Hip Hop 4 Change: Using Art Activism to Combat Climate Change

White graffiti on a wall reading "DREAMS"

Image: Partial image of ‘Oakland City Of Dreams’ Oakland Graffiti Art Dream. Hip Hop for the Future SPC engages many artistic forms, from Hip Hop and breaking to graffiti. Credits to anarchosyn on flickr.

Script by: Themi Perera | Blurb by: Jessalyn Fong | Audio Editing by: Olivia Rounsaville

What are Art and Music Activism?

Art activism refers to the use of artistic expression and creative endeavors to advocate for and educate others on social, political, environmental, or cultural issues. This form of activism employs the creative power of art as a medium to move us emotionally, raise awareness of certain issues, and provoke thought. At its core, art activism brings audiences through an emotionally resonant experience that empowers audiences to change the way they think and behave to enhance an audience’s sense of urgency and leave them feeling inspired to engage in civic activism. This innovative strategy of activism encompasses a wide range of artistic forms, including visual arts, performance art, literature, music, and more.

Music activism specifically refers to the use of music and musical performances to advocate for change. Throughout history, music has played a significant role in numerous social and political movements, including the civil rights movement, anti-war protests, and environmental activism. Music’s impact on society and individuals is far-reaching. Musicians leverage the emotional and communicative power of music to raise consciousness and encourage listeners to become involved with social and political causes. Melodies and lyrics are able to capture listeners’ imagination, inspire people, and guide their actions. In addition to inspiring action, music activism can foster solidarity and a sense of community that is essential in the face of tackling societal issues. Genres like Blues, Folk, Hip Hop, and Reggae, among others, have been particularly associated with music activism, given their historical connection to expressing dissent and addressing societal issues. Undoubtedly, music activism serves as a form of cultural expression that has the ability to transcend boundaries and connect people with shared aspirations for change.

Raising Societal Consciousness Through Hip Hop

Environmental activism in music has become very prominent in the contemporary music scene, with artists directly urging audiences to take action against climate injustices. Their lyrics illuminate environmental concerns bringing attention to pollution, deforestation, climate change, and call attention to the disproportionate impacts of these issues on marginalized communities. We can recall Joni Mitchell’s environmentalist anthem that critiques urban development and environmental destruction, “Big Yellow Taxi.” While White musicians such as Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan, and John Lennon are often credited for their music activism, Black artists, while often given less credit, have played a crucial role in environmentalism and for much longer. Charley Patton’s “Dry Well Blues,” a 1930s song about the impact of droughts on communities in Georgia, incorporates Blues to highlight environmental racism. In the 1990s, grassroots and poetic rappers continued to enhance the public’s environmental consciousness. For example, Mos Def’s 1999 song, “New World Water,” brought light to New York’s lack of access to clean water. Artists incorporate Hip Hop culture to advocate for environmental justice and for all marginalized communities. 

Through thought-provoking and socially conscious lyrics, Hip Hop artists have utilized their platforms to engage in advocacy work and mobilize listeners. While Hip Hop has been co-opted and criticized for promoting hyper-violence, sexism, criminality, toxic masculinity, and materialism, it is also home to social and environmental consciousness. Artists from inner-city neighborhoods originally created Hip Hop as an outlet for oppressed groups to address socio-economic injustices and validate their experiences. Overtime, socially conscious Hip Hop continued to evolve as a powerful tool to uplift communities of color and demand social justice. Music activism through the genre of Hip Hop exemplifies how art can move us powerfully towards civic activism. 

The Power of Youth in Music Activism  

Youth engagement is at the heart of environmental action, and music is a key part of that engagement. As discussed by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), youth continue to exhibit immense strength, leadership, and resilience that is necessary for environmental action. Through environmentally conscious Hip Hop and other forms of music activism, youth are able to leverage their creativity, knowledge, and innovative power. Youth can channel their creative energy to crafting educational messages that inspire environmental action. Creating environmentally conscious music not only showcases the unique talents and perspectives of youth, but also offers hands-on experiences for youth to foster a more proactive mindset on a societal scale. In this process, young people engage in research and gain a profound awareness of environmental issues at hand. Youth strengthen their skills to analyze environmental challenges and effectively communicate them through musical narratives in an accessible and compelling manner. Moreover, producing music often requires interdisciplinary and collaborative thinking that enhances youths’ sense of solidarity and community in the face of environmental issues. By leveraging the capacity of youth to foster change through music activism, we uplift the active role of youth in shaping environmental discourse, advocating for a heightened societal consciousness, and encouraging environmental action.

Who is our Guest?

Khafre Jay is the founder and executive director of Hip Hop For the Future SPC, a nonprofit organization that reclaims Hip Hop culture as a vehicle for education, empowerment, and cultural innovation. Working with local partners, Hip Hop For the Future SPC implements grassroots organizing, arts programming, and educational events to advance their missions and promote socially conscious Hip Hop that more accurately depicts the beauty and diversity of POC communities. Khafre is a community organizer, educator, and activist that is dedicated to fighting for socioeconomic justice and empowering his community’s voices.


Further Reading


Ethan: I’m Ethan Elkind, and you’re listening to Climate Break. Climate solutions in a hurry. Today’s proposal: using hip hop to engage youth in climate advocacy.  We spoke to Khafre Jay, founder of Hip Hop for Change, who says that environmental themes have long been part of hip hop. 

Mr. Jay: In the community of hip hop, you know, communities that are mostly marginalized people of color, that are you know, surrounded by these environmental pollutants. The structures that allow us to destroy the world are the same structures that allow us to relegate people to second-class citizenry. And If we’re gonna galvanize and catalyze the youth, we’re gonna have to use the strongest organizing force they have. That is hip hop. 

Ethan: Jay’s organization Hip Hop 4 Change educates youth about socio-economic injustices and Hip Hop culture. By discussing these themes through art forms like music, Jay hopes to inspire youths to advocate for change. 

Mr. Jay: We had these kids out there not only learning about the environment for a week in a summer camp, day camp, but the next week they learned how to breakdance, how to rap, how to do graffiti, and then they were able to use these practices to actually engage with the information. There’s a lot of these young people that are on the ground, they have the best methodologies for reaching people, outreach you know, and they’re so underfunded, they’re so underrecognized.

Ethan: For hip hop climate advocacy to thrive, Jay hopes more environmental funders will support youth advocates. 

Mr. Jay: I want to see young people invested into that level, I want to see youth boards be a very big part of these huge nonprofits. And supporting these young brown people that have felt the you know, stars in their eyes and have the right solutions for you know, the issues we face.

Ethan: To learn more about environmental hip hop, visit climatebreak.org.

Hip Hop 4 Change: Using Art Activism to Combat Climate Change