Even the most political hip-hop songs don't typically delve into the intricacies of policy reform. Canadian rapper Baba Brinkman knows that. He raps about climate change anyway.
Brinkman’s live rap show and forthcoming album, “The Rap Guide to Climate Chaos,” plunges into the abstract, intricate and often dry world of climate science and policy. He covers geophysics, climate justice and renewable energy, and makes the case for policies that would reduce carbon emissions.
He uses smart, satisfying rhymes to educate, question and opine over original beats. “Scientists are telling us we’re perching on a precipice,” Brinkman raps in “Make it Hot,” a song about carbon pricing. “We need to convert the global economy and make it emission-less.”
Brinkman might not be a big name in the rap world, but he's a respected and increasingly popular activist. He calls himself a "peer-reviewed rapper," and the work he's doing -- using a familiar and expressive medium to teach people about science and policy -- is becoming more and more important as the effects of climate change make themselves felt around the world, according to scientist and educator Bill Nye.
“Baba is amazing,” Nye told The Huffington Post. "He writes hours of lyrics, learns them, and performs them -- telling you fantastic and important stories."
“The man can spit,” Nye added.
The son of farmers and naturalists, Brinkman grew up on a tree farm on which he personally planted over a million trees. Since then, he has been dedicated to using rhymes to teach people about science, covering topics from evolution to the history of medicine.
Brinkman came up with the idea for a climate change-themed rap while performing a hip-hop play about Charles Darwin in New York. A climate scientist saw the show and offered to help Brinkman write something about climate change.
“He said, ‘If you want to do climate change, I’ll be your peer-reviewed contact and guide you through it,’” Brinkman told HuffPost.
The artist began writing songs that synthesized the major scientific findings and policy positions on climate change. He debuted his climate-themed live performance at last year's Edinburgh Fringe Festival in Scotland. It was a hit. Brinkman was invited to perform some of his rhymes at the Paris climate talks in December, where he was a crowd favorite.
Given its popularity, hip-hop is becoming a useful way to communicate the urgency of climate change to the public, Nye said.
“Hip-hop is what is fashionable right now,” he said. “It's the style of communicating ideas these days.”
Brinkman is a particularly adept communicator. He condenses an encyclopedic knowledge of climate change into 90 minutes of digestible rhymes. Brinkman's rapping is smart, funny and informative. And he approaches his craft as a devoted student of hip-hop, lacing his songs with rhythmic and lyrical allusions to the genre’s greats: De la Soul, Nas, Run The Jewels.
One of Brinkman's biggest challenges in creating "The Rap Guide to Climate Chaos" was incorporating vastly different perspectives into his songs.
“I was dealing with this exact conundrum,” he said. “Am I going to be a doomsayer or am I going to be a bright-sider? Am I going to be a techno-utopian? Am I going to be a pro-market person?”
“I said, ‘I’m going to create personas based on all these different views, and by the end you’re going to be familiar with what almost everyone thinks about climate change,’” he continued.
In "Laudato Si," Brinkman takes on the persona of the pope to make a moral case for cutting greenhouse gas emissions. "Run the Joules" covers basic geophysics and climate science. In an interlude, Brinkman adopts a libertarian point of view, arguing that we should do nothing at all to deal with climate change.
But by the end of the show, Brinkman concludes that the most dramatic effects of climate change -- massive crop failures, superstorms, water shortages -- will start rocking the world long before markets can fix the problem. Ultimately, Brinkman proposes a carbon tax.
“It’s not rational to just chill, like the contrarians say, because it’s hugely risky and you’re gambling against the mainstream scientific consensus,” he said.
Brinkman's songs, which have titles like “Solar Panels on My Tesla,” might resonate with liberals, but seem unlikely to convert skeptics.
Fortunately, there aren't many of them left. Over 90 percent of Americans believe the planet is warming, and 87 percent think humans are at least partly to blame.
Not everyone feels compelled to act, though. Like many people in other high carbon-emitting countries, Americans aren't nearly as concerned about the effects of climate change as people who live in places, like parts of Africa and Asia, where climate change is already causing significant problems. In fact, only 41 percent of Americans think climate change is harming people today, according to Pew.
Brinkman's target audience isn’t hardcore denialists, but those people in the middle -- folks who are sympathetic to climate science but who may not understand the scale of the problem.
“I hope there’s a value to preaching to the converted in the sense of just energizing them to go back to the debate table,” Brinkman said.
Ultimately, Brinkman said he wants to encourage people to push for aggressive climate policy wherever they are.
“One of the things I want people to confront is that ... atomized, private responses to this are a recipe for disaster,” he said. “I don’t give people an easy answer about what they should do, because there is no easy answer.”
Brinkman will be performing his "Rap Guide to Climate Chaos" through June 11 at the Soho Theater in New York. His album is scheduled to drop later this year.