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Cancer gets a 'bad' rap

Cell meets song when rap musician and cancer scientist connect to create new music video


Athena Aktipis is an associate professor in the Department of Psychology at Arizona State University and director of ASU’s Cooperation and Conflict Lab. Professor Aktipis studies cooperation across systems from human sharing to cancer.

May 26, 2020

When it comes to helping understand cancer, Athena Aktipis wants to get her point across — not just to other researchers, but to anyone who will listen.

A cancer researcher at Arizona State University, Aktipis is also co-founder of the Arizona Cancer Evolution Center (ACE) at ASU, launched in 2018 with a grant of $8.5 million from the National Institutes of Health National Cancer Institute. ACE is one of 13 international hubs for helping researchers understand cancer through the lenses of evolution and ecology. 

Aktipis is also associate faculty at ASU’s Biodesign Institute  and an associate professor of psychology. As scientific director of ASU’s Interdisciplinary Cooperation Initiative, Aktipis' research focuses on how evolution shapes cooperation and conflict at the level of genes, cells, groups and whole societies.

But Aktipis doesn’t leave science at the laboratory door — or in the halls of academia.

“I see science itself as a creative expedition,” she said. “We can’t make progress in science without expanding our minds and looking at things from different perspectives. Science and artists have a lot in common — we all are trying to understand and make sense of the world and then share that with others.” Aktipis is also the host and producer of the science and humor podcast “Zombified.” 

One creative collaboration resulted in the creation of a new rap video, “Revenge of the Somatic.” Aktipis worked with internationally known rap music artist Baba Brinkman to tell the story of how cancer connects to evolution. Brinkman released the song “Revenge of the Somatic” on his 2015 album, “The Rap Guide to Medicine.”

The recent publication of Aktipis’ book, “The Cheating Cell: How Evolution Helps Us Understand and Treat Cancer,” presented a new opportunity for Aktipis to meld her interests with Brinkman’s talents. Working with animator Dave Anderson, they brought to life the world of a cell that rebels against the multicellular body, transforming into a cancer cell and then growing and dividing as the cellular rebellion grows.  

Video courtesy Baba Brinkman. Note: Some of the lyrics are mature in nature.

“As a middle-class white Canadian, I’ve always been a fan of politically radical rap music but never really had the kind of firsthand experience with oppression that the artists articulate in their lyrics,” Brinkman said. “So when Athena reached out and told me about cancer as a form of cellular rebellion, my first thought was ‘This calls for some rebel music!’”

Working with veteran U.K. producer Mr. Simmonds, Brinkman crafted a “freedom song” with a twist, making the protagonist a cancer cell yearning for the freedom of its wild ancestors who didn’t have to conform to the oppressive “corporate system” of the multicellular body.

Baba Brinkman is a New York-based rap artist and award-winning playwright, originally from Vancouver, Canada.

“I can honestly say that Baba's creative way of presenting the challenges of cancer through the eyes of a cancer cell affected how I thought about cancer as I worked on subsequent research papers and my book,” Aktipis said. “This is a brilliant case of science influencing the arts, as well as vice versa.”

According to New York Times science writer Carl Zimmer, “Baba Brinkman's song about cancer is blisteringly clever, summing up complex biological concepts in irresistible rhymes.”

“Revenge of the Somatic”

Watch on YouTube: https://youtu.be/80vc4G0ipi8     

Listen on iTunes: https://apple.co/2T6aqAC        

Listen to Brinkman’s "Rap Guide to Medicine"

Written by Dianne Price

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