It is an unfortunate reality that the climate crisis disproportionately impacts Black Americans. In 2017, a study by the Clean Air Task Force (CATF) and the NAACP found that Black people were 75% more likely than other Americans to live in fence-line communities, which are located near factories and plants emitting chemicals. A 2021 report from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency also stated that Black Americans are 40% more likely to live in regions with the highest mortality rates from rising temperatures caused by the climate crisis.
While huge names are coming out of the Black community at the forefront of the climate conversation, such as Donnel Baird, founder of BlocPower, and Josh Aviv, founder and CEO of Sparkcharge, this demographic is often not targeted by ongoing discussions about sustainability.
An environmentalist and a music producer are teaming up to change that via a company called Klean Energy Kulture.
Michael Hawthorne Jr., who loved the outdoors stemming from a childhood in Greenville, SC, grew up to work on climate issues on Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign and the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign. He was also motivated by his uncle’s death from a random asthma attack.
“It made me think for a second, like, wow, we’re dying because of air. That’s crazy to me,” Hawthorne explained to “Essence.”
Corey Dennard, otherwise known as Mr. Hanky, has produced songs including “California” by Colonel Loud featuring T.I., Young Dolph, and Ricco Barrino, “OTW” by DJ Luke Nasty, “Smile (Living My Best Life)” by Lil Duval featuring Snoop Dogg and Ball Greezy, and “Twerkulator” by City Girls. Growing up in southeast Atlanta, he never really considered climate issues until meeting his co-founder, even though he lived by a giant landfill.
“Especially in America, environmentalists don’t typically look like Michael, you know,” Dennard recalled to “Canary Media.” “We usually picture environmentalists to be Caucasian. And even if they aren’t Caucasian, it’s just the whole hippie thing — what they call a tree-hugger.”
However, Hawthorne went on to explain the cycle of environmental injustice and how it was impacting Black communities, laying the groundwork for the types of messaging they are now using to reach other Black Americans on these topics.
Photo Courtesy Mr. Hanky
Klean Energy Kulture is a nonprofit production company that uses music and events to engage Black people on renewable energy topics and encourage them to take further climate action, such as voting or contacting their representatives.
According to its website, the company’s ultimate vision is “a clean economy that benefits all Black communities by 2035.”
The company is turning clean energy into a lifestyle brand. For example, by using K’s instead of C’s in its name, it references the unique spelling often used in hip hop song titles, such as “All Eyez On Me” by 2Pac, “In Da Club” by 50 Cent, “On Wat U On” by GloRilla, “Soufside” by Latto, “Lyte as a Rock” by MC Lyte, “Get Ur Freak On” by Missy Elliott, and “Hot in Herre” by Nelly.
In this way, Hawthorne said to Canary Media, clean energy becomes more approachable, even cool: “people start to see this reality — like, oh, man, it’s cool to be driving a Tesla or Rivian — or seeing 2 Chainz wearing something sustainable. That’s our theory of change.”
Dennard elaborated to “Essence” on the immense opportunity this model presents for a positive impact. “We run the culture. In my industry, we control American culture,” he said. “So my thought is, Man, if we can wake people up, we can change the whole trajectory of everything. This has the potential to make a big difference in our community.”
Clean energy means lower utility bills for members of their communities than coal- or gas-based power, for example. Plus, there is a wide open space for Black entrepreneurs to simultaneously make money and help the planet by starting renewable power businesses. “You start mentioning economic opportunities [in the clean economy], that really perks people’s ears up,” Dennard observed to “Impact Alpha.”
Photo Courtesy Michael Hawthorne Jr.
This venture is not the first time the hip-hop community has turned its attention to the climate crisis. Last year, for example, Drake teamed up with LeBron James to invest in solar developer Palmetto, Pusha-T participated in electric vehicle (EV) charging company SparkCharge’s $23 million Series A round, and Rihanna donated $15 million to climate justice organizations in the U.S. and seven countries in the Caribbean through her Clara Lionel Foundation.
Plus, a variety of rap and hip-hop songs have featured environmental messages, such as “New World Water” by Mos Def and “S.O.S (Mother Nature)” by will.i.am. However, Klean Energy Kulture is taking things a step further.
The nonprofit will hook people with the music: collaborations between Mr. Hanky and various rap and R&B artists that have yet to be announced. However, each song will be released and used to promote a specific clean energy campaign, including events and actions that individual people can take.
Some of these events include block parties at historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) that will showcase clean brands from the fashion world.
The company will also hold climate innovation symposiums to bring together Black-led companies and venture funds with HBCU students and community members.
The first such event, Electrify the Club, will feature first come, first serve experiences at the most popular bars and clubs in Atlanta, where the company is headquartered, and which Dennard will select and curate the music for.
Sponsored by Uber, the events will provide discount codes to those attending to take an Uber Green ride in an EV to the location. Those who do so or drive in their own EV will be granted VIP entry and a free drink. Plus, the company is working to provide the clubs themselves with free energy audits.
Atlanta is only the first stop on a list of future destinations, including the nation’s capital. Attended by celebrities and influencers, these gatherings are bound to be a who’s who of influential names and faces.
Photo Courtesy Klean Energy Kulture
The final aspect of each campaign, described as “Hood to the Hill,” in an interview with “Impact Alpha,” will mobilize people to get involved at important political moments. The events will ultimately serve as recruitment campaigns.
“We’ll partner with grassroots organizations so that if there are specific actions that they want people to take, we can email those folks to go take those actions,” Hawthorne told “Canary Media.”
Plus, along the way, the Klean Energy Kulture Foundation is collecting money to support Black communities’ transition to a clean power economy. The ultimate goal Hawthorne synthesized for “Impact Alpha,” “is to transition from oil and gas plants and other fossil fuels to renewable energy generation. With that comes the opportunity to reinvest in communities and the clean economy.”