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Friday, July 30, 2021

More rappers should tackle environmental racism

Music needs to showcase the effects of climate change on minority communities

In the United States, music is everything.

Nothing speaks more strongly to the psyche of young Americans time and time again than the melodies, lyrics and beats of sonic revolutions brought by each new generation. Our grandparents had their Elvis; our parents their Bob Dylan.

We have our rappers.

Now, for those of us in college, rap has already been a long-standing act of musical rebellion for the youth — it’s not solely ours, per say: classic rap groups like NWA (their hit song: “Fuck Tha Police”) and solo acts like Tupac, Biggie and Eminem had already mostly disappeared from the scene when we came of age.

So, when Childish Gambino released a music video for his new single “This is America” on May 5, the wave that hit audial fanatics polled massive numbers in no time flat, evoking memories of decades past and making a mark in music history.

But it didn’t start with him.

A year earlier, Kendrick Lamar released his third studio album, “DAMN.,” which won him a Pulitzer Prize this past month.

A year before that, in April 2016, Beyonce’s “Lemonade” left listeners speechless as she sang and rapped angrily from the roof of a sinking police car in “Formation,” reflecting the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

What do these three integral music moments have in common?

Politics — specifically, racial politics.

For Gambino, Lamar and Beyonce, rap provides them the platform — and audience — to give light and personal anecdotes to racial issues that are frequently ignored by mass media. In “This is America,” Gambino dances away as police brutality, mass shootings and mass incarceration harms unnamed black people in the background. Likewise, Lamar solemnly raps about the inability to escape institutional racism when you’re a person of color in the U.S.

Beyonce, on the other hand, highlights the destruction of New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina — and former president George W. Bush’s subsequent failure to provide proper aid to the majority-black population (this moment also spurred Kanye West’s famous quote: “George Bush doesn’t care about black people”).

This leaves me to beg the question: Why don’t more artists — especially within the genre of rap — tackle climate change, when it undoubtedly affects racial issues now and will continue to do so within the near future?

“Lemonade” was not music’s first dabble with the issue of the environment: Joni Mitchell’s 1970 hit “Big Yellow Taxi” and Marvin Gaye’s “Mercy, Mercy Me (The Ecology)” speak directly to humanity’s impact on the planet and, consequently, its impact on communities.

What Beyonce, however, brought to young listeners was a nuanced connection between race and environment that was previously untouched by major artists in recent decades.

Hurricane Katrina is the best example of how the attention of artists needs to shift to issues beyond governmental politics and race. When Hurricane Katrina hit in the summer of 2005, the Gulf of Mexico hadn’t experienced many Category 5 hurricanes before. When it made landfall, New Orleans’ dilapidated levee system failure was inevitable.

It’s been 12 years, and tropical storm systems are getting worse.

Take the 2017 Atlantic hurricane season. Not only was it the most destructive hurricane season ever for that area, but this year’s is also expected to be above average as a result of warmer oceans and smaller ice caps.

Beyonce’s decision to focus on — and sing about — the fate of the majority-black population in the areas surrounding the breached levees of New Orleans should have set the precedent on how the music industry desperately needs to address global climate change. Especially in the rapping community.

As rappers decide to create albums about structural racism, they should turn to the nuances of environmental racism. White, upper middle-class Americans won’t be the first threatened by erratic weather systems and rising oceans; it will be the impoverished, minority communities pushed to the outskirts of cities that will first reap the consequences of a volatile climate — exactly the communities rappers like Gambino speak to.

It’s time to have a platform of our own that addresses issues specific to our times. Racism is prevalent in all facets of politics, but as climate change is going to become the most important issue in our lives, shouldn’t our music reflect that, too?



Written by: Erin Hamilton — elhamilton@ucdavis.edu

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed by individual columnists belong to the columnists alone and do not necessarily indicate the views and opinions held by The California Aggie.


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