The Sustainable Soul of Hip Hop

BY Adrienne Samuels Gibbs  
Cover Image
Courtesy of Dr. Ieftef Vita

Oct 5th 2020

From songs referencing grandma’s backyard garden to lyrics ripping government for destroying the water supply, many hip hop artists seamlessly weave climate justice into their sounds. After all, being sustainably savvy is how their grandparents and great-grandparents survived.

No one knows this better than Malik Yusef, the six-time Grammy-winning producer and spoken word artist known for creating eco-conscious, sociopolitical music.

“We have to make do with what is readily available,” Yusef says of the historical legacy that prepped Black people to found hip hop. And, though the word “sustainability” doesn’t always make it into each music track, he explains, the concept was passed down for generations. “We are reusing stuff. We’re literally making it carbon-negative because we’re utilizing things that are already made, already manufactured. We’re taking stuff, like soul food, that’s already there.”

Yusef is perhaps best known as a Kanye West-adjacent songwriter from Chicago. Hip hop aficionados know he is a part of a cohort of artists—including Jay-Z, Megan Thee Stallion, Common, Dead Prez, and others—who often illuminate a host of environmental justice issues. Their work touches on clean water initiatives, fresh food for all, and global warming’s overwhelming impact on communities of color. They sandwich this work between making their bops and booking new gigs. Yusef will tell you it’s a way of life that kicked off decades before urban gardens, for example, became a trending topic.

In fact, Megan—known for her mega-hit “WAP” with fellow rap superstar Cardi B—last year helmed a Hottie Beach Clean Up at Santa Monica Pier in California. Her fans, the “hotties,” showed up en masse.

Jay-Z’s documentary about the water crisis in Angola set the stage for a number of elder hip hop statesmen to find a way to give back. Old school hip hop legends Dead Prez use their Instagram account and clean-food business to encourage fans to eat healthy, raw food. Jadakiss and Styles P operate several vegan juice bars in the Northeast. Pitbull is working with the United Nations to publicize international water issues.

That’s just a shortlist of environmentally conscious hip hop artists. Yusef’s own “Trouble in the Water” (with Common) was part of a larger initiative with the Hip Hop Caucus, a nonprofit that links culture with activism, to bring relief to Flint, Michigan, whose majority brown and Black residents were—and are—being serviced with lead pipe-poisoned water. Flint had help from nearly everyone important to hip hop culture, just as the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina pulled in awareness campaigns from nearly everyone in Southern hip hop. The connective tissue is that thanks to environmental racism paired with anti-Black zoning and lending laws, they all just so happened to have grown up in flood zones.

“Hip hop has always been at the forefront of this movement.”

—Malik Yusef

When you look at who lives near the oil refineries, who gets the bad water, who doesn’t have grocery stores in their neighborhood, and who always gets flooded because they live downstream, Yusef says, Black and brown people take the cake. In many cases, government policies placed nonwhite people in these poorly planned areas, and the ongoing systemic inequities lead to poor outcomes. An understanding of this reality—and how to grow forward—is reflected in the music.

“Hip hop,” Yusef says, “has always been at the forefront of this movement.”

Everything’s Intersectional

Of course, sometimes artists do deliver their environmental justice message lyrically—and when they do, the effect is powerful. A recurring theme in the 47-year-old, didactic history of hip hop is the idea of informing the listener of the truth, striving for more, and pushing listeners on how to get there. The repetitive hooks are the poetry that makes the message unforgettable. Once “I can’t breathe” became a tagline after being uttered by several Black men killed by police, the hip hop community amplified the message. But like many things poetic, the phrase is a double entendre. Not only could George Floyd and Eric Garner not breathe, but Black and brown children living near refineries and landfills can’t breathe either.

Pollution is an inequitable contributor to the untimely deaths of Black and brown people in the United States. As recently as 2018, the EPA reported that Black Americans are three times more likely to die from pollution than their white counterparts. As Mustafa Ali of the National Wildlife Federation (and formerly of Hip Hop Caucus) recently tweeted: “When we say, ‘#ICantBreathe’—whether it’s the police with a knee on our neck, the #airpollution which continues to take our last breath away or the #coronavirus suffocating us—that’s why we march and that’s why we work so hard to change these dynamics and fight systemic #racism!”

These stories—and intersections with other racially-motivated injustices—are reflected in the music. Garner’s family released the song “I Can’t Breathe” in 2016.  In June of 2020, rapper Maino released a track also entitled “I Can’t Breathe” and so did R&B singer H.E.R., with both singles reverberating in the community. Big Sean and Eminem created “No Favors” in 2017 that says this: “kids who get sick with lead, others get hit with the lead.” And Pusha T, in the song “Drug Dealers Anonymous,” said this: “America’s worst nightmares in Flint/Children of a lesser God when your melanin’s got a tint.”

Donald Glover, aka Childish Gambino, addressed the environment in 2019 when he performed live at Lollapalooza in Chicago. Before a crowd of thousands, all sweating in sweltering humidity and heat, he sang sleeper climate hit “Feels like Summer,” a vibey cut that recalls Marvin Gaye’s original pro-climate song, “What’s Going On?” That same single was a part of Glover’s 2020 album release, 3.15.20, and as fans and critics listened, they flooded social media with notes on what it all means.

“Underneath the poppy production and go-lucky acoustics, hidden just beyond the chorus, Gambino is screaming,” writes Colten Dom for The New Twenties. “The first line of the first verse jumps into such dense and heavy problems as planetary overpopulation without a beat.”

Here’s a lyrical snippet:

Every day gets hotter than the one before
Running out of water, it’s about to go down
Go down
Air that kill the bees that we depend upon
Birds were made for singing
Waking up to no sound
No sound.

And in 2020, Denver’s DJ Cavem, also known as Dr. Ietef Vita, released Biomimicz, on his own label, Plant Based Records, in a move that draws heavily on his Ph.D. in ecology. He calls Biomimicz, “the first USDA-certified organic, plant-based, zero-waste, environmental hip hop album.” One of his goals is to encourage self-reliance for people who are largely left out of the healthy food movement.

“The biggest impact I can make is changing my record label to go completely zero waste,” he explains. “I am producing the first sustainable compostable hip hop album. I packaged the album in a package of seed and distributed it in the hood with a QR code so it’s digital, and it teaches brothers and sisters how to grow their own food and boost their own immune health. That’s important in times like these.”

What are his fans growing? Well, the seed packets offered a mix of arugula, kale, and beets.

Unsurprised: Underground Hip Hop, Art, Fashion, and Food

Hip hop is a culture, not just music. So it makes sense that SZA has a sustainable clothing brand with hoodies adorned with “Puck Flastic” and “Sustainability Gang” while Pharrell helps create “Bionic” yarn from recycled plastic. It explains why graffiti murals in Staten Island reference climate change at the same time that Banksy creates million-dollar art in depressed Black communities, reminding us all that trees used to live here too.

Last fall, streetwear god Dapper Dan was a featured speaker at the United Nations Sustainable Streetwear Conference. The fashion legend addressed the crowd by reminding them that their industry needs to change and model a way for the consumer to follow suit. Some people were just as shocked by Dan’s presence at a UN conference as they were 10 years ago at Banksy for drawing attention to the dying tree canopy in Detroit, but hip hop fans knew better. The art and its creators—be they muralists or designers—see an inextricable link between the health of the community and the health of the planet.

“If the only image you see of us is fighting in the streets, but you don’t see us doing presentations about bears, then you are incompetent about Black people.”

—Dr. Thomas RaShad Easley

“If the only image you see of us is fighting in the streets, but you don’t see us doing presentations about bears, then you are incompetent about Black people,” explains Yale University’s Dr. Thomas RaShad Easley, a professor and rapper known as the “hip hop forester” who also hosts popular environmental podcast Heartwood. Not only does the overwhelmingly white environmental movement seem to lack a relationship with Black environmental justice activists, but mainstream environmentalists also tend to overlook the community’s contributions and commitment to the cause altogether.

“If your relationship with the community isn’t strong, that means your information is fickle already,” says Easley of people who question the nonwhite community’s commitment to the environment. “You can only operate from your assumptions or stereotypes, which are not true and not holistic.”

This lack of relationship is replicated on a large scale by a lack of diversity inside of majority-white environmental agencies and organizations. Thomas cites a 2014 survey by Doceta Taylor of the University of Michigan that found people of color comprise 16% of the environmental workforce but (at the time) made up 36% of the U.S. population.

Hip hop, meanwhile, has a supermajority of Black artists who speak, design, or draw truth to power in various mediums—even if their language use flies over the minds of some listeners.

“Social justice has always been mainstream in hip hop,” explains Easley. “Think about Public Enemy and their message and A Tribe Called Quest. Queen Latifah. Wu-Tang Clan and then N.W.A.”

He then addresses climate justice in hip hop adjacent arenas like fashion, food, and art. With a caveat.

“I think climate justice—for those who have been hip hop, not rap—has always been mainstream,” Easley explains. “Think Mos Def in 1999 with ‘New World Water.’ He was already talking about it. I like talking about underground hip hop specifically because it was the underground who did it. For people who listen to [underground] hip hop, climate justice is already mainstream. For those people who only listen to [mainstream] rap? It’s gonna sound new.”

For this reason, when Pharrell announced he was creating a reusable cutlery packet this past June, his hardcore fans weren’t surprised. In 2014 the Grammy-winning musician and fashion designer partnered with Bionic Yarn, a company that makes thread from coastal and marine plastic. The artist’s 2020 partnership between his creative brand I Am Other and sustainable design company Pentatonic gives fans—and others—eco dining kit “The Pebble.” The colorful, personal cutlery set is partially made from—of all things—recycled CDs.

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We're making the most out of the resources we already have.

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Eco Hip Hop Future

Artist educators like Easley can break down and explain the whys of racism, sexism, and colonialism responsible for the erasure of brown and Black peoples from the debate, but like his contemporary Malik Yusef, Easley says understanding how it all works is all about language, and about listening and looking. The white man’s upcycling is the Black mom’s hand-me-downs.

Climate justice means finding a way to bring fresh, healthy water to kids in Flint as well as kids in Angola, all while growing plants in the empty lot on your block—or in a pot on your porch—that help reduce greenhouse gasses. At the same time, those potted plants collectively help clean the air we breathe and provide nourishment to our bodies. Those hip hop green thumbs are taking collard greens-, vine-ripened tomato-, and sweet pepper-covered steps toward building a sustainable future.

As DJ Cavem, who coined the term “eco hip hop” in 2007, says: “Everybody and they mama wanna grow collard greens and make kale chips? That’s what’s up. It’s popping now. Like for real.”

The environmental justice activists in hip hop hope fans of all colors take note and put in some actual work to build a world that isn’t just more sustainable, but also more equitable.

“Awareness is not justice,” says Yusef. “Saying Black Lives Matter? That’s not justice. Painting BLM on the streets? It is not justice. That’s awareness. You have to make sure there are actionable components to the actions that are deleterious to a group of people. Justice is to do right.”

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