Composing Climate Change: The Radical Legacy of Black Musicians

White musicians are often credited for their activism. But Black artists were using music as a means of protesting climate injustice long before.

Kelela has long been on a social mission; one of collective Black empowerment through music. The alternative R&B and electronic vocalist’s long-awaited sophomore album, Raven—which releases tomorrow, February 10—is no different. The visual for the LP’s lead single, “Washed Away,” reintroduces Kelela emerging from the mountainous terrain in the Afar region of Ethiopia’s Danakil Depression, having been reborn amongst the sprawling brown cliffs of the world’s hottest and most geologically active region. The title Raven even doubles as a literary history; Kelela’s music transforms into the nightclub atmosphere of a “rave,” while figurative ravens are psychopomps, spiritual guides that travel between two worlds.

 

Kelela is by no means the first musician to reference nature’s restorative powers in her songs. Environmentalism in music has risen in modern times, with an influx of artists making direct appeals to their audiences to take action on climate injustice through their lyrics and sounds. White musicians are often credited for their activism, like ever-evolving singer-songwriters Billie Eilish and Björk or even preceding rock acts such as John Lennon, Bob Dylan or Bob Geldof. But Black artists have been instrumental to this history of environmentalism long before.

 

Early Blues, for instance, often spoke on agrarian lifestyles and environmental racism in the context of systemic discrimination. In the 1930s, Blues legend Charley Patton sang about the impact of droughts on the population of Lula, Georgia in “Dry Well Blues,” while a few years earlier in 1927 Bessie Smith recorded “Backwater Blues” commonly thought to be about the displacement of Black communities after the flooding of the Mississippi River earlier that same year. Meanwhile, Gospel—which draws heavily on pastoral themes—was used as a means of protest in the Civil Rights Era to unite those fighting against anti-Black racism and hold those responsible for enforcing extractivist and oppressive systems accountable.

 

Environmental consciousness grew with grassroots and poetic rappers of the ‘90s, like Mos Def’s 1999 track “New World Water” in which the New York native raps about the lack of access to clean water, warning: “Tell your crew use the H2 in wise amounts since / It’s the New World Water; and every drop counts.” In a similar vein, Goodie Mob’s seminal 1995 debut Soul Food reflects on the impact of food deserts and food injustice on Black communities with lyrics like “fast food got me feeling sick.” More recently, nonprofit and nonpartisan civic organization Hip Hop Caucus, which launched in 2004, promotes environmental and social justice by further promoting the message of egalitarianism that has always been an intrinsic part of hip-hop.

 

But, crucially, there would be no environmental consciousness in Black music without the 1970s.

 

The decade may have given birth to the “Me” generation, but times were communal in the aftermath of two-day New York music festival Woodstock. Nonconformist Americans dubbed “hippies” rejected societal norms and pushed back against political forces as the Vietnam War reached a volatile peak towards the ‘70s. Protests against the conflict even turned into all-out riots; in May 1970, the Ohio National Guard sprayed bullets into a crowd of student demonstrators, killing four. But one month prior, fears over environmental threats had taken enough shape to the point that Earth Day was enacted as a movement to preserve ecological resources and the Earth’s climate for future generations. Presages that civilization would soon come to an end brought immediate social activism to the forefront. In response, Black artists in soul music embraced holism in their material, singing earnestly about natural abundance, metaphysics, energy and spirituality, shaping a trajectory of mindfulness in Black artists to come.

Early Blues often spoke on agrarian lifestyles and environmental racism in the context of systemic discrimination, while Gospel was used as a means of protest in the Civil Rights Era.

JAELANI TURNER-WILLIAMS

By the ‘70s, soul music had evolved from tunes about romanticism to self-awareness of humanity’s treatment of the planet. The beginning of the decade saw Chicago-based singer-songwriter Minnie Riperton release her solo debut, Come to My Garden. Lushly arranged with chamber soul to complement her angelic vocals, Riperton made analogies to vegetation, notably on operatic masterpiece “Les Fleurs” where the singer marked the dawn of the “flower power” age. Throughout Come to My Garden, Riperton sticks to the titular theme, signifying an introduction between human-to-nature symbiosis in soul music, the LP abloom with delicate grooves.

 

While Riperton saw mild success with her 1970 debut, Motown Records crooner Marvin Gaye catapulted his growing concerns about the environment to the mainstream on 1971 landmark album What’s Going On. Impacted by the bedlam of the ongoing war, Gaye made his eleventh album conversational, speaking to the ordeals of humanity. The appropriately-titled “Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)” tackled the unprecedented climate crisis, citing pollution, oil spills and mercury waste, questioning how much longer the Earth could sustain human life. Unlike idealistic and clean-cut male singers in soul music before him, Gaye paved the way for artists to sing about humanity’s detrimental impact on nature, without seeming preachy.

 

Like Gaye, other soul acts used lyrics to call listeners to action to care for the planet—sans using political terms. Riperton and Gaye’s growth mindsets were attuned to land, but underappreciated queer jazz vocalist and pianist Andy Bey looked to the cosmos as a metaphysical practice on his 1974 debut, Experience and Judgement. As human consciousness expanded in the ‘70s through the use of psychedelics, some derived from psychoactive plants, Bey sang of meditation over wonky, Eastern-influenced instrumentation. On mellow track “Hibiscus,” Bey’s soulful four-octave baritone praised the titular flower as a “blessing sent from above/grown with care and love.” Urging mankind to “keep hibiscus alive,” Bey’s musing on the perennial herbaceous plant translated to envisioning life where all aspects of the universe are treated with care.

 

On a similar astral plane—and environmentalist mission—as Bey were progressive soul, R&B and funk group Earth, Wind & Fire, who released their seventh album Spirit in 1976. With the group’s name referring to a culmination of astrology and the elements, Spirit redefined Earth, Wind & Fire’s planetary connection, both on a self-titled track and the album’s closing song, “Burnin’ Bush.” The former serves as a mission statement, calling for listeners to seek their purpose on “Mother Earth,” while “Burnin’ Bush” examines global destruction (“One glowing look upon a ragged canvas / Tells the story of our past and our present situation”).

As eco-conscious music reenters the mainstream, let the Earthbound origins of Black music serve as a reminder not to whitewash the history of environmentalism in music.

JAELANI TURNER-WILLIAMS

As the decade closed, soul music gradually transitioned from analog to digital, giving Black artists room to permeate the genre with innovative sounds. Continuously pushing the boundaries of soul, Stevie Wonder broadened his dimensions within ecology with his largely instrumental 1979 album Journey Through the Secret Life of Plants; tracks like “The First Garden,” “Seasons” and “Power Flower” found him entering botanical life as a place of solace. At the conclusion of the ‘70s, wrought with political turmoil and discrimination, Wonder ideated an untroubled listening experience for Black audiences—also familiarizing them with the plant kingdom. Four songs into Journey, Wonder’s melodious tone tells of “plants thought, felt, and moved quite like we,” with nods to biophysics pioneer Jagadish Chandra Bose, among the first internationally prominent Indian scientists, and George Washington Carver, one of the most prominent Black agricultural scientists and inventors of his time. On the heels of his “classic period,” Journey was Wonder’s most ambitious effort in the ‘70s, reaching vastly across the natural landscape.

 

In contemporary R&B and soul, whether directly or indirectly, listeners can find remnants of ‘70s environmentalist acts in their favorite Black artists. Donald Glover aka Childish Gambino softly cooed about the uncertainty of climate change on 2018 single “Feels Like Summer,” which later appeared on his dystopian 2020 LP 3.15.20. SOS artist, nature enthusiast and singer-songwriter SZA—who once wanted to become a marine biologist—has promoted sustainability in various brand partnerships and her own merch line, Sustainability Gang. Groundbreaking alternative R&B vocalist Jhene Aiko traverses narratives of heartbreak in her music, with the 2020 album Chilombo serving as a passage between geodes and sound bowls. In the same year, Seattle-raised artist UMI went to the forest as her makeshift concert stage for a live version of her 2020 project Introspection. In a similar vein, elusive British group Sault taps into the divine on compositions dedicated to the ecosphere like Air and Earth. And, after a five-year break, the aforementioned intergalactic soloist Kelela incorporated the subterranean and oceanic scenery of Ethiopia’s Danakil Depression in her “Washed Away” visual.

 

The soul artists of the 1970s partially relied on social causes to bring their environmentalist message to the forefront, with documented greats assuring music predecessors of better days to come. Now, modern soul artists, too, have emanated their atmospheric scope into futurism, with artists like Janelle Monáe, Erykah Badu, Solange, serpentwithfeet and FKA Twigs envisioning new worlds for Black people to rest and be free. Through nature’s plentifulness, Black artists can shift their intention on fantasizing a Black experience without environmental degradation. And so, as eco-conscious music has reentered the mainstream in the last few years—with artists like Lana Del Rey, The 1975, and Gorillaz making music about the climate crisis—let the Earthbound origins of Black music serve as a reminder not to whitewash the history of environmentalism in music.

The hero collage was created using images by Kelela sourced from Youtube; Childish Gambino sourced from Youtube; FKA Twigs sourced from Youtube; serpentwithfeet sourced from Youtube; Paul Natkin courtesy of Getty Images; Michael Putland courtesy of Getty Images; Gary Gershoff courtesy of Getty Images; and Richard Kalvar courtesy of Magnum Photos / Trunk Archive.


Correction, February 10, 2023 12:00 am ET
This story was corrected to state that Hip Hop Caucus was founded in 2004. An earlier version of the story misstated the organization launched in 2010.


Correction, February 14, 2023 2:00 pm ET
This story was updated to state that Bessie Smith recorded “Backwater Blues” in response to the flooding of the Mississippi River in 1927.


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