, because evolution has a pseudoscience problem, where people misrepresent how it works and what it means, and try to sneak religion in the explanatory framework — so let me doublecheck that you got it right. When we had gone through that process, he introduced me in the first show — this is Feb. 12, Darwin Day, 2009 — by saying, don't worry, I checked the lyrics, so what you're about to witness is the first-ever peer-reviewed rap! I was standing beside the stage, about to get on, in my head I was like that is gold. I'm going to use that for all of my stuff now. Over 10 years ago, and it's still what I'm doing, except that I've branched out into lots of different domains — climate change, neuroscience, medicine. It's a catalog.
Q: What's your process for checking facts, or including scientific research?
A: Usually I have a science consultant that's an expert or a researcher in the field, either working with me from the moment of inception and sending reading materials, or that I run through as a fact checker once the song is written, and then there can be changes. I see it as kind of analogous to science journalism. If you're going to write a popular science article about a topic, you have to read what the public perception is, read primary research papers, and then try to find the nut, right? The take-home, the so what. I'm trying to explain that in rap form. You do bring your subjective editorializing, poetic license as well. But my benchmark I'm going for, my maxim for peer-reviewed rap, is it doesn't all have to be completely factual, it just has to be accurate under a plausible, charitable interpretation. But since it's a poetry form, there are also going to be ambiguities.
Q: What have your rapping peers said about your work?
A: I have had a positive response. I've been living in New York for almost 10 years now, and I compete in freestyle battles. I got two trophies on my shelf right now from Supreme BARs' freestyle competition that happens in New York monthly. I do OK, I don't win every time but I do OK, and I get respect from rappers that are my peers. I don't consider Eminem and Jay-Z my peers, because they are way more rich and famous than I am, and rap has echelons. No super-famous rappers have really taken notice of what I'm doing. But the rappers like me, i.e. they have tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands of fans but not millions, have had a really positive reaction. Underground rappers.
Q: You rap, "The carbon footprint is low in France and Ontario. The way they chose to carry the load is scary to folks. But the resulting quality of life there is very dope."
A: The places that have done the best job in reducing their CO2 emissions at the national, state or provincial level are places that either are abundantly blessed with hydro, or use nuclear to get there. The numbers speak for themselves. The main argument against nuclear is the scary factor. It would be great, we could totally solve the climate crisis with it, if only people weren't irrationally terrified of it. That just seems like a PR problem, so maybe rap can help.
Q: I love your line "Old King Coal comes out at night." What's a line or two you're really pleased with?
A: How about the beginning of the third verse:
"Abundance, that's what happens when everything functions
One billion people today still have nothin' to plug in
Every third of a second another one comes in, no judgement
Just take the power production number today and double it"
People who are against nuclear and think everything needs to be solar have failed to take into account there being total energy poverty in so many places in the world. And you're saying let them eat cake ... they should have access to electricity, period, and they're gonna get it. Nobody's telling people stay poor, or if they are, it's super cynical. And solar's too expensive and not going to cut it for reliability. Nobody in the Western world is accepting the intermittency of pure solar. We've all got grids that back us up, and we take it for granted. Part of the song was just meant to challenge people to take perspective. Why should you have something that you're denying to somebody? Nuclear has the potential to help on a lot of different levels, especially the energy poverty side, and climate change, and human levels, and that sounds win-win.
[Note: Since this conversation, an International Energy Agency report said "solar projects now offer some of the lowest cost electricity ever seen" — while citing the combination of renewables and nuclear power as crucial to lowering emissions in the energy sector.]
Q: How are you feeling about our climate future, here in 2020?
A: Maybe you should ask me on November the 4th. You mean our climate future, like the U.S.' if Trump wins again? Unmitigated disaster. You could not imagine a person being more anti-science in the most devastating and consequential ways. People that think like Trump thinks shouldn't even be taken seriously in the public sphere, or heard out. And the fact that he managed to get to the position of the most power, it's hard to articulate how terrible that is. But Biden's climate plan is really comprehensive and ambitious, and exactly where we need to go.
Worldwide, there's models for how it can work, and countries that are taking it seriously. It's not all nuclear, my argument is that we can't take that piece out of the puzzle. I'm optimistic, actually. The intention and the tools are there, and people have come together to avert crises in the past, so we will again. Fighting the good fight.
There will be some warming. It's not avoidable. But it's like quitting smoking. Doing it now is better than doing it in a year. In a year is better than when you're 70. You've just got to do it, and start turning things around. So no more Shorehams. This is Long Island.