Environmental Solutions with a Beat in “Rap Guide to Climate Chaos”
To attend Baba Brinkman’s “Rap Guide to Climate Chaos,” one part of his Rap Guide Trilogy, is to be led through an artistic and political experience that engages in all the ways our world needs now. His rap virtuosity energizes and drives the show, making it a magic act of instant audience engagement and political mobilization. The show opens with Mr. Brinkman introduced as a speaker at the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris. In the background, charts and evidence appear on a screen, complementing Mr. Brinkman’s simple costume of a jacket, sneakers, and the intense facial expressions that accompany his raps. Throughout the show, Mr. Brinkman moves back and forth between rapping, speaking directly to the audience, and embodying characters who represent particular beliefs about climate change. Early in the show, Mr. Brinkman offers a history of climate science, going back to the 19th century to identify scientists and their findings. The two qualities that make Mr. Brinkman’s show work so well are present in this song: his deep, encyclopedic knowledge of this material, born from his upbringing and research, and his ability to put this information into rap, making it feel current, urgent, vital. Mr. Brinkman’s delight in wordplay comes through when he reveals that you can change the word “money” in rap songs to “carbon” for maximum truth. Jay‑Z’s “Money Ain’t a Thang” becomes “Carbon Ain’t a Thang.” And so, the Notorious B.I.G.’s “Mo Carbon Mo Problems” rings particularly true in Mr. Brinkman’s show. In some of the most poignant moments, Mr. Brinkman delves into his autobiography to show his own path to thinking about the environment. His parents are climate scientists and activists. As he raps, if you’re going against the environment, “you’re dissing my mom!” Mr. Brinkman does not shy away from calling our current leader to account. One of the more resonant scenes is Mr. Brinkman’s rap to an empty chair representing Donald Trump. Mr. Brinkman raps, “Since you don’t read, I squeezed in a rap.” He raps, “you’re not my president!” This is a statement of fact; Mr. Brinkman is not a U.S. citizen, he’s Canadian. “Erosion!” repeats in the background of this song, as haunting oversized images of Trump’s face are projected across the backdrop, seemingly reacting to Mr. Brinkman’s lyrics. The sheer density of the information in the lyrics can be hard to fully absorb, but this feels like part of the show’s effectiveness. Mr. Brinkman’s brilliance is clear, and one feels in awe of his intellect and passion. In this way, an inability to absorb every fact and figure is replaced with the feeling that such passion should move us to action. His greatest accomplishment may be taking deep and sometimes obscure but important scientific knowledge, and making a connection with the lay individual who wants to effect change. While the rap is what dazzles us, it’s his scientific knowledge and dedication to the earth that are most moving. An appearance from a “Professional Climate Contrarian” finds Mr. Brinkman morphing into a person with a higher voice. In a complacent way, this character says, “All I ask is hear me out.” A slow beat plays on. The rap is almost seductive. Mr. Professional Climate Contrarian rails laconically against expensive renewables, and posits that fossil fuels lifted us out of darkness. What is abundantly clear is how brilliantly Mr. Brinkman creates subtleties and nuances of character to embody the different sides of the issue—and then to transmute them through rap. He brings himself into his inquiry, saying he will perform an analysis of his own climate impact. This launches him into a brag rap with lines like, “Fossil fuel is how I got here…,” “If you’re burning something, holler back!” and “If energy consumption is a sin, I’m a sinner!” Clearly Mr. Brinkman places himself alongside the audience in trying to grapple with these issues, sharing his own personal conundrums, autobiographical details, and even laughingly admitting that sometimes he can sympathize with the Climate Change Contrarian’s argument. “Make it Hot” was my favorite performance from the show, both for its message, lyrics, and visual and lighting effects. Mr. Brinkman performs it in front of footage of glaciers falling into water, and ice floes, revealing a bleak background. “Someone’s going to fly me someplace to perform it, cuz I make it hot,” Mr. Brinkman’s song repeats, and we feel Mr. Brinkman addressing his own complicity, as he notes his love for what he does and the effect his job has upon the environment. Around him, the lights get redder, creating heat, and Mr. Brinkman himself sweats in the heat, as the rap becomes more intense. A few more guests visit the stage: His Holiness Pope Francis and, finally, Elon Musk. The old‑school “You can get with this or you can get with that” begins playing, and we see a Tesla fitted awkwardly with solar panels, showing how sometimes serving the climate seriously impedes cool. Mr. Brinkman admits he’s been plagued by his sense that small‑scale consumer actions don’t accomplish enough. But, in learning that the number‑one predictor of whether a person gets solar panels is whether their neighbor gets solar panels, Mr. Brinkman realized that maybe consumer actions can make a difference, if only people channel socially competitive habits. He asks for audience suggestions for climate change solutions, and then raps a freestyle incorporating those audience contributions. It’s a town hall meeting. For each suggestion such as fees for garbage bags, congestive driving, tax credits for clean energy and more public transportation, Mr. Brinkman offers his opinion, thereby turning this part of the show into an interactive political dialogue. He notes that “freestyle’s not free,” meaning that even rap needs structure. He demonstrates how his freestyle could fall into incomprehensible gibberish without parameters, or, to make the metaphor explicit, regulations. In this way, Mr. Brinkman makes the ultimate leap by comparing the use of environmental resources with the rhyme and beats of rap. The final moments of the show grow into a call for action in which he compares climate activism to the fight for civil rights and gay marriage. By contextualizing climate change within the history of activism, he makes change seem achievable. “Baba Brinkman’s Rap Guide to Climate Chaos” Written and Performed by Baba Brinkman June 5- June 16, 2019 Photo credit: courtesy of Soho Playhouse Soho Playhouse 15 Vandam St New York City
CYNTHIA DARLING is a writer and teacher living in Hell’s Kitchen. A writer for NAfME’s Teaching Music magazine for many years, she also wrote for New York Family magazine. She is currently working toward an MFA in Creative Writing with the Bluegrass Writers Studio. Her fiction and nonfiction appear in Louisiana Literature, Schuylkill Valley Journal, and Wanderlust Journal.