While it seems like I’ve been interested in environmental issues for forever, there is one thing that I have loved for longer. That thing is music.
Music is a way for me to momentarily forget everything around me, and simply focus on making art in the present moment. When you’re part of a music ensemble, it is no longer about you – you are part of something bigger than yourself, and everyone else relies on you to pull your own weight. Music can take us to our highest highs and our lowest lows in a matter of seconds. It’s a language that’s all around us, and can help us communicate our deepest fears and desires when plain speech fails us.
Music has been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. I started taking piano lessons when I was five, and started playing the clarinet when I was nine. And I’ve been singing since I could talk – at least, that’s what my parents tell me. It might be a good time for an embarrassing childhood video – this is me at age two and a half:
You get the point – music has always been a central part of my life. And so it was only a matter of time before I stopped looking at music and the environment as two distinctly separate facets of my life, and started looking at how they could be related to each other.
The first thing I noticed was that I wasn’t hearing any songs on the radio about ocean acidification, mountaintop removal, dead zones, or deforestation. “That’s ok,” I told myself. “Maybe I’m just listening to the wrong station.”
Unfortunately, that was not the case.
I decided to do some of my own investigating, and found out that there are very few popular songs – actually, very few songs period – that are written about the environment. I looked at this week’s Billboard Top 100 Songs, and here’s the breakdown of topics covered:
- 71 songs were about love – everything from flirting to long-term to break-ups to mourning an ex
- 7 songs were about recovering from some kind of challenge – childhood trauma, depression, etc. – and moving on
- 6 songs were about making something of yourself, succeeding, accepting yourself, making change, etc.
- 5 songs were about conflict – fights, running away, rebelling, etc.
- 4 songs were about partying it up and having a good time. Woot woot.
- 4 songs were talking about what it means to be a young person, or what youth in general are feeling in this day and age
- 2 songs were about friendship
- 1 song, titled “Rotten to the Core” by Dove Cameron, was simply about being evil. Go figure.
But where’s coral bleaching? Organic farming? Reusable grocery bags? They’re out there, but most songs about the environment are nowhere close to mainstream. Wikipedia has actually done a pretty good job of compiling most of the published songs about the environment, and you can read that list here. Many of the songs on that list were released several decades ago, at a time when people were out in the streets protesting dirty waterways and nuclear power plants.
To me, what we listen to says a lot about who we are and what we value, as does what we watch, what we eat, and what we buy. You all know that I’m a big advocate of environmental policy, but even I recognize that there’s only so much we can change about the way we are using the planet through policy. To really change our trajectory to a more sustainable future, we have to look at our culture and our values. And today, much of our culture is shaped by what music we listen to, what movies we watch, and what TV shows we follow. We’ve seen issues like gay rights come into the forefront of public discussion, supported by increased inclusion of gay couples and plot lines on TV and a bit more inclusion in popular music. When will that happen for the environment?
The situation seems bleak. And yet, there are more and more people out there using music to send a message about our planet.
Xiuhtezcatl Martinez (pronounced “Shoe-Tez-Kit”) is a climate activist and eco-rapper. He belongs to the indigenous community and grew up learning about how all life is interconnected and how our planet’s precious natural resources must be respected. He also started an organization called Earth Guardians, based in Boulder, Colorado, which gathers young people passionate about creating a better world and a better future. This guy is totally awesome. He’s spoken to the UN three times (you can watch his latest address here) and oh, did I mention that he’s 15?
Xiuhtezcatl and his little brother, Itzcuauhtli, performed at the 2014 TEDxYouth@MileHigh conference in Denver:
You can check out more of Xiuhtezcatl’s stuff at the Earth Guardians YouTube channel here.
Baba Brinkman is a Vancouver-bred rapper, writer, and actor. He grew up with two environmentalist parents and does shows around the world to speak out about science and the environment and share his music. He is quite the literary genius and has created some great “rap guides” to educate people about evolution and climate change. You can check out his stuff on his YouTube Channel here. Below is a recent music video he made called “Tranquility Bank”:
There are also some people out there that are using music to portray environmental change in a very unique way. Take Daniel Crawford, an undergrad at the University of Minnesota:
As you can see, there are a bunch of people out there in the world that are using music to communicate their concerns and educate others about the environment. And while I wish that all of this was on mainstream radio, maybe it will be one day.