Over the past three years, I have been playing highoctane shows across the UK, from dimly lit pub basements to massive stages at huge music festivals.
My goal? To become a better rapper and comedian – while also working my way towards a doctorate in the intricacies of protein-protein interactions in cancer pathways.
Listen to my music and you’ll hear a lot about my scientific life. My songs are equal parts hip hop and peer-reviewed science. They’re like Professor Green meets Professor Hawking or Dr Dre crossed with the British Medical Journal. I often joke that when my mixtape drops, it’ll be played on both BBC Radio 1Xtra and Radio 4. The closest I’ve come so far is a freestyle featured on Radio 4’s Inside Science.
This journey has been an extraordinary one. I have been given world-class comedy mentoring from the Science Showoff Talent Factory, had my rapping studied in an MRI scanner by neuroscientist Sophie Scott and, earlier this year, was named winner of FameLab UK – meaning that I am the best science communicator that the UK has to offer – until someone else wins next year.
People ask me if it is difficult being both a scientist and a performer. I remind them that I’m a mixed-race Ghanaian-British man, brought up in South London but schooled in Surrey. My entire life has been a stream of identity issues and different masks.
It would be easy to think that these career paths – scientist and performer – are somewhat mutually destructive. “Real” researchers don’t spend their free time lyricising, and no “real” rapper has a PhD (Kanye West’s honorary doctorate from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago notwithstanding). Yet I have found it the exact opposite – becoming a better performer has helped me to become a better researcher, and vice versa.
The creative mindset needed to write a song is the same mindset used to create narratives when writing papers or grant applications. And it’s far easier to shake off impostor syndrome at a conference when you’ve just come off the high of a weekend in the shadow of the UK’s biggest radio telescope – Jodrell Bank, site of the Bluedot music, science and arts festival – with several hundred people shouting your song’s chorus.
The balancing act can be precarious, though, and I do try to keep my two lives separate. Research, by its nature, leads to unsociable hours. Performing is similar in this respect. It doesn’t help that I’m currently based in Bath and many of my gigs are in London. But I have adapted to the cross-country commute, and some of my best research ideas have come to me as I’ve been half-asleep on the last train back from Paddington.
I don’t do this because I secretly hate my doctoral work (it’s actually really cool), or because I need an influx of cash (open mic gigs rarely pay). I do it because I think that it is incredibly important for the public to see scientists as human beings. I do it because there aren’t many scientists in the media who look like me (I recently founded Minorities In STEM, a network for BAME people within science, technology, engineering and maths, to tackle this). And I do it because music and comedy are just as much a part of my life as science. I wouldn’t have it any other way.
My songs are equal parts hip hop and peer-reviewed science. They’re like Professor Green meets Professor Hawking or Dr Dre crossed with the British Medical Journal