[Playlist: The Nature of Black Music: Nature in Black Music at the bottom of the page]
It's no secret that the physicality of the conservation movement is largely white. This largely white demographic has controlled, for years, the narrative and dynamics of the environmental movement. I remember visiting the Trinity River Audubon Center for the first time and having a conversation with another volunteer [a white man] about my "intentions" and research. He said that it was unusual to see a "Black person from the community volunteering" and I replied that since the neighborhood is composed of mostly Black and Hispanic residents, that it was unusual seeing him volunteering. This then opened a door that led to an hour-long conversation about nature and how Black people have connected with the great outdoors since arriving in this country shackled and chained. I reminded him that the only reason this center even exists is because Black residents took a stand against environmental racism and demanded change.
This individual, like so many other white conservationists, assumes that Black people simply "don't like nature". It is assumed that Black women "don't want to get their hair wet" or that Black men "don't want to get their kicks dirty." It is assumed that Black people don't care about climate change, recycling, wildlife, environmental justice (even though it relates largely to Black communities) and us Black environmental professionals/nature lovers are rare and unusual oddities. However, if you dig deep and listen closely, you will find that the Black spirit has always and continues to be tied into the health of the land. In this blog post, I analyze how Black artists have used various genres of music/poetry to connect, describe, weep and fight for Mother Nature. From the song Wade in the Water sung by enslaved African Americans to New World Water by the rapper Mos Def, Black spirits, and Black voices have always been a part of the movement.
During enslavement, nature not only meant tools, food, and medicine, but it meant freedom from enslavement. Wade in the Water is a song that was sung by enslaved people. Buried in the rhythm, beat and melody is a secret message that gave geographical hints to safely evade capture during an escape. Enslaved people were able to physically connect with the land and communicate about natural elements through the lyrics, and many were able to escape enslavement by traveling along the water's edge or crossing bodies of water.
Wade in the water
Wade in the water, children
Wade in the water
God's gonna trouble the water
Black people also use music to describe the beauty of nature. What a Wonderful World by Louis Armstrong captures the beauty of the natural world with his soothing voice and melodic tone. The first time I heard this song, it was playing on my mom's radio. My mom has never enjoyed hiking, but she thoroughly enjoyed this song and the imagery. This, in a very unorthodox way, was how she connected with nature. She would later use this song in her classroom and teach her students how to use descriptive elements to describe nature.
I see trees of green
Red roses too
I see them bloom
For me and you
And I think to myself
What a wonderful world
Music can also tell a story and/or educate. There are disparities in access to science education programs and information in low socioeconomic communities and Black communities. Yet, the information about climate change, poor water conditions, and other environmental injustices leaked into the communities, and many Black communities were able to organize, protest and challenge deteriorating conditions. How did this information get to Black people? Schools in Black communities may have teachers that engage in fugitive pedagogy and tie environmental injustices into their lessons, but a lot of injustices were communicated through music. I, personally, love this element of hip-hop. Mos Def's New World Water is full of information about environmental injustices, water conditions and even includes a bit of chemistry!
New York is drinkin it (New World Water) Now all of California is drinkin it (New World Water) Way up north and down south is drinkin it (New World Water) Used to have minerals and zinc in it (New World Water) Now they say it got lead and stink in it (New World Water)
Fluorocarbons and monoxide Push the water table lopside Used to be free now it cost you a fee 'Cause oil tankers spill they load as they roam cross the sea
The Spotify playlist below includes several songs by Black artists that delineate the ways in which Black people have connected to nature and learned about the environment. These songs are soulful, indie, spunky, deep, and powerful. They capture the essence of the Black spirit that has always existed in nature, and they serve as proof that Black people are consciously aware and deeply concerned about the state of the world despite dominant narratives. Whether it's birds flying high [Nina Simone] or if we're rising with the waves [Angelique Kidjo], Black voices have mourned for Mother Earth and have rejoiced in here jungles. Black voices have rang out through her mountains and trembled the surface of her oceans. Our voices have resonated long before the environmental movement had been coined the "environmental movement". Our ancestors had connected with nature intimately, long before "connecting with the natural world" became a trending hashtag.