Can you rap if you can’t breathe? Or if you’re trying to survive a Category 5 hurricane?
In fact, you can’t do much if the air stinks, or if you’re battling catastrophic floods and winds.
Reverend Lennox Yearwood, the President and CEO of the non-profit Hip Hop Caucus, gets it. That’s why he’s mobilizing the social justice organization he founded to help stop climate change.
Rev. Yearwood, 47, is the father of two teenage boys, his “biggest inspiration for making the world a better place,” he says. A graduate of Howard University’s School of Divinity and a retired U.S. Air Force Reserve Officer who became a vocal opponent of the U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Rev. Yearwood is also the force behind a nationwide effort to get hip hop-oriented Millennials to register and vote.
I caught up with Rev. Yearwood just after he’d attended both political party conventions and was on his way to Baltimore for a rally in the wake of the latest judicial decision not to prosecute police officers for the death of Freddie Gray. With all of the work he does to promote racial equality, why did he want to make climate change part of the conversation, I wondered? And what could moms learn from a guy who chats about carbon dioxide emissions with hip-hop icons like Academy-Award winner Common, Sean “P Diddy” Combs, and Jay-Z (yeah, Beyonce’s husband).
I had to know, so I got him on the phone. And truth be told, he knocked my virtual socks off.
Moms Clean Air Force: Your organization is dedicated to advancing justice, equality and opportunity. How did you realize that climate change fit into that equation?
Rev. Yearwood: Climate change really hit home for me after Hurricane Katrina. I was born in Shreveport, Louisiana, and I still have a lot of family and friends there. They were devastated when the hurricane struck. I went down and started organizing the Gulf Coast Renewal Campaign, a coalition of national and grassroots organizations to advocate for the rights of Hurricane Katrina survivors. It didn’t take me long to connect the dots between climate change and environmental justice because so many people who’d suffered during Katrina were the disadvantaged and poor.
I’d been active in the Middle East-focused anti-war movements of the 2000s, which were very “siloed.” In other words, there were a lot of factions protesting the wars but they weren’t working together. I realized that in Louisiana as well as other parts of the country, we needed to be broad-based to actually have an impact politically. So while I worked in the black community, I also reached out to the Sierra Club, the League of Conservation Voters, and other environmental groups and we began working together.
How’d that turn out?
We grasped that even if Katrina hadn’t happened, Louisiana is still called “cancer alley” because people living there are exposed to so much pollution and so many toxic chemicals. While recovering from Katrina was important, we decided we needed to focus on not just the environment, but the “environs,” the actual places where people live. We started campaigns to link communities together and to raise awareness about the whole picture, not only the floods and hurricane damage.
It dawned on us that climate change is a civil rights issue, not just in Louisiana but in a lot of places, cities like Chicago and Detroit, where people are breathing really dirty air. Pollution is giving kids asthma. It’s making a lot of people sick. The more we connect the dots, the more we see that we need to organize, because one thing we have learned is: the power of the people makes a difference.
How are you using Hip Hop artists to do that?
Last year, we organized the Act on Climate tour and sent artists around the country talking about the importance of solar. This year, because we believe in 100% renewables, we’ve unveiled a limited edition branded “THINK 100%” fitted cap to “support the movement to get 100% clean energy for all”. We’re organizing a diverse group of artists to create music and culture we hope will inspire all of us to solve climate change. We started a project called “People’s Climate Music,” headlined by Snoop Dogg and Wiz Khalifa, that is registering people to vote all summer long. We’ve also put out an album called HOME, an acronym for Heal Our Mother Earth.
Is the Hip Hop community taking advantage of the renewable energy revolution?
Yes! Lots of people are excited about being part of the solution. (Tweet this) They don’t want just to work for companies like Solar City. They want to become entrepreneurs and compete with Solar City. They want to be the catalysts for the green economy, be self-sufficient, create jobs, put solar panels on their own homes as well as on others in their community.
I think of “hip hop” as being focused on younger, primarily single people, maybe even predominately male. Are there moms in Hip Hop Caucus? “What is the Caucus doing to reach out to women, and moms in particular?
In everything the Hip Hop Caucus does, and the reason we fight so hard for justice, is because we know the impact of injustice on our communities, especially on the mothers and children in those communities.
Our work defending and protecting the most vulnerable in our community (especially mothers) is the foundation of our work, and at every level of the Hip Hop Caucus, mothers have key positions.
What would you like to say to the members of Moms Clean Air Force?
It’s critical for moms to be at the forefront of the movement to stop climate change and advocate for environmental justice, clean air and renewable energy! But we have to figure out how to bring different kinds of moms into the conversation. Sharing music, sharing videos, educating communities in non-traditional ways… we need to use all the tools at our disposal.
“I’m a believer in people. If we come together, and love one another, we’ll succeed.”