Da Art of Storytelling in Science & Hip Hop

Humans are obsessed with stories. We’re also obsessed with our obsession. Businessmen, politicians, journalists, advertisers, and the Pentagon all preach the power of stories.

Science Communicators and Hip Hop connoisseurs are no different. I’ve focused a lot on scientific storytelling in my coursework, so this post will focus primarily on the hip hop side of the equation.The first cliche to get out of the way is that all stories are pretty much the same. Get ‘em Kurt (Hat tip to Robert Krulwich’s blog).

Yes, people like happy endings. But most great hip hop stories don’t fit the cheery graphs that Vonnegut focuses on in the clip. Instead, they are tragedies. Let’s start with “Children’s Story” by Slick Rick.

Despite the slightly comical video, the story ain’t funny – so don’t you dare laugh. Its pretty much the opposite of Vonengut’s first trajectory – an inverted U that ends in destruction. Mos Def’s remake, a cautionary tale about rappers selling out, stays true to the formula.

The tragedy keeps coming in “Da Art of Storytelling Part 1” by Outkast. Jump to Andre 3000’s verse at 1:20  (Lyrics to verse 2 below).

Now Suzy Skrew had a partna named Sasha Thumper
I remember her number like the summer.
When her and Suzy, yeah, they threw a slumber — party
But you cannot call it that cause it was slummer.
Well, it was more like spend the night.

Three in the morning yawnin’ dancin’ under street lights.

We chillin’ like a villain and a n***a feelin right.

In the middle of the ghetto on the curb. But, in spite 
all of the bullshit, we on our back starin’ at the stars above

Talkin’ bout what we gon’ be when we grow up.
I said what you wanna be, she said, “Alive.”
It made me think for a minute, then looked in her eyes.
I coulda died. Time went on. I got grown

Rhyme got strong. Mind got blown.
I came back home 
to find lil Sasha was gone.

Her mamma said she with a n***a that be treatin’ her wrong

I kept on singin’ my song and hopin’ at a show

that I would one day see her standin’ in the front row

But two weeks later she got found in the back of a school

With a needle in her arm, baby two months due. Sasha Thumper.

So… boy meets girl. Boy leaves home. Boy returns home to find the girl facing domestic abuse and shooting up while pregnant. End of story. Things start bad, look OK for a second, then get a lot worse.

Both “Children’s Story” and “Da Art of Storytelling Part 1”, like many tales of life in the hood, are cautionary. This is the reality of people’s lives, but you don’t have to end up like them.

[Quick flash-sideways to storytelling in science. Many environmental documentaries have a tragedy vibe to them. Humans have destroyed the world. Let’s cry about it. Unsurprisingly, this is more effective at motivating depression and overwhelmed complacency rather than change/action]

Hip hop isn’t all tragedy though. Take Eminem. Though Slim Shady is no stranger to that genre (“Stan” being one of the most fleshed out tragedies in the rap archives), he also claims a rags-to-riches biography. This is good reminder that Vonnegut’s Cinderella graph is just as well-worn by rappers as it is by all other storytellers. Eminem makes the comparison explicit in Cinderella Man (“He came to the ball in his wife beater lost his Nike shoe”).

However, not all hip hop storytelling is quite so formulaic. Nas, one of the greatest storytellers out there, goes Memento on the game in a song called “Rewind” (warning: gets a bit explicit).

Andre 3000 also bends the rules of storytelling in “A Life in the Day of Andre Benjamin”. This autobiographical yarn ends with no ending (“And that’s as far as I got…”), which is kind of the point. He tells the story of his musical career from the early days up until his post-rap experimentation on The Love Below. After mastering the rap game, he’s not really sure what his next challenge is (see car metaphor at the end).

Luckily, he hasn’t forgotten completely about rapping. Here’s a tale of a trip to Whole Foods turned love-story. Way better than that Parking Lot Song if you ask me.

So despite Murs’s claim that storytelling in hip hop is dying, I’m sure that tragedy, boy-meets-girl, and Cinderella will continue to provide classics for years to come. I’ll delve more into storytelling in science later. But for now, keep your eyes out for the stories around you. Be aware of their glory but also their power. Appreciate the well-told ones, learn from them, and try not to get bamboozled by the ones designed to manipulate you (see politics, marketing, Nigerian princes, etc.).

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