Friday, February 17, 2012

Rap Guide to Evolution: new "I'm a African" video

Back in the run-up to the Darwin bicentenary year, I persuaded Canadian Lit-Hop artist Baba Brinkman (creator of the Rap Canterbury Tales) to "do for for Darwin what he had done for Chaucer". He rose to the challenge majestically to create the Rap Guide to Evolution and I was thrilled to experience his premier performances at small poetry workshop in Hinxton near Cambridge in early 2009. The video below provides a glimpse of this earliest version of the show. In the week that followed I arranged for Baba to tour England, with shows in Cambridge, London, Birmingham and Shrewsbury.

Since then the various songs have undergone "descent with modification", with two versions of the album now out there (original and revised) and a sell-out live show which ran off Broadway for many months. Also, thanks to an encounter during the very first performance, Baba won financial support from the Wellcome Trust (and did a bit of his own crowd-funding) to create educational and entertaining videos to accompany each track. This has been a slow process, as he has to wait for the animators and actors to find time in their busy schedules to contribute, but the videos have been steadily appearing on YouTube and a dedicated website.

When I first suggested that Baba create the Rap Guide to Evolution, I asked if he could do something to communicate and even celebrate the Out-of-Africa theory, i.e. the idea first proposed by Chris Stringer and others that all modern non-African humans are descended from a small band of humans who left Africa 60-70 thousand years ago (pace John Hawks and Svante Paabo who now emphasise that a few percent of the non-African human genomes originated from archaic hominins from outside Africa). To me this theory gelled nicely with the pan-Africanism that permeates both reggae (check out this Black Uhuru track) and some rap music. Baba did a great job on this, with his track "I'm a African".

A few months back Baba visited Birmingham to perform the Rap Guide to Evolution for our students. During his visit he solicited my help in finding a multi-racial cast of volunteers to appear in the video for "I'm a African". From amongst students and colleagues, we managed to find two Indians, two Greeks, an Afghan, a Chinese, a number of Europeans (including me!), plus some people with African ancestry more recent than 70Kya, all willing to lip-sync along to the track against a green background, hastily assembled Blue-Peter-fashion from some card and sticky tape. Filming all this within our Centre for Systems Biology was a truly surreal experience!

Well, yesterday, just as Nick Loman was stoking our other blog up to blistering heat with the news of Oxford Nanopore, I received a note from Baba saying that the video for "I'm a African" was now finished and available online. So, here it is! Enjoy! Mine is the ugly mug a few seconds in!

A few notes on the video:
1. It's "I'm a African" rather than "I'm an African" for good reason, as Baba explains here.
2. The track is modelled on a track from Pan-Africanist Hip-Hop group Dead Prez. Listen to that track here if you want to compare and contrast.
3. Be sure to wait right until the end of Baba's video to see the architect of the out-of-Africa theory, Chris Stringer, make a cameo appearance, thanks to some footage I captured when he visited the University of Birmingham!
4. I suspect that the Dead Prez track was influenced by a speech "I'm an African" by Thabo Mbeki. Although later deeply flawed as a president, in 1996 Mbeki gives a great speech.
5. A few years back, in similar vein, with a Jamaican colleague, I created "Light be Thrown", a celebration in reggae format of our recent African origins and Darwin's predictions about how light will be thrown on human origins.