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Verbal Bling, Homicide, and Afrocentricity

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When I was commissioned to write The Rap Guide to Evolution and challenged to communicate the key ideas behind Darwin's theory in hip-hop form, my first thought was to go through my record collection and see if I could find any rap songs that already center around evolutionary themes. The three that seemed like the best candidates were "I'm a African" by Dead Prez, "Survival of the Fittest" by Mobb Deep, and "Hypnotize" by Biggie Smalls. So I set myself the challenge of rewriting these songs to make them explicitly instead of just implicitly evolutionary.

None of these three songs was written with Darwin in mind (as far as I know), but all three capture important ideas that are taught in biology classes the world over.

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"I'm a African" by Dead Prez is an expression of black nationalist unity, reminding all black people, whether American, Jamaican, Haitian, etc., that they are children of Africa. As Dead Prez puts it in the outro, "It ain't 'bout where you stay, it's 'bout the motherland!" In my remixed version of the song (music video here), I remind all people of all races that they are also children of Africa, although some of us have to trace our ancestry back a bit further to get there. Since all humans lived in Africa (and had dark skin) as recently as 60,000 years ago, our current racial diversity is an evolutionarily recent, "skin deep" phenomenon, and the Dead Prez anthem "I'm a African, and I know what's happenin'!" is a perfect synthesis of that scientific fact, which is increasingly supported by more and more streams of evidence. Also, it's hilarious when I can get white people, especially older white people (not to mention people of all other races), singing along with the chorus. The more diverse the audience, the more transgressive and cathartic the message. We are all African!

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"Survival of the Fittest" by Mobb Deep captures the bleakness and danger of inner-city ghetto life as well as any song I know. From the opening lines "There's a war goin' on outside no man is safe from, you can run but you can't hide forever...," the song reminds us that the world is sometimes a violent, hostile place where strength and a hunger to fight for what's yours are all that keep you from being someone else's prey. This is also a perfect expression of the classic "nature red in tooth and claw" or "dog eat dog" understanding of Darwinism, in which organisms are locked in a constant and bloody struggle for survival.

The book Homicide by Martin Daly and Margot Wilson (summarized in this article) helps to explain how humans fit into this "war of nature" by exploring "the ways in which homicide rates respond to demographic, social and economic variables." Using an evolutionary psychology model to generate and test hypotheses about human violence, Daly and Wilson conclude, "Our homicide research indicates that willingness to use dangerous competitive tactics depends in predictable ways on one's material and social circumstances and life prospects."

My remix of "Survival of the Fittest" (music video here and live performance here) combines Mobb Deep's perspective with Daly and Wilson's, showing how the male coalitional violence and desire to fight for status and dominance articulated so lucidly in the original song are in fact universal (though context-dependent) marks of our species.

Another insight of Daly and Wilson's is the relationship between life expectancy, income inequality, and age of first reproduction in young women. This suggests an evolutionary link between homicide in men and teen pregnancy in women, both of which can be understood as the products of psychological adaptations for maximizing reproductive odds by discounting the future, triggered by "material and social circumstances and life prospects." Over millions of years, we have evolved the behavioral repertoire needed to deal with certain challenges: scarce resources, dangerous enemies, and significant potential rewards (as well as high potential costs) for strategic youthful risk taking. The bottom line is that in some contexts men who fail to risk violence and women who delay reproduction are the least likely to contribute genes to the next generation, and that's when Mobb Deep's "only the strong survive" perspective ceases to be "senseless violence" and starts looking like an evolutionarily rational response.

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"Mr. Brinkman draws parallels between animal kingdom behavior and rap as a survivalist expression of power, pride, menace and sexual magnetism. And as he wryly points out, what is the ostentatious plumage of the male peacock but nature's bling?" The New York Times

The Notorious BIG's song "Hypnotize" mixes real, physical bling with incredibly fluid lyricism -- verbal bling -- creating a harmonious whole with "sexual magnetism" as its explicit raison d'etre. What is the song for? The ladies in the chorus leave no room for doubt, singing, "Biggie, Biggie, Biggie, can't you see? Somehow your words just hypnotize me. And I just love your flashy ways. I guess that's why they're broke and you're so paid." According to evolutionary psychologist Geoffrey Miller, this isn't just what Biggie's song is for. This is also what "song" (i.e., the human capacity for music and poetry) is "for" in terms of its ultimate evolutionary function. If this is the case, then Biggie's words and their hypnotic effect on the female brain are fulfilling their precise Darwinian purpose.

For my remixed version of "Hypnotize," I had to tweak Biggie's message ever so slightly (lacking any real physical bling of my own to flaunt) by instead putting the emphasis on the verbal bling and its effects.

According to Miller, the ability to synthesize words and music into pleasing arrangements can be understood as a "costly signal" analogous to the peacock's tail, the nightingale's song, or the bowerbird's nest, a talent that was designed by evolution for a single purpose: attracting mates. And what do the ladies get out of the arrangement? They get an unfakeable guarantee of genetic quality, an assurance that the genes behind the display are top-notch and will produce healthy and equally sexy offspring, well-equipped to fight diseases (because a disease-susceptible organism couldn't maintain the necessary brain and body power for the display in the first place) and attract the next generation of choosy groupies.

And what about the female talent for song? Well, human males are choosy too, especially when it comes to long-term investment, fatherhood, and commitment. Singing females may be displaying the same qualities as singing males (that is, well-developed brains and bodies and sexy genes), only their evolutionary goal may be to attract quality instead of quantity. Palaeolithic female pop divas might well have attracted stronger, smarter, higher-status mates than off-key female warblers in the Stone Age. Hey, it seems to have worked pretty well for Beyoncé.

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