Green or Die

The Rev. Lennox Yearwood, executive director of the Hip Hop Caucus, recently wrapped up the "Respect My Vote" campaign to get the "hip-hop vote" out for Election Day. Yearwood -- who in 2004 coined the slogan "Vote or Die" -- claims that the hip-hop vote, more than any other constituency, was responsible for getting Obama into office and that therefore, Obama has a mandate from hip-hop. Looking forward, Yearwood says his new challenge will be mobilizing the hip-hop generation for environmental-justice issues.

The hip-hop generation has suffered disproportionately from poor environmental stewardship. What does the greater environmental movement owe to the hip-hop generation? What is their mandate from hip hop?

They have a tremendous mandate. It is critical that these organizations come to communities of color not just in charity, but in solidarity. That has to happen. And they must realize that they are not the end-all, be-all. There must be new Sierra Clubs that come out of the hood, and they must have the finances and resources to push forth.

[Mainstream environmental groups] can't be the only voice for the community. If all the funding is going only to certain groups, and young people are trying to get green environmental groups started and they don't have enough, we need to put resources into those organizations. I'd rather have [Sustainable South Bronx's] Majora Carter reaching people in the Bronx, who she's around every day. I'd rather have Van Jones reaching his people. Give them the resources.

You presented at this year's Green Festivals. Did you expect many from the hip-hop generation to be there?

I expected to see some people from the hip-hop generation. I don't think it's going to be the majority of the crowd. What's been disheartening is over the past four years, I would go to the immigration rallies, and there'd be all brown people there. I'd go to police-brutality rallies, and it'd be all black people. I'd go to green or environmental or climate rallies, and it'd be all white.

Hip-hop won't be able to sustain our movement if we have a segregated movement. That has to end. That's why you see us working on issues like how the climate affects us. People should understand that the climate and the endangerment of the environment -- that is nothing new to people of color. We have been dealing with that since Cancer Alley in Louisiana, asthma problems in the Bronx, [the historically black universities] North Carolina Agricultural & Technical University and Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University dealing with agriculture and with the farms and how to raise food in a way that will be sustainable for our communities. So this is nothing new for us. We've been dealing with the environment for quite some time.

How would you assess the challenge of getting the hip-hop generation committed to and mobilized around environmental justice?

I do think that obviously when you're dealing with economics, the green-collar-job approach can help. Keeping it real, people want jobs. People of color in urban communities want to work. You can say all you want about the environment, but if you ain't eating, you can't worry about that. So the green-collar-job focus forges an opportunity. I think obviously that goes to living sustainably. We'll be hard-pressed to tell someone to buy these light bulbs that are fluorescent, and they're $24, when they can go buy these cheap bulbs for $2. It's going to be hard. It's going to be hard to tell someone to buy a hybrid, when it's $10,000 more than the other car.

Let's be real -- a lot of commercial hip-hop is about excess and buying what's bigger. Can we really convince someone like Baby from Cash Money Records to turn in his fleet of Hummers for a fleet of Priuses?

That's where the Hip Hop Caucus comes in. Nobody said this was going to be easy. Sometimes hip-hop can take on the commercial side, and the commercial side puts forth a conspicuous consumer. The conspicuous consumer wants to have the Hummer limousine or whatever else is there. So it's our job.

I will say this: The same way we were able to get hip-hop engaged with the vote, I think our job is to now do the same thing with climate change. We can make it hot. We can make it sexy. We can make it exciting. We can discuss it in a way where people can hear it. We took "Vote or Die" to "Respect my Vote," and now the hip-hop community is down to vote. People are talking about politics. Obviously, you have a person of color running for president and wins, and that helps tremendously, but even before he was winning, people were getting engaged [in] the process. I think we have to do the same thing now with the climate.

I hope I have some more slogans in me (laughs). We have to come up with something that's hot. We have to market it the same way. We have to have our street teams out there. Put out mixtapes.

You have to admit that the dynamic is a bit different. Telling people to get out and vote is one thing. Voting is a relatively small investment of time and minor inconvenience compared to telling someone that now on a regular basis you're going to have to scale back dramatically on what you eat, on how you travel, on how you live in general in order to impact the climate. It seems like a much deeper dimension of buy-in.

You gotta build up. Look, there are artists today who are still not down with voting. But we go to other artists – like Diddy, Missy, Immortal Technique, T.I. -- and keep building. I know Common is interested. It's our job to foster that. That's why the Hip Hop Caucus is so important. You have to have an institution.

One of the problems has been that artists have only been their own individuals. And so they haven't had an institution to push and shape the positive. We need that so badly. Harry Belafonte came up through a process. Belafonte wasn't just an actor. He was working around Dr. King, and SCLC, and SNCC, and so that's shaping him. Eartha Kitt made a statement. I don't think she wanted to tell Lady Bird Johnson, “Let's close the war.” Like Kanye West -- I don't think he really wanted to say, “Bush don't like black people,” but whatever. Once it's done, it's done. It's out there, so we have to be able to protect them once it happens. So it's important to have that process. We have no choice. The environment is critical; our future generations depend on it.

So explain the Revolutionary to Solutionary concept you've been presenting before audiences.

Revolutionary means someone who is almost totally on the outside of the system. They have to create enough disruption so that their issues will be heard. Our community might see the Black Panthers as revolutionary -- we saw them as freedom fighters; others saw them as terrorists. They felt they couldn't change the system from the inside. There was very limited access to the inside back then.

There is a sense now that there is access to the inside. We have people who know Barack Obama. We have people who know Rahm Emanuel, his chief of staff. There's a sense now that we can somewhat be at the table to affect change. Because of that we have to have solutions, because we're not on the outside throwing rocks anymore. We need to fix our climate and our economy. So let's combine it and [create] green-collar jobs, which is a solution for both of those.

You say Obama has a mandate from the hip-hop generation. What's included in that?

Overall, the message of hope -- if that is not manifested ... if people don't see hope, people will become discouraged very quickly. So, I think that it's very serious that he understands that his message of hope and change is realized, and if that isn't seen quickly in the communities that we're dealing with -- if they don't see visible changes, and they don't have the hope, people can become discouraged very quickly.

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