Just Call ‘Em Dr. DJ

I recently listened to a report on NPR’s Science Friday titled “Teaching Newton’s Laws Through Rhyme,” in which they interviewed Christopher Emdin on his campaign to bring science to the “hip hop generation” by creating educational rap songs (excuse me if I proceed to use hip hop and rap interchangeably; I don’t know or care about the distinction between the two the same way I’m unconcerned with techno and its myriad subgenres.)  One particular exchange between the host, Ira Flatow, and guest struck me as being very disingenuous:

IRA: “I’m interested in learning what connections did you see between rap and science.”
CHRIS: “Dude, the connections are endless! Right? So the first thing is that, you know, the iconic role that scientists play in society.  It’s almost analogous to the role hip hop artists play within the hip hop community.  Scientists are often times the voices of the community.  They share the newest ideas and it’s the same thing the hip hop artists do.  Scientists are increasingly more diverse in the way they share information and so are hip hop artists. …Hip hop artists are anti-establishment.  They have to have evidence for the facts they produce.”

I find educational music a dubious proposition at best.  It’s like the edutainment games of the early 90’s which provided neither education nor entertainment.  Plenty of people joke about dying of dysentery in Oregon Trail, but nobody claims to have learned much from playing it.

  1. I’m unsure about the contention that science is inherently anti establishment.  There are many maverick scientists out there and they’re rightly labeled as crackpots.  Some are proven right afterwards, and their work is accepted into the body of knowledge, but even then that’s the establishment working the way it always has.  A scientists who goes out and decides to flout the scientific method is going to end up against the wall.
  2. The thing that usually causes a maverick scientist to be ostracized by the scientific community is a lack of evidence.  According to Mr. Emdin, rappers don’t make claims without evidence, just like scientists aren’t supposed to.  I’m not sure how much rap he’s listened to, but even the most cursory examination of the genre shows a tendency toward making outlandish claims.  Most concerning money and drugs. True, both of these articles were about rappers being called out on their claims, but the one from Reuters is about how Rick Ross’s career was in danger because evidence contrary to his claims might come to light.  Nobody asked him to prove his street cred up front. Is Pitbull’s career in danger because he hasn’t turned over his latest tax return to prove he’s worth billions? Nope. 
  3. Do rap artists often present new things? I thought the whole idea of it, when it’s not just meaningless boasting, was to report on the realities of the world the rappers are from.  That’s an inherently non-forward-thinking perspective.  It’s about the here and now.  Or does he mean that rappers develop their art?  Is he under the mistaken impression that rap is the only musical genre that’s evolved over time?  That’s going to come as a real shock to rock, techno, and pretty much all other forms of music out there. 
  4. I’m really unclear on what is meant by “the voices of their community” means, if anything.  It’s the same as saying “the President of the United States speaks for politics in the United States.”  Yes, scientists speak for the scientific community the same way clowns speak for the clowning community.  It’s such a vague, meaningless analog.

As I said before, the claims by Mr. Emdin were very disingenuous.   That he wants to encourage the “hip hop generation” to learn science is not a bad thing at all, and if he thinks this is the way to do it then good on him for making that effort.  But he’ll do well to come up with less patronizing, nonsensical reasons for doing so.  A simple “this seems like a good idea” would suffice rather than presenting explanations that potentially undermine his credibility.


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