A few years back, Thomas Rashad Easley was facing down a challenge. As diversity director at North Carolina State University, part of his job was to recruit young people into the College of Natural Resources, but some of the most talented and creative students from communities of color just weren’t connecting on environmental issues. It just so happens that Easley is also a hip hop artist, going by the name of Rashad Eas, and when discussing the challenge with a mentor, he encouraged Easley to use his music to reach the students, saying, “Whatever comes naturally to you always captures peoples’ attention.”
So that’s exactly what Easley did, inviting students to join in and as they went through his lyrics. The students began to make the connection between access to natural resources and their own health; between representation and the environment. Through music, Easley communicated that “this wasn’t just about going to college, this was about having a voice, about doing something about the injustices, such as unsafe drinking water and lead contamination.” He had their attention.
As the current assistant dean of community and inclusion at the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies, Easley helps strengthen community diversity and programming around workplace equity with a philosophy he calls “hip hop forestry” or “hip hop sustainability” — building a bridge for young people to environmental issues. He says: “Hip hop has been speaking to peoples’ struggles since it came out of the South Bronx in the 1970s, whether it’s been about poverty, racism or gun violence. Why shouldn’t it be about environmental justice, too?”
Rev. Lennox Yearwood Jr., president of the Hip Hop Caucus, a nonprofit focused on bridging the gaps between communities of color and environmental advocacy, works with the transformative powers of hip hop on a daily basis. “We want to break down the silos,” Yearwood says. “Sometimes people feel like they have to be invited to the movement or invited to the conversation. We’re trying to create new things that people can see themselves in.” Hip hop itself is a form of expression created by the very communities that Yearwood and Easley are seeking to reach. And it’s a powerful messenger.
In 2008, hip hop made its first noted public appearance in the green movement at a conference commemorating the life of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on the 40th anniversary of his assassination. The Dream Reborn Conference was hailed as a “racially-just and green” gathering of over 1,000 youth whose hip hop style brought new life to the sustainability conversation. Reverend Yearwood joined Van Jones and Majora Carter among the lead speakers. In the audience were the young people who only a year later would start Grind for the Green, which Van Jones calls: “one of the most innovative and creative youth components of the green wave rising in America and globally. G4G is giving the green movement’s political agenda a cultural voice – and that voice is Hip Hop.”