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A rap battle against the tar sands

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Hip hop is conflict music. Forged in the fires (sometimes literally) of racial tensions, de facto segregation, and violence by police and vigilantes against blacks in 1970s New York, hip hop would grow up watching the crack epidemic spread like a disease through the black American community 1980s. It watched -- and was influenced by -- the widespread gang violence of the 1990s. It has served, since its birth, as a mouthpiece for the angers, desires, fears and dreams of the oppressed. Whether it’s Chuck D laying down rhymes about fighting the power, or Nas waxing poetic about the NY state of mind, hip hop is and has always been a reflection of the society around it.

And for as long as there have been social movements, there have been artists and musicians that reflected them. From Joe Hill singing for the Industrial Workers of the World 100 years ago, to Pete Seeger’s protest songs in the 1960s, all the way to the myriad of songs released during the ongoing movement against systemic racism in the United States. Music and art has always played a role in social movements.

But what about the environmental movement? Does it have a “soundtrack,” in the way others do? It often seems like it does not. That’s why Climate Justice Montreal decided to bring together those two distinct cultures -- hip hop and environmentalism -- for a “Rap Battle Against the Tar Sands” on March 28th. The show, called “Slam the Tar Sands,” was designed as an actual rap battle, where performers would go on stage and rap, in character, as lobbyists for the most destructive industrial project on earth. They would be challenged by other rappers -- some amateur, some professional -- who rapped from the perspective of climate justice advocates. All funds raised were donated to Aamjiwnaang and Sarnia Against Pipelines (ASAP), an Indigenous-settler alliance which aims to combat the Enbridge Line 9 pipeline reversal project.

Dan Parker was one of the event’s key organizers. He also served, along with Mags from the group Strange Froots, as one of the co-hosts. When I asked him why he thought hip hop was appropriate for the environmental movement, he didn’t mince words. “Hip hop is a tool for revolution,” he told me. “Its roots are revolutionary, and since it is highly lyrical, the message can be really clear and political.” Mags seemed to agree with him, saying, “Hip hop music began as a medium through which racial minorities could express themselves for themselves and against their oppressors. You could say that its relevance to the environmental movement is in the planet and it's less fortunate inhabitants being subjected to the will of the 'system' being fuelled by greed and ignorance.”

If the concept was strong, the show itself was stronger. The bar which hosted the event, La Vitrola, was packed wall-to-wall with people, coming from both hip hop culture and the environmental movement. The interplay between the distinct cultures was strong, with hip hop heads having conversations about social justice with activists, and activists bobbing their heads to new artists. At one point, a video-recording of a new verse from an Epic Rap Battles of History emcee was played, which saw the renowned rapper taking on the role of an oil magnate -- drawing laughs and jeers from the crowd. At another point, a spoken word poet nearly brought much of the audience to tears with an original piece about the human impact of environmental destruction. Much-loved local talent, including Project Toombz and Jai Nitai Lotus brought the crowd to a frenzy with socially conscious lyrics and rapid-fire flows. The five-hour show was a non-stop barrage of incredible talent.

If there’s one thing that I walked away with after that night, it was that activism does not need to always be somber. We, as a community, need to be able to let loose and enjoy ourselves sometimes, and that does not necessarily mean escaping activism, but making it fun. Laurent Levesque, a participant in the event, said that the show’s concept allowed participants to “mix irony and music to bring forward the contradictions of a lot of the discourse on the pro-tar sands side,” similar to the strategy regularly employed by the Yes Men (except with music). The combination created a fun, but still politically-charged atmosphere.

So where does it all go from here? That’s to be decided. Dan Parker hopes to see more collaboration between the environmental movement and hip hop culture in the future. The two movements have more and more in common, especially as the environmental movement becomes a social justice movement. We in the movement for climate justice have much to learn from hip hop, an art form that has been serving as a loudspeaker for the oppressed for generations. Let’s hope that we’re listening.

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