If you’re looking for what may be undoubtedly the most left-of-center fun time to be had in D.C. this month, attending National Georgraphic’s “Bugs, Bats and Brews” at the National Mall’s Constitution Gardens on Friday is probably the best idea. The event celebrates biodiversity and features DJ Ecotone (a DJ who mixes animal sounds with exotic beats) plus a performance by French Horn Rebellion and a conversation hosted Chris Duffy that will explore the wild side of animal behavior, featuring National Geographic photographer and explorer Anand Varma, plus “Urban Scientist” and TED Fellow Danielle N. Lee. Between the beers and entertainment, you’re also able to join scientists to venture out on the National Mall to look for bats and bugs. Discoveries will be showcased on iNaturalist in support the larger weekend’s BioBlitz festivities.
But back to “Urban Scientist” Danielle N. Lee. She’s a hip-hop fanatic who blogs for Scientific-American, co-founder of National Science & Technology News Service, and holds a PhD in Biology from the University of Missouri-St. Louis, a MS in Vertebrate Zoology from the University of Memphis and a BS in Animal Science from Tennessee Technological University. Thus, a conversation with her about science and rap doesn’t just touch on B.O.B.’s flat Earth rap battle with Neil Degrasse Tyson, but also touches on sociology, biology, gender, race, metaphysics and more.
“Which came first for me? Hip-hop or science? Ohhhh wooow, I’d have to say hip-hop,” Lee begins. The Memphis native and guilty lover of rapper Project Pat continues, “I was in the sixth grade and I made up my own rap group with me and my girlfriends. We wanted to be tough and a little bit grown, we were wearing our kitten heels, we were called The Rap-Ettes. We had a song called ‘We Are The Rappers Of The World.'”
We are the rappers of the world / even though we may be girls
We rap in our own special way / We do it every single day
In many ways, given what Lee is doing right now in her life, her verses portended her future with an alarming exactitude. “I embraced [the merging of hip-hop and science] in graduate school, because I started using hip-hop metaphors to explain science in reproductive physiology classes. I couldn’t help but to think that when I was say, learning about the sexual selection behavior of mammals that were familiar to me because they had already been played out in rap songs. I define everything through rap lyrics. I have a rap lyric for everything.”
The “Urban Scientist”‘s love for merging culture has always been a bit of a tough sell, though. “I got push back about using rap and hip-hop in this way from my older professors, and I still get push back today from blog readers, too. They think hip-hop is specialized, but I argue that it’s mainstream,” Lee says regarding difficulties in the scientific community accepting her unique perspective. “The average reader of Scientific American tends to be a 50-60 year old white male with a college degree who works in middle management. They believe that [hip-hop culture aided scientific discourse] isn’t what [this journal] is about. But I argue that [journals like Scientific American] are trying to expand their demographics, and that being able to communicate in a way that younger people and those from [traditionally not-so-into science] ethnic groups are attracted to is very important.”
Lee’s methods — as opposed to the aims of the journals she writes for — are not about “reaching new demographics.” “We don’t have to bring people to science, we have to make room for them in the conversations and make room for them in the platforms that already exist.”
Lee’s most written about issue as of late was her brilliant breakdown of the Flat Earth “rap battle” between noted scientist Neil DeGrasse Tyson and rapper B.O.B. “I saw all of it. Culturally, because of my positioning [in both hip-hop and science], it wasn’t a strange conversation. Flat earth conversations are part of what I call the ‘Hotep bullshittery‘ that’s always been around in hip-hop. If you’re not familiar with [Hotep bullshittery], a conversation across black, hip-hop and scientific aesthetics seems weird and they don’t get all of the hidden meanings.”
When it comes to less hip-hop audience-specific commentary is where Lee truly excels. “I’m interested in mainstream rap because that sound is defining [America’s] cultural aesthetic,” Lee says. We all experience culture. So, I’m most interested in the intersection of hip-hop, science and feminism.
“I’m an educated woman and have a degree, but if you drop Juvenile’s ‘Back Dat Ass Up,’ I will comply!” Continuing, Lee notes, “[related to that] there’s a real conversation about sexual selection, misogyny, rap and innate choices. There’s a feminist critique of rap that talks about rape culture, consent and choice, but the parallel between that and what happens in the animal kingdom is a great corollary. Thinking about how super aggressive male animals choose females for fertilization via coercion versus cryptic [as in female-driven] choice. Using those lyrics to teach young people how to treat each other better and make healthy relationship decisions is important. However, if you listen to enough lyrics that normalize objectification of women and their bodies as a young woman or young man, it’s entirely possible that you’d think that [objectification] was normal. The science behind our sexual behavior is important.”
Looking deeper into issues of feminism, science and hip-hop culture, Lee breaks down how Nicki Minaj, Rihanna and Beyonce — arguably the three best artists in hip-hop culture based popular music — are inverting the base scientific motives typically employed by men and successfully re-contextualizing them in a woman-driven narrative. “[Nicki, Rihanna and Beyonce] employ the tools that the patriarchy usually assigns to women, but they do so much more. There’s Nicki Minaj who follows the classic rap tradition of being a solo female out of a male-dominated crew who plays the ‘sex’ card, but she’s actually eclipsed all of the other men in her crew and is the flagship artist. Rihanna is unapologetic about who she is and gives no fucks. She’s a ’round the way girl, but she’s talented and comes correct. Beyonce grew up in the shadow of her father and family, and her career was shaped by respectability politics and traditional African-American avenues for success, the ‘good girl’ route. She’s worked it, and is now blending class, sex and business, plus has booted the men largely out of control of her career and life.”
While Danielle Lee may only scratch the surface of the thoughts posited in this interview on Friday night, the idea that there’s a chance to hear related brilliance while also enjoying a few beverages, and yes, searching for bats on the National Mall makes this event more than worthwhile.