If there’s someone who could pull off a rap album about climate change, it’s Canadian-born hip hop artist Baba Brinkman. This, after all, is the guy who’s put his own musical spin on everything from evolution to The Canterbury Tales. Here’s what he had to say about his latest album—the sometimes kitschy but thoroughly listenable Rap Guide to Climate Chaos. (Photo: Olivia Sebesky)
The Allegheny Front: So you say yourself that climate change is an “unsexy” topic. So why make a whole album on it?
Baba Brinkman: You mean, besides the fact that it’s an urgent existential crisis that humanity must tackle for us to continue developing as a civilization? Well, I guess there are lots of other reasons. But the urgency factor is the main one: I kind of feel like it’s important that people know about it, think about it, talk about it and deal with it. So there’s a sort of public service aspect to making a record about climate change. But also, I think it’s fascinating—not just that it’s happening, but the way people respond to it. There’s something about the human psychology of avoidance of the subject that I’m intrigued by. And as an artist, I love a good challenge. If I can make a record about this—and make it fun—then I can do that with my eyes closed about any other subject, right?
LISTEN: Baba Brinkman on Rapping About Climate Change
AF: You cover lots of different aspects of the issue on this album. You even manage to work in a reference to the IPCC—the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which assesses climate change risks worldwide. Was it tricky to work wonky stuff like that into your lyrics?
BB: Throughout the song, I kind of leave it on the table—assuming the audience is going to know what IPCC stands for. And then at one point, I go: ‘The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change / formed in 1988 to get the science straight.’ And that’s me sort of defining the term. I do kind of like the effect of pronouncing it as being all sinister, but it’s actually this bureaucratic United Nations body. It’s not exactly like a horror show, but some of the various scenarios that could play out under business as usual actually do look like a horror show.
AF: Yeah, there’s a lot of dire stuff in here. But there’s also a lot of levity.
BB: Yeah, I think I was trying to walk a tightrope between the doom-and-gloom disaster scenarios and the sort of bright side perspective that, you know, technology and human ingenuity will solve it and we’re going to get through this together. I think too much optimism and too much pessimism end up leading to [complacency]. And you’ve probably noticed listening to the album that not every song is entirely earnest. A lot of them are ironic or tongue and cheek. And I hope that people are going to pick up on some of the subtleties and nuances.
AF: And so as you see it, who is the audience for this album?
BB: I think people who already believe that they care about climate climate but haven’t necessarily thought it through to its necessary conclusions. That’s who I was hoping to reach. There’s a lot of people who [think], ‘Oh yeah, climate change is a problem, but I bought a Prius last year, so I’m good.’ So I wanted to sort of shock the nominal progressive mentality and make people realize that it’s going to take a more significant response than just a few token consumer changes.
WATCH: Baba Brinkman Performs “Make It Hot” at the COP21 in Paris
AF: You’ve described your rap as “peer reviewed.” Did you really run your lyrics by climate scientists?
BB: Absolutely. And it was a climate scientist that suggested that I do this record. His name is Stephen Pekar, and he saw me do a show five years ago called “The Rap Guide to Evolution.” And he said, ‘We need one of those for climate science; do you think you can do that?’ So it took me a couple of years to get it together. But, yeah, while I’m writing it, I’m reaching out to experts in the field, sending them copies of my lyrics and trying to get them to come back with any corrections or suggestions about how to tell the story as completely and accurately as possible. This gives me the ability to stand on a stage and be like, ‘This is mainstream science I’m talking here.’ I’m just representing the orthodox view. And you can take that up with me or with the IPCC.
AF: Well, my favorite track is the one with the Coolio reference. But instead of Coolio’s “a West Coast party don’t stop,” you say, “a fossil fuel party don’t stop.” That made me laugh. So who are your influences, both musically and environmentally?
BB: Well, you can hear there’s Tupac and Notorious B.I.G. and Jay Z, Nas and De La Soul. Actually that song, “Keep it Positive”—the lyrics are almost entirely assembled from the titles of De La Soul albums and songs. And in terms of environmentalists, Naomi Oreskes’ Merchants of Doubt is just staggering and a must read—just to see the depths of depravity that have gone on behind the scenes in terms of convincing people that they don’t need to worry about climate change.
AF: You live in the U.S., but you’re from Canada originally. Is there a difference between how Canadians and Americans view climate change?
BB: I think Americans are a lot more skeptical of climate change and climate denial is a much bigger thing here. It’s much rarer to meet someone in Canada who doesn’t think climate change is happening or that it’s going to be a problem. But Canada is left of the U.S. on lots of things—and if I dare say—ahead of the U.S. on lots of things. You know, on things like gay marriage or access to healthcare, you’ll find that Canada has figured it out first. So with the Trudeau government just announcing a national carbon price that’s going to come into effect in 2018, hopefully that is yet another thing where you can follow closely on Canada’s heels.
Check out Baba Brinkman’s The Rap Guide to Climate Chaos at his website.