by Joe Belfatti
On the heels of NY Climate Week, Canadian rapper Baba Brinkman brings his Rap Guide To Climate Chaos to the SoHo Playhouse. Part Hip-hop PowerPoint presentation and part newsreel/horror show of the devastation we are wreaking on the planet, Brinkman’s performance is a frightening and impassioned plea for awareness and change. It’s too serious a subject to be merely “entertaining,” and yet his raps are both entertaining and provocative. He’s clever, and he leaves the audience with a message to remember.
Hailing from British Columbia, Mr. Brinkman grew up in a family of environmentalist academics and spent some time at university before fusing his love of intellectual knowledge with hip-hop. Dressed in a t-shirt and jeans, he cuts a relaxed figure as he stands alone downstage holding a mic. On the back wall is a large video screen projecting arresting visuals by Olivia Sebesky. There are melting glaciers cascading into the sea, blazing forest fires and burning coal plants, smoke stacks spewing pollution and traffic jams on freeways: It’s our self-induced, carbon-fueled, apocalyptic modern madness staring back at us.
Mr. Brinkman is white and middle class, but he appropriately favors gangsta rap’s more ominous soundtrack (the music is by Tom Caruana and Dan Moross). His message is that we are all contributors to an impending climate disaster and that change is obligatory. After rapping the science behind the carbon bubble and rising water temperatures, he lays down some startling facts: The average American emits 20 tons of carbon every year (the global average is 4 tons). Kids double carbon emissions and pets triple it. 17% of global carbon emissions come from animals, but eating meat and lamb contributes far more to carbon emissions than eating chicken or pork. Our government continues to subsidize carbon-based energy at the expense of sustainable alternatives. “If you have some money,” he says, “it’s got oil stains on it.” He ponders polluting as much as we can get away with and asks, “Who’s going to bail us out? Mars?”
But Mr. Brinkman is realistic about human nature. Human beings “evolved to prioritize immediate threats.” The plane travel that burns fossil fuels also enables him to spread his message and earn a living. He keeps his eye on practical, collective changes to reduce carbon emissions, such as taxing pollution like the tax on cigarettes or luxury goods and using that money to mitigate climate change. Because peer-pressure can be considered an “immediate threat,” Mr. Brinkman shrewdly cites a study that showed the biggest predicator of whether one gets solar panels at home is if one’s neighbor has them. Since the most sustainable animal meat is insect meat, he offers the second most sustainable meat, Tilapia.
Director Darren Lee Cole keeps the evening focused and in a logical order. The raps can be quirky: One features a hook about the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change). Another is about Pope Francis and utilizes screenshots from the Pope’s Twitter account announcing “Unlimited growth is a false god” and “Compulsive consumerism equals spiritual poverty.” Another particularly buoyant rap about Elon Musk features the refrain “I’m rocking solar panels on my Tesla.”
As the SoHo Playhouse’s Artist in Residence, his target audience of students and academics is already converted to his cause. The voting public that most urgently needs to hear his message—the above-55 crowd—is also the demographic most likely to not be amenable to hip-hop. But his sincerity combined with an engaging audience talkback overcome generational obstacles. Indeed, his message is far more lucid and digestible than what is usually heard on our Trump-obsessed nightly news programs. “We have the power to change this,” he says, “by changing the climate of normal.”
Baba Brinkman finishes with some freestyle rap, reinforcing his performance as an intellectually psychedelic and perception-changing experience. Leaving the theatre and walking up 6th Avenue on a warm autumn night, one can’t help but notice the river of traffic running on fossil fuels, while patrons of outdoor cafes sit under festive electric lights, eating French and Italian meat-based cuisine and drinking wine flown in from vineyards across the globe. Twenty tons of carbon, indeed.
Baba Brinkman’s Rap Guide To Climate Chaos continues in rep until October 19, 2019 with four other Rap Guides as part of “A Scientific Hip-Hop Theater Cycle.” They include the NY premiere of Rap Guide to Culture (direct from 2019 Edinburgh Fringe Festival), along with the Rap Guide to Evolution, the Rap Guide to Religion, and the Rap Guide to Consciousness.
The SoHo Playhouse is located at 15 Vandam St., New York, NY 10013. Contact Boxoffice@sohoplayhouse.com or call (212) 691-1555. The Box Office Hours are 5:30pm-10:30pm (Tuesday – Sunday).