Black Ecology: 10 songs that address the environment
theGrio lists ten songs that have brought attention to the climate and the apathy that’s led to its growing depreciation
The majesty of nature has inspired and nurtured humans since the dawn of time. Music created by humanity attempting to replicate nature’s sounds owes its existence to the rustling breezes blowing through the leaves and love calls from singing birds.
We owe everything to the environment, and yet, humans continue to callously undermine its health in exchange for convenience, profit and to establish oppressive dominion over beings of all varieties.
Musicians have been the very best at using their art as windows to the soul and a mirror to society. With another Earth Day come and gone, theGrio lists ten songs that have brought attention to the climate and the apathy that’s led to its growing depreciation.
“Mercy, Mercy Me (The Ecology)” – Marvin Gaye, 1971
As the Prince of Motown, Marvin Gaye was riding high on a crest of Pop and R&B hits and duets with the likes of Tammi Terrell and Mary Wells. However, with a new decade, Gaye was less concerned with his status as a lady-killing crooner and more with the world around him.
He crafted What’s Going On, a protest album that dealt with the trials of humanity. “Mercy, Mercy Me” speaks of Gaye’s growing weariness of the environment. Lines like “Radiation underground and in the sky/animals and birds who live nearby are dying” expressed how people were abusing the earth.
“This Air I Breathe” – The O’Jays, 1973
For The O’Jays’ Ship Ahoy album, the trio sang and released hit tracks about some serious topics, like Christianity, finance, and the lingering effects of slavery. Another issue they sang about was the climate. “This Air I Breathe” addressed the growing air pollution problem.
“Why don’t they find a solution to what’s causing the pollution/Don’t they care what’s happening to the air?” They challenged the powers-that-be about their apathy to the condition of the people who long for clean air to breathe.
“Only So My Oil in The Ground” – Tower of Power, 1974
Armed with their legendary horn section and the explosive vocals of Lenny Williams, Oakland-bred Tower of Power’s 1974 album Urban Renewal mixed love songs with commentary on issues like drug legalization. On “Only So My Oil in The Ground,” the band touch on the 1973 Oil Crisis as America began supplying Israel’s army with oil during the Arab-Israeli War. Finding themselves concerned about the consequences of such a massive oil digging, the group used this song to point out that future generations would suffer if they didn’t pace themselves.
“We Almost Lost Detroit” – Gil Scott Heron & Brian Jackson, 1977
In 1966, the Fermi 1 reactor of the Enrico Fermi Nuclear Generating Station in Monroe County, Michigan, suffered a partial meltdown. Over a decade later, singer/poet Gil Scott-Heron reminisced about the negligence that nearly caused a disaster when he and partner Brian Jackson recorded “We Almost Lost Detroit.”
Scott-Heron, one of the most candid songwriters of his time, sang about the potential threat of radiation poisoning to the ground and the people, only 30 miles away from Detroit; “seconds away from annihilation/but no one stopped to think about the people, and how they might survive.”
“The Secret Life of Plants” – Stevie Wonder, 1979
Stevie Wonder shocked the world when he delivered his 1979 album, Journey Through the Secret Life of Plants. For those who were anticipating a massive follow-up to his Grammy-winning 1976 album, Songs in the Key of Life, Wonder had taken a left turn by releasing a soundtrack album of a documentary about plants.
While achieving a top-five Billboard Pop hit with “Send One Your Love,” the title track spoke of the massive role that plants have in the nourishment of humankind and how we take it for granted: “As species smaller than the eye can see, or larger than most living things/And yet we take from it without consent, our shelter, food, habiliment.”
“Earth Song” – Michael Jackson, 1995
The King of Pop was known for crafting romantic songs about world peace like “We Are the World,” “Heal The World,” and “Can You Feel It.” By the time he released HIStory in 1995, Jackson had reached a breaking point and began making more pragmatic commentary with his music.
“Earth Song” was an indictment on humanity’s callous treatment of the environment and the animal kingdom. “What about animals? Turned kingdoms to dust,” he sang of man’s contribution to extinct species, as well as the conformation of his aforementioned transition from being optimistic to realistic. “I used to dream, I used to glance beyond the stars/now I don’t know where we are, although I know we’ve drifted far.”
“The Rape of the World” – Tracey Chapman, 1995
Known best for her hit “Fast Car,” Tracey Chapman forged a career full of blues and folk underneath introspective lyricism. For her 1995 album, The Beginning, Chapman set her sites on how humans were destroying the earth with the poignant “The Rape of the World.” The singer/songwriter didn’t hold back, waxing poetic about how pollution, the urbanizations of indigenous lands, and testing of nuclear weapons were “the most heinous of all crimes.”
“New World Water” – Mos Def, 1999
After gaining acclaim as one half of the conscious rap duo Black Star with Talib Kweli, Mos Def also made a big impression with his solo debut, Black on Both Sides. The esoteric Brooklyn MC wowed fans and critics with his incredible wordplay and serious subject matter.
On “New World Water,” Mos rhymed about how humans were slandering away the use of water without any thought that the supply would run out. With lyrics like, “…while these knuckleheads is out here sweatin’ their goods, the sun is sitting in the treetops burning the woods/And as the flames from the blaze get higher and higher, they say ‘don’t drink the water, we need it for the fire.”
“Til It’s Done (Tutu)” – D’Angelo & The Vanguard, 2014
The world had been waiting nearly 15 years for D’Angelo’s follow-up to his Grammy-winning album, Voodoo. When he dropped Black Messiah in 2014, it was clear that the singer/songwriter had a lot on his mind.
One thing was man’s negative footprint on the climate. “Carbon pollution is heating up the air/Do we really know, do we even care/Acid rain drips on our trees, in our hair/Are you there?” It continues the overwhelming theme of people’s willingness to ignore the problems of the environment.
“Feels Like Summer” – Childish Gambino, 2018
Fresh off the Grammy-winning, multi-discipline truth bomb of “This is America,” Childish Gambino’s encore was a two-song EP, Summertime Pack. Each song had a breezy, joyful vibe sound-wise. However, in one song titled “Feels Like Summer,” the music was a total misdirect from haunting lyrics about the perils of global warming: “Every day gets hotter than the one before/running out of water, it’s about to go down.”
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