We Got 99 Problems and Climate Change Is One: Can Hip Hop Save The Planet?

One of the biggest frustrations of climate funders is that the American public has been so complacent about this urgent threat. Even as foundations have bankrolled stacks of policy reports on how and why to tackle global warming, along with tons of advocacy work, climate change has rarely ranked among the top concerns of U.S. voters. And guess what: When an issue doesn't matter to the public, it doesn't matter to their representatives.

But public thinking is starting to change, for a bunch of reasons. And philanthropy can probably claim some credit, here. In recent years, more funders—such as the Sea Change Foundation—have stepped up spending on public education and messaging efforts. As well, some important celebrity philanthropists have entered this arena, such as Leonardo DiCaprio and Mark Ruffalo.


Celebrity activism is a mixed a bag. Let's face it, though, when you're trying to mobilize people to action, a little bit of star power can go a really long way. At a deeper level, getting cultural movements on your side can be hugely important.

All of which brings us to the Hewlett Foundation's recent $500,000 grant to the Hip Hop Caucus. Wait a minute, you ask, the Hip Hop who?  I’ll let them explain:

Hip Hop Caucus is a national, non-profit and non-partisan organization that connects the Hip Hop community to the civic process to build power and create positive change. The Hip Hop Caucus emerged from four organizations in 2004: Russell Simmons’ Hip Hop Summit Action Network, P. Diddy’s Citizen Change (“Vote Or Die!”), Jay Z’s “Voice Your Choice”, and AFL-CIO’s “Hip Hop Voices.”

That right there is a dream team of hip hop culture—some of the most influential musicians-turned-activists of their generation, coming together to make a difference. And while we might not naturally associate this cast of characters with the brainy wonks at Hewlett, we can see why the foundation might turn to the Hip Hop Caucus to help move the needle on climate issues.

But here's a question you might be asking: Since when did the hip hop world start caring about climate change?

Many of us still tend to equate hip hop activism with issues like police brutality, institutional racism, the prison industrial complex and poverty. One issue area you might not have expected to take center stage with hip hop activists is climate change—and you’d have been wrong.

Climate change disproportionately impacts the poorest communities in our country—and that often translates to people of color. From the Hip Hop Caucus:

Pollution and resulting climate change means more extreme weather, like Hurricane Katrina and Superstorm Sandy, extreme heat waves and droughts. We have all seen from these recent natural disasters that people of color, and low-income communities, suffer the most in terms of recovery, but also in terms of lives lost and health impacts.

That’s where the recent partnership between Hewlett and HHC comes into play. Together with environmental heavyweights like 350.org, Earthjustice, League of Conservation Voters, Natural Resources Defense Council and the Sierra Club, HHC has organized the People's Climate Music "Act On Climate" National Bus Tour.

Traveling through the month of September, the bus will stop in cities directly impacted by high levels of pollution and include a month-long run of concerts, meetings, community events and on-the-ground tours with music and messages that inspire climate change awareness and action.

On tour with Hip Hop Caucus: Rapper Dee-1 and R&B artist Raheem DeVaughn talk to students about climate change at Ohio's Central State University (Photo Credit: Hip Hop Caucus Instagram)

The tour, which kicked off in New Orleans to mark the 10-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, will hit over a dozen cities across the Country ending in Tempe, AZ on September 27th at the Summer Ends Music Festival. More than just a cool music festival, it's intended to re-energize the existing environmental base leading up to the 2015 Paris Climate Conference in November, and perhaps more importantly, motivate new communities to rally around climate change as a social justice issue ahead of the 2016 U.S. presidential elections.

We've written before about how funders are backing more work aimed at elevating the role of low-income communities in the climate debate. Last year, for example, Kresge rolled out a new strategy along these lines.

Related: Why Kresge's Helping Low-Income Communities Lead on Climate Change

Quite apart from who's actually going to bear the brunt of climate change, and the logic of including those folks in the conversation, it's hardly a secret that the mainstream environmental movement has come up short in mobilizing outside of its core constituency (read: affluent white liberals). Climate change funders like Hewlett are smart to look to new and nontraditional voices that can inspire a new generation of activists and redefine what it means to be an environmentalist.