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ecoAmerica in Paris - Day 5: Using Music to Put a Voice to Climate Action

By Peggy Knudson
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Outside of the Paris “beltway,” (called the Boulevard Périphérique), far from the climate talks and the palaces and villas where meetings and donor discussions are taking place, are suburbs that are home to many of Paris’s immigrants, including Muslim families from Africa (France has the largest Muslim population in Western Europe, an estimated 5-10% of is 66.7 million people). The French word for these suburbs, banlieues, has become pejoarative—slums dominated by immigrants.   

Many of these banlieues contain massive concrete housing projects built after WWII to provide “utopian” housing to French factory workers, but they have instead become concentrations of poverty and isolation, as described by George Packer in the New Yorker last August. But this is exactly where the U.S.-based nonprofit the Hip Hop Caucus is heading in a chartered bus the day after I meet with its director of operations, Luther Adamson, whose professional name is Blak Foks (pronounced “Black Folks”).

“We have all the world leaders here today at once,” says Adamson, “and no one is reaching out to those communities outside the circle of Paris. I have been here twice in the past month and talked to those communities. The average poor person or person of color has no interest in COP21. We’re gonna let them know what’s going on, that it affects them more than they know.”

Founded in 2004, Hip Hop Caucus is a nonprofit organization that connects the hip hop community to the civic process to build power and create positive change. It does this by developing community leaders to organize for collective action, increasing public support for solutions that achieve justice and sustainability, and helping disadvantaged communities become political advocates across a range of issues to improve their own communities and lives. Climate change figures large in this equation.

“We use hip hop, which we all know is a universal language…hip hop is everywhere…so we use that vehicle to influence, to get people involved,” says Adamson, who spent twelve years in the army before joining the music industry. “We have more than a hundred artists actively engaged with the Hip Hop Caucus doing different projects, including voting rights...and that project is heating up again and about to kick off in 2016. We have another artist that I don’t want to announce yet, but it’s gonna be huge.”

Interest will likely be high in the Hip Hop Caucus bus headed for one of the poorest suburbs, as on board will be Malik Yusef, a poet and five-time Grammy winning artist who also writes lyrics for stars like Kanye West; and Antonique Smith, a Grammy nominated artist who played Faith Evans in the film “Notorious” and Mimi in the musical Rent on Broadway.

The Hip Hop Caucus will conduct a roundtable with officials, hip hop artists, and everyday citizens of one of the poorest banlieues.  “We are a movement that looks like the people, feels like them,” says Adamson. "That’s important, because one thing about poor communities and ethnic groups, they know what’s real when it comes to them. If it doesn’t feel right, doesn’t look right, they won’t even show up. Would you?”

It’s hard to imagine a better messenger on climate for the banlieues than Malik Yusef. Raised in the Chicago South Side neighborhood known as the “Wild 100’s” and a former member of an Islamic street gang, Yusef has evolved from a street hustler to a street poet and a staunch advocate of urban revitalization and extensive social reforms. 

“We need this real, authentic, organic climate movement with continuous communication,” says Adamson. “Black and Hispanics have the highest rates of cancers, of respiratory diseases.  The factories are always in the poor communities. A lot of people think that things like asthma are hereditary, which it is not. It is in the air.”

These are messages the Hip Hop Caucus brings to poor communities, along with ideas of what they can do about it.

For example, if a new power plant is planned for someone’s neighborhood, and jobs are being promised to the locals, says Adamson, “We tell them a factory could still be built, they could still have a job, but it could be using clean energy. So it’s important that this community activate and demand that this company factory switch to clean energy. We let them know that ‘you have this voice.’”

It is not always an easy task. “There are disconnects,” says Adamson, “The average person, they are just focused on getting by.  They are focused just on paying the bills, on food for their families, not on climate change.”

But with stars like Yusef and and Smith (who is making the circuit here in Paris with a moving rendition of Mercy Mercy Me, a 1971 song by Marvin Gaye that resonates hauntingly true today), communicating through the universal language of music ensures that messages about climate change will certainly reach far beyond the Avenue des Champs-Élysées.

As the Hip Hop Caucus and its leaders and partners are showing us, there are many ways to educate and communicate about climate change and how we can all make a difference. Framing the climate conversation in ways that are relatable and relevant - whether its in the classroom or on the streets - is an important way to ensure that everyone is equipped to meet our climate challenge.