Green Hip Hop Promises to Give the Environmental Movement Its “Heart and Soul”
Around 2008, a small group of artists left behind the familiar themes that have dominated hip-hop for decades. Instead of rapping about the usual: drug culture, the nature of fame, relationships, or loyalty versus betrayal, these artists wanted to talk about the environment.
One of the most popular songs in this sub-genre is “Green Anthem,” an exuberant music video created by three artists from New Bedford, Massachusetts, who go by the stage names First Be, Tem Blessed, and Outspoken. They, along with like-minded artists featured at the annual “Grind for the Green” music festival in Oakland, California, are exploring how hip-hop can broaden—and challenge—the environmental movement.
“Green Anthem” opens with clips of artists painting an eco-themed mural. First Be features close-cropped hair, bright eyes, and a sharp nose. Flashing a Massachusetts accent, he leaps in over a track of looped horns.
If you’re living in the Chi or South Bronx, New York,
You’re a 40-minute drive to the grocery store.
Therefore, diabetes and obesity common,
From eating processed garbage, Little Debbies and Ramen
From the corner store. Some grow it in community gardens
And straight farm it, sell it fresh to a community market . . .
Employing the youth and keeping health on target,
Make a restaurant out of it
‘Cuz everyone is starving.
It’s a green economy out of the need for equality.
Put a deed on some property, ‘cause owners we got to be . . .
The movement’s to pool in our resources together
Put sustainable businesses within a youth center!
The future is art, the music, the blueprint,
We can do this right here in New Bedford, Massachusetts.
‘Cause things don’t change till opportunities rise.
We need green for all people,
Then Tem Blessed and Outspoken join him in a chorus as images of green-job rallies in cities roll across the screen.
Everybody shine—be solar powered.
Speak your mind—that’s wind power.
Move your H2O—wave power.
Organize people power;
We got that soul power.
The overall impression created by the images of gardens, rallies, dancers and whirling wind turbines, is of something really exciting unfolding, a mood reinforced by the horns, driving beat, and quick cuts between images. Nor does the exuberance slacken when Outspoken, a solidly built guy in a baggy T-shirt, spotlights urban pollution:
I’m out here trying to make a change in the world.
Pollution in the air just makes me want to hurl.
I can’t figure out why I can’t breathe.
Toxins in the air just makes me OD
While the whole world is begging, “Please,
Stop destroying me from these factories.”
Both “Green Anthem” and Grind for the Green have roots in the work of Van Jones, the former advisor to President Obama and spokesman-in-chief for green jobs. First Be—whose real name is Ben Gilbarg—says that he and his colleagues attended conferences sponsored by Jones’s group Green for All, and they borrow heavily from Jones’s ideas. “Eco-apartheid,” he notes, is a term that Jones uses.
Gilbarg says that songs like “Green Anthem” provide the “heart and soul” needed to carry environmental ideas to youth audiences. “We know from history that youth have been an integral part of a lot of the successful social movements,” he says. “If we don’t get the youth involved in this movement, it’s not going to succeed. We’ve got to green the youth if we want to green the world.”