When an Atheist Rapper Takes on Religion
Kanye West is married to Kim Kardashian. Jay-Z is married to Beyoncé. The rapper Baba Brinkman is married to a neuroscientist.
“We met at a conference where I performed a song about evolutionary psychology and she delivered a lecture about cognitive science of the unconscious mind,” Brinkman recalls. You know, the usual.
In a genre consistently topping the charts, owning radio airplay, and a stable of parties and clubs, Brinkman stands out in a subcategory of his own invention: “peer-reviewed rap.” All his records are concept albums with the title The Rap Guide to [Insert Noun] and explore a different intellectual theme: evolution, medicine, human nature, and more. His new release The Rap Guide to Religion debuted Friday, Oct. 23.
“I feel like a lot of rappers grew up in a church community, since that’s a big part of the African-American culture. But I think there’s a lot of people who don’t relate to being churchy and religious and attributing everything to God,” Brinkman says in an interview, explaining the inspiration for his new work. “There aren’t strong voices in rap that represent the other view, that there’s a rational explanation for all this!”
Brinkman is not the first entertainer to produce intellectual rap, but it’s usually been done at least somewhat humorously or tongue-in-cheek. Think viral hits White and Nerdy by Weird Al Yankovic and New Math by Bo Burnham, or the music videos concluding each episode of Bill Nye the Science Guy. Brinkman, on the other hand, is completely serious—a “real” rapper and not a comedian or satirist. His lyrics often contain Eminem-style multilayered complexity, not only featuring rhymes in concurrent lines like most rappers but sometimes two or even three rhymes contained within a single line.
As a result, Brinkman is able to successfully combine mind-expanding academic knowledge but with beats that make you tap your fingers on the steering wheel and earworms that can stay in your head for days. In this respect, he maintains many core elements of rap at its best with lyrics often representing a 180-degree departure from the genre’s typical fare. An example of this fusion on his upcoming album is his track Give Thanks, which satirizes the practice of thanking God, a common practice for rappers—or indeed, musicians from most genres.
“Thanking God is the ultimate brag. It suggests that you’ve been chosen by a supernatural force to win in a competition. There’s no higher hubris than that statement. So basically, the fact that I’m rich and famous is proof that God has chosen me to bestow these gifts on. Say that in the presence of a poor person, you know what I mean?” Brinkman explains. “Thanking God for winning an award is thanking God for when someone else loses the award. That’s schadenfreude, a pleasure from someone else’s pain mentality. I was sort of locking in that angst.”
Musically Brinkman also incorporates elements of religious music on the album, serving as a deliberate study in contrasts. In this way, he pays respect for religion's contributions to music even while sustaining his objections to what he contends are organized religion’s non-evidence-based ideologies.
“The song ‘God of the Gaps’ is kind of a gospel-style chorus, singing like a hymn to God as a metaphor for being ignorant about the world and that you’re just filling that space with the supernatural,” Brinkman explains. “‘Bad Things Happen’ is supposed to have a sort of ghostly and angelic background, reminding us that if God exists, he’s responsible for everything that happens via the natural world. Then God is also responsible for a lot of the misery, so let’s not lose sight of that.”
Brinkman reiterates that his intention is not to provoke controversy or pushback but rather to promote inquiry. “I’m not an atheist because I’m posturing deep hostility or resentment towards God. A lot of Christians assume that—‘Oh, you’re an atheist, that means you hate God.’ Uh, no,” Brinkman laughs. “Being an atheist means you don’t believe there is a God, so that there would really be nothing there to hate.”
Brinkman also does not promote the view, voiced among some of the most prominent “New Atheists,” of religion as a “virus of the mind.” In the song “Andrew Murray,” he argues there are strong evolutionary reasons for religion’s existence.
“It’s not meant to be accommodationist, it’s actually accurate to what I think the scientific evidence is on religious behavior and what its evolutionary origins seem to be. The nice thing is that in this case, [the scientific approach to religious behavior and origins] aligns with a sort of more diplomatic approach to promoting rational inquiry.”
That’s a major reason why The Rap Guide to Religion was received positively, he says, by religious attendees of its seven-month off-Broadway theatrical performance, which concluded in May. “Religion builds community and gives people a sense of the transcendent that helps them work towards something that’s bigger than just themselves. In other words, religion can help people overcome selfishness,” Brinkman says. (Though he can’t help himself from adding a moment later, as an aside, that a flip side of that coin is its potential for tribalism.)
In the third verse of “Andrew Murray,” named after his Presbyterian minister great-great-great-grandfather, Brinkman describes the anthropological theory he personally subscribes to:
“So here's a definition of religion: it’s an evolved mechanism / For converting resources into descendants / Evolved via culture through religious competitions / And evolved in our mental architecture that’s intrinsic / ’Cause our minds are designed to get religious in the right conditions / Especially when things are fragile and your life is threatened.”
Brinkman said he didn’t originally to subscribe to that theory, but came around to it after reviewing much of the research on the subject. Reading half a dozen books and “a whole bunch of peer-reviewed literature,” the project took him about six months to research before first putting pen to paper. This is the same approach he’s taken with his previous concept albums as well, which reveals itself in his lyrics’ multisyllabic vocabulary and casual references to obscure figures in academic fields. On Religion, this hard work pays off with the number of subtopics he delves into throughout the 15-song set.
For example, here are his discursions on morality and ethics in “Neighborhood Atheism.” “My atheism’s intellectual / Faith-based claims are either untestable / Or testable and evidentially contemptible / But then I learned that atheists are unelectable / And trusted somewhat less than child molesters / Damn, I thought it was an epistemological question! / You’re thinking just because I don’t believe I’m being watched / That I’m about to go turn into Genghis Khan?” Brinkman serves an effective rebuttal to those who claim (usually erroneously) that such notorious figures as Adolf Hitler or the Columbine killers were nonbelievers.
For now, Brinkman is enjoying life while promoting his album, writing his next one devoted to the subject of climate change, and raising his 2-year-old daughter, Hannah. When asked if—upon first meeting his now-wife at that conference—he tried sealing the deal by playing his song “Dr. Tatiana,” Brinkman laughs. The song, off The Rap Guide to Evolution, talks about how he wants to “make love like animals” and vividly describes the mating processes of various species in nature. Sample lyrics: “Skip the spider’s kiss of death / Just give me ten consecutive weeks of sex like stick insects / I make solid sperm plugs to try to block girls / But I hate when they pull it out and eat it like fox squirrels.”
“Yeah,” Brinkman says, chuckling. “That actually set me back by a couple of months.”