A rapper is perhaps the last person I would expect to tell me about our global environmental issues. Yet rap can be a powerful tool for communicating the politics, economics, and science of climate change. That’s what I learned after seeing Baba Brinkman‘s latest show The Rap Guide to Climate Chaos in New York City a few weeks ago. There is something exhilarating about rhyming such a dry subject over a street beat and delivering it with the high energy usually reserved for lowbrow topics.
Baba graciously accepted to answer a few questions for Artists And Climate Change:
How did you get into rap?
I was into writing poetry as a teenager, and rap was the music we all listened to, but for some reason I saw rap and poetry as separate things. I was already a pretty good writer when I started college, but I couldn’t see how poetry would ever support me or help me connect with a significant audience of my peers. Then around age nineteen I tried writing some poetry based on the rhyme and rhythm patterns of rap, and before I knew it I was writing rap lyrics. That’s eighteen years ago now and I’m still hooked.
What can rap accomplish in terms of communicating climate change that other art forms can’t do as well?
Rap songs are packed with mnemonic devices, rhymes, hooks, melodies, rhythms, all designed to get the song stuck in your head, so they are naturally a great way to distill complex ideas into a memorable form. Also, rap as a genre is infused with confidence and swagger, and climate science needs a shot of adrenaline to drive home its core messages, which are actually pretty astonishing when you confront them head-on. As I say in one of the songs: “You want a new definition of ‘hard core’? Check out the intergovernmental climate report”
You presented Rap Guide to Climate Chaos at COP21. How was that experience? What was the reception?
It was amazing to be there in the midst of the negotiations and see the wheels turning and the process of international climate diplomacy at work, although of course much of the time observing negotiations is like watching paint dry. The result was exciting and the sense of being part of history was exciting, but the nitty gritty was a mix of fascinating and tedious. That’s probably part of why the response to my performances was so enthusiastic, because I was kind of a “pop up rapper” at the conference, there to inject some levity into an otherwise heavy atmosphere. Rather than a single scheduled show, I was invited to perform at multiple events, usually for audiences who didn’t expect me to be there, which definitely raised some eyebrows and snapped a few people out of their torpor. Here’s a blog written by some German students who randomly caught one of my shows, which gives a good sense of how most people responded.
What is the single most important thing artists can do to address the problem of climate change?
The problem has historically been stalled by a lack of political will, so artists, especially famous artists, can play a major role in signalling to their fans and supporters that this is a major issue and it needs to be confronted. Not everyone will apply their creativity directly to climate issues as I have done, but wherever possible it’s important to bring the issue to the forefront and be provocative about it, forcing people to face the facts honestly instead of resting on false consolations and complicity.
What gives you hope?
The people I meet at my shows who share my desire to raise the alarm, and the sense that the tide is turning and denial of climate change is an increasingly fringe position.
Chantal Bilodeau is a playwright and translator whose work focuses on the intersection of science, policy, art, and climate change. She is the Artistic Director of The Arctic Cycle – an organization created to support the writing, development and production of eight plays that look at the social and environmental changes taking place in the eight countries of the Arctic – and the founder of the blog and international network Artists & Climate Change. She is a co-organizer of Climate Change Theatre Action, a worldwide series of readings and performances of short climate change plays presented in support of the United Nations COP meetings.