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Public Enemy’s Chuck D once famously referred to hip-hop as “CNN for the Streets.” But MC/playwright Baba Brinkman is proving it can also serve as an alternative to the History Channel with his latest creation, The Rap Guide to Religion, recently getting its run at the Soho Playhouse extended through December 14.
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This isn’t some fly-by-night rapsploitation novelty. Brinkman’s been an established MC for decades, winning freestyle battles all throughout his native Canada as well as in New York City. He’s also been doing his thing onstage for a while, with The Rap Guide to Religion being his fourth off-Broadway show at Soho Playhouse (previous creations include The Rap Guide to Evolution and a hip-hop take on The Canterbury Tales). The show has been peer-reviewed by religious historians, so from all angles it’s clear Brinkman has his act together.
The Rap Guide to Religion is Brinkman’s explanation, from an evolutionary perspective, why certain religions have flourished in human society for thousands of years. It’s also a personal work, despite having less personnel. While his other shows have seen him joined onstage by DJ Mr. Simmonds, his Guide to Religion has him going it alone. “In a way, it was going back to my roots,” Brinkman tells us. “I developed The Rap Guide to Evolution originally as a solo show, and it lets me really just focus on presentation of ideas and telling them a story.”
The personal perspective has also changed in his life; this is his first play since his marriage to neuroscientist Dr. Heather Berlin and the birth of their child, whose image makes a cameo appearance. “I wanted to get more personal with this one, for sure,” Brinkman says.
The scientific approach makes his hip-hop narrative one of the topic’s clearest explanations. While Brinkman doesn’t identify his personal faith until late in the show, he incorporates different studies onstage for insightful commentary ranging from topics like which religions Americans trust the most and why people thank God when accepting awards. The latter has a particular tie-in to Brinkman’s life, as last year he received the NCSE’s Friend of Darwin Award for his efforts to properly educate audiences on Darwin’s writings. “You gotta say a whole lot of nice things [about Darwin] in public for a continuous period of time and communicate with science in a way that has impact in public education. I did one of my raps from The Rap Guide to Evolution for my acceptance speech. The idea of thanking God in an acceptance speech for the NCSE didn’t occur until later.”
Brinkman has taken his Rap Guide… shows worldwide, including the famed Edinburgh Fringe Festival, which saw him receive five-star reviews. Surprisingly, Brinkman doesn’t see much of a difference between Edinburgh and New York crowds. “I’ve been having a similar response. I feel like a lot of the hip-hop references are better known here, but I do notice British crowds are like geek crack, they love the geek references. It’s more of a challenge — the weirdness factor seems higher here, but in Britain they’re like, ‘Science comedy rap? Of course.’ ”
The cross-section of interest in both the “rap” and “guide to religion” elements has seen both Bill Nye (“The Science Guy”) and Public Enemy associate Harry Allen attend. “I think it’s a subject that people want to hear discussed more. Everyone’s curious about it, everyone’s interested in it. Talking about religion is walking on eggshells. That’s why I feel the scientific approach is valuable, because I can say, ‘Believe what you want, but I know what I’m basing my beliefs on — evidence in the show,’ and I think people appreciate that.”