Hip-Hop and Environmental Health: An Interview with Dr. Sarah Lappas

I recently emailed with Dr. Sarah Lappas, an ethnomusicologist and expert on contemporary global hip-hop movements. Our conversation focused on the role of music, and hip-hop in particular, in raising awareness about environmental problems as social and political problems. What follows is a condensed and lightly edited version of our exchange.

Kaitlin Stack Whitney: How is music as an art form uniquely able to tackle social and political issues?

Dr. Sarah Lappas: Music is unique in its ability to ignite profound emotional responses, and also in its ability to create a sense of community. Have you ever been at a concert with a packed audience for a band that you love? The lead singer says something (“What’s up, Madison? Thanks for coming out tonight!”), and the lead guitarist starts on a chord progression that you immediately identify! You think to yourself, “these are my people,” or “these people get me,” or “I feel so connected to these people.” In fact, every person in that audience is having their own very personal memories triggered, but they look around and see (or think they see) that the song is making other people feel the exact same way that they do. It transforms the personal into the communal.

It can also be a really bad way to tackle social and political issues for the same reasons, because it’s easy to get caught up in feeling a certain way without thinking about exactly why you’re feeling that way. Think about a political campaign song like Fleetwood Mac’s “Don’t Stop Thinking About Tomorrow,” which was played during Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign for president. Suddenly, people are just feeling optimistic and associating that with Bill Clinton. It’s triggering some great memories that folks may have had when that song came out in 1977 and every time they’ve heard it since then. So in that sense, in order for music to really tackle political and social issues in a way that makes people think more deeply about a particular problem, musicians and songwriters have to strike that tricky balance of leveraging music as an emotional trigger and community builder while calling attention to the music in a way that almost interrupts the music and says, “hey, remember why this is important!”

KSW: So how does hip-hop as a genre ask listeners to confront social and political issues?

SL: Hip-hop is a really great medium for that, for several reasons. The first is that hip-hop artists and producers have a tendency to interrupt themselves and their music in a way that calls attention to the process of making the music, or the circumstances under which the music was made, or the circumstances under which the community that the artist seeks to represent is living. Rappers cough, wheeze, groan, and scream during their verses in a way that makes the listener feel as if the problem that they are talking about is happening right now. Producers add gunshots and sirens to their beats to remind you of the disruption encountered on a daily basis in the ‘hood. Producers also add stop-time (when the beat/backing track drops out for a moment) so that you listen more carefully to what a rapper is saying right at that point.

Hip-hop as a genre rewards critical thinking and analysis. The more you listen to a track and the more carefully you listen, the more things you’ll notice. You might pick up on some wordplay you missed the first time around, or you might notice a layer of the beat that you had missed. In this way, the listener is also encouraged to think more deeply about the overall message of the song or the environment it represents.

Hip-hop artists, more than artists in any other musical genre, are called upon to illustrate a particular space and place: most frequently, in an American context, the postindustrial urban ghetto. If you listen to “N.Y. State of Mind” by Nas, DJ Premier (the producer) makes you feel like you are in Queensbridge in 1994. It’s claustrophobic, it’s menacing, and the musical environment makes you wonder how Nas, as the rapper, is going to make it.

KSW: How do hip-hop artists in the communities you study engage with issues of environment and place?

SL: I’ve worked and studied in West Africa (Ghana and Sierra Leone), the Caribbean (Trinidad and Tobago), and throughout the U.S. (mostly in the Bay Area and New Orleans). I think a lot about the diasporic connections between Africans and African-descended peoples in those places. It’s hard to generalize because these are such diverse and dynamic groups, influencing and being influenced by the diverse and dynamic groups around them.

I can say that across many traditional and popular West African musics, Caribbean Carnival musics and chants, and Black popular music in the U.S., there is frequently an intentional blurring or even erasing of the lines between musicians/performers and their audiences. There is a call and response that actively engages the listener. When I say hip, you say hop, right?  When Pete Rock sings, “Whose world is this?” Nas calls back, “The world is YOURS!”  It’s a practice of building community by getting the audience invested in the message of the person performing. Dr. Robert Farris Thompson called this the “Politics of Perfection” in African music, and that’s an idea that a mentor of mine, Dr. Halifu Osumare works with a great deal as well.

Another practice that we can see throughout the African diaspora is really the imperative to represent your community through music. This is pretty well-recognized in the griot tradition [oral history and storytelling native to parts of North and West Africa], and it’s one that we can see thriving and evolving and transforming in a U.S. American context from the blues through hip-hop. In West Africa, there’s also an emphasis on shaping sound in your environment, and traditionally music isn’t compartmentalized as something that’s separate from environment or ritual or daily life at all. I certainly hear this throughout the diaspora, making your environment musical and inserting your environment into your music in deep and reflective ways.  

KSW: Who are some of the hip-hop artists today creating environmentally engaged music?

SL: The example that immediately comes to mind are some of the ways that hip-hop artists engaged ideas about environment and place following Hurricane Katrina. Dr. Zenia Kish wrote a great article called ‘My FEMA People’: Hip-Hop as Disaster Recovery in the Katrina Diaspora. She talked about a really interesting bounce track by Mia X called “My FEMA People” that links New Orleans after Katrina, not to other sites of natural disasters, but to war zones and places of resource exploitation. She raps, “Ride through my city Beirut, Iraq,” which really situates New Orleans after Katrina as a site destroyed not just by a natural disaster but by human incompetence and exploitation.

You might also check out MC Yan’s track “Dirty Air” which he produced with Greenpeace. He’s a rapper from Hong Kong and the song is about air pollution and smog. I think that hip-hop, while becoming increasingly commercial and mainstream here in the U.S., still resonates as kind of anti-establishment medium all over the world, so when environmental issues overlap with systemic injustice (as they really always do) hip-hop presents itself as an ideal musical medium for confronting those issues.

KSW: Beyond raising awareness, can hip-hop inspire action on social and environmental issues?

SL: Yes and no. It depends so much on the listener, the audience, and many other factors. While hip-hop is incredibly powerful in all of the ways I just mentioned, it’s still possible for a listener to be complacent about the issues that hip-hop presents.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot because of the recent release of “Straight Outta Compton,” the movie about NWA [a hip-hop group from Compton, California]. NWA was met with incredible moral panic when they emerged in the late 1980s. As a group, they really got people thinking about Compton in new and different ways, and they had kids from the suburbs who never thought about Compton at all imagining what it was like to be a young Black man living in South Central.

And yet, there are a lot of folks living in Compton and Watts today who definitely wouldn’t say that this new awareness affected significant change, or inspired the right kinds of actions that might lift folks out of generational poverty. What we have seen is a change in audience reception to the music and a mainstreaming of the culture. So the danger is that the listener says, “I’m down with the music and that is itself a kind of action. I love hip-hop so I can’t possibly be racist, or be benefiting from a racially stratified system.”

Featured image: Dr. Sarah Lappas (center), with her former students, rapper Oke Junior (left) and DJ Amar (right) in front of one of her classes at UC-Berkeley. Photograph taken by Juanita Greene and used with permission.

Dr. Sarah Lappas is an ethnomusicologist and a Chancellor’s Public Scholar at the University of California-Berkeley. She also teaches at the University of California-Davis and California State University-Sacramento. Her research focuses on musics of the African diaspora and global hip-hop movements. Contact.

Kaitlin Stack Whitney is a PhD candidate in the Department of Zoology and Holtz Center for Science & Technology Studies. Her dissertation explores how land use and climate change impact insect communities and farmer practices in agricultural landscapes across Wisconsin. Contact.

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