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Can Rap Raise Awareness for the Environment?

The band in front of the recording studio | © Reporterre

Can Rap Raise Awareness for the Environment?

In a disadvantaged neighborhood in the north of Marseille, magazine Reporterre used the power of rap to create a connection between environmental awareness and the residents’ everyday problems.

There is a crowd of about 30 in the room, half of which are residents of La Busserine, a district in the north of Marseille. A rap music video is about to be presented to the public. Among the attendees are some of the nine teenagers between the ages of 13 to 17 who wrote and filmed the video at the social center L'Agora. It is an experience one would not want to miss: The second part of the event features a role-playing simulation of an international summit on climate change, a hands-on workshop to explain the greenhouse effect as well as a scientific educational demonstration by the association les Petits Débrouillards. The young audience is equally excited about the fact that they get fed afterwards: “This is the first organic buffet we have ever seen here,” a regular visitor exclaims.

A nice way to balance the negative image of teens from the northern districts”

Getting from the city to the social center was quite a journey for those who have come out here, for the northern district is an enclave, cut off from the rest of Marseilles by a highway, virtually a blank spot on the public transit map and unreachable by bike. But for Rémi Carrodano, chairman of the citizens' initiative Climat Aix-Gardanne, climate-related rap is a great opportunity to try the impossible: “Rap is an important means of expression, it conveys a stronger message than the traditional French chanson.”

The experimental music clip Je survole la terre et je vois ... (in English, “I soar over the earth and I see...”) was unanimously well received and even played by several radio stations. Dressed up as UN Secretary-General for the simulation, Jefferson from the association Petits Débrouillards says that “it hit him” when he first discovered the clip: “The lyrics are well composed and based on an equally well-set beat. The images are good, the video is fun to watch.” Catherine Vestieu, head of a cultural association and councilwoman for the 15th and 16th districts of Marseille, is also thrilled: “The quality is extraordinary and it’s a nice way to balance the negative image of teens from the northern districts.”

Back in the room, one of the spectators invites the audience to participate in the global climate march on November 29, which also takes place in Marseille. Why not make the rap the unofficial anthem of the Marseille march? The young artists are shy and not very enthusiastic about it. Behind the scenes, Nasser explains that he is quite busy at school and with his job as a tutor. Aurélie Moulin, the history and geography teacher who led the rap-writing workshop, admits that students were initially lukewarm about the whole project: “The connection between rap and the environment is not obvious,” she admits.

Journalist Émilie Massemin, whose project Climat et quartiers populaires (climate and blue-collar neighborhoods) includes the rap workshop, reminds us of the issue at hand: “We never hear the voices of these citizens on environmental issues, so we wanted to make them heard.” When the representative of daily environmental newspaper Reporterre showed up at L’Agora to propose an article on climate, she was met by a rather frosty welcome. The young people had never thought about the issue. “It’s not very green around here, our districts were neglected when it came to urban planning”, says teacher Aurélie.

Today there is nothing but crisis”

In the music video, the rappers speak their own language: “Global warming, greenhouse effect, soil salinization are not exactly hip-hop terms. We should not impose our scientific terminology on these young people. Sure, the result sounds less like a UN-climate conference, but it's probably more accessible and creative,” Aurélie explains. At the same time, the environmental theme can help improve the image of rap, which is very commercialized and doesn’t really reflect realities on the ground.

The young rappers did everything themselves, from writing the texts to filming and editing. There are further steps to this project, but not immediately. Nasser says that he would rather go back to rapping about his neighborhood, as he usually does. When asked whether he liked writing, he says: “I did it real fast.” What would he write about tomorrow? “About (his) mother.”

It’s true that we don’t think about the environment much; that has nothing to do with music. I only think about it when I litter,” Miad admits. He came to congratulate his friends; he was not able to take part in the project himself. Sophie Camard, candidate in the upcoming regional elections, has also come out here because “it is something special to hear the youth of the northern districts talk about the environment.” As member of the Green party she admits that it is difficult to run an environmental campaign here: “It is understandable that ecology is not the main concern here.” We must champion social and environmental causes at the same time - and “show that climate affects the daily lives of people here.”

Sophie Camard thinks that political disengagement “has progressed very far here.” Mohamed tells us of neighborhoods like this one, where he grew up: “These districts used to be politicized, there were places of discussion and learning, we were organized in associations, political parties, unions. Today there is nothing but crisis and no mediators to help make sense of it. These places have been completely abandoned by politicians.” In this situation, isn’t it a bit out of place to talk about the environment? – “On the contrary. Exchange and education are important. If you don’t provide that, don’t be surprised if people are indifferent.”

What Miad takes away from the simulation: “When you see the statistics about shale gas and all these things, you realize it's important.” He did register to vote, albeit without much enthusiasm. According to him, one serious problem remains: “What bothers me personally is that I can’t see what one could do about it. This is up to the politicians, and nobody’s interested in politics.”


    December 2015
    France, Marseille


    Barnabé Binctin
    studied journalism in Paris and, once graduated, actively campaigned for citizen journalism. Today, he works for the environmental magazine Reporterre.

    Translated by

    Kerstin Trimble




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