The soundtrack of climate action

This playlist will get you revved up about saving the world

women in forest listening to music

Music has a long history with activism, and the environmental and climate justice movements are no exception. From folk and classical to hip-hop and pop, recorded tunes have incorporated environmental messages for nearly a century. As far back as the 1930s, you can find songs like blues musician Charley Patton’s “Dry Well Blues.” Since then, the use of music in the environmental movement has blossomed and diversified. It entered the mainstream following the first Earth Day in the 1970s, with songs like Joni Mitchell’s critique of urban development in “Big Yellow Taxi” and Neil Young’s vision of humans leaving a destroyed Earth for a new planet in “After the Gold Rush.” 

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Last week, the Museum for the United Nations took a new approach: They dropped a fresh playlist featuring Nature as a collaborating artist on re-released songs from headliners like Ellie Goulding and David Bowie. Profits from the playlist will go toward conservation efforts. Here’s why activists keep coming back to the power of music—especially when it comes to the climate. 

How music can inspire action

Facts and figures, books and speeches are great, but there’s a reason our favorite tunes stick with us. Music is inherently emotional, and performers use that emotion to motivate people to vote, protest for change, and take individual actions like, say, dialing back their emissions-heavy activities. “A great three-minute protest song can be more effective than a 400-page textbook: immediate and replicable, portable and efficient, wrapped in music, easy to understand by ordinary people,” Indigenous Cree Canadian singer-songwriter Buffy Sainte-Marie wrote in American Indian Magazine in 2013. 

Environmental activist music is a powerful tool in particular, because it spans genres. It has a long, international history in hip-hop, featuring artists as mainstream as Taboo from the Black Eyed Peas. It’s present in choral and classical music: Japanese geoscientist Hiroto Nagai, for example, composed a haunting string quartet piece based on 40 years of climate data from the Arctic and Antarctic. 

Songs can also spread awareness about specific issues. Take Lakota rapper Frank Waln’s “Oil 4 Blood,” rejecting the Keystone XL pipeline: “Words of my ancestors up in my head/ Food for thought, our kids underfed/Your oil is mud, they want the earth dead.” Taking a different approach, “But a Flint Holds Fire,” a choral song based on the 19th-century poem “Flint,” incorporates quotes from people living through the Flint water crisis

Our climate playlist

Ready to feel inspired? We created a Spotify playlist featuring many of the songs in this story—plus a few others with environmental messages that, frankly, slap hard.