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Music of the Movement

By Ilana A. Cohen, Contributing Writer

“We're gonna strike 'cause our waters are rising. / We're gonna strike 'cause our people are dying. / We're gonna strike for life and everything we love. / We're gonna strike for you. / Will you strike for us?”

-The Peace Poets

As the last note of “Will you strike for us?” fades away, silence eclipses the crowd. For a moment, it’s almost hypnotic. Then, a cheer erupts and a sense of euphoria takes hold. Amidst a diverse and intergenerational crowd of strike participants, few of whom know each other but all of whom share a fierce desire for climate action and justice, the act of raising our voices in song fosters a deep sense of solidarity. Distinct from marching and chanting, song is uniquely transformative. It allows us to transcend a single protest; it contextualizes us as part of a movement.

During the global climate strike on Sept. 20, I sang the strike song twice: first at the Harvard Strike for Divestment and Climate Justice on Harvard’s campus, and later, at the official Boston Climate Strike at Boston City Hall Plaza. Written by the Peace Poets, a NYC-based artists collective, the song foments a sense of interdependence and shared stake among those singing, while also nudging those whose voices have yet to join the chorus. That participants at both strikes performed this song testifies to its resonance and to the greater power of music within social movements. Drawing on a historical legacy of protest and activism, the climate movement is increasingly using song to build community, communicate the climate emergency, and challenge people to raise their voices in a call to action.

Oftentimes, climate music draws people into the movement by breaking down the overwhelming nature of the crisis. These songs put the crisis into simpler language and binary terms to motivate action. Instead of citing statistics to grapple with the reality of rising sea levels and mass displacement, the strike song invokes the palpable feeling that “our waters are rising” and “our people are dying.” The song “Does It Weigh On You?” performed by the Sunrise Movement at the youth organization’s occupation of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office last December works similarly. Its poignant lyrics — ”Storms surge and fires burn but you don’t hear the call / Cause fossil fuels keep paying you, does it weigh on you at all?” — directly target lawmakers with fossil fuel industry ties, creating a sharp moral parallel between them and the public. It challenges lawmakers’ consciences, asking if their complicity in global climate change “weighs on them at all.” The portrayal of inaction as an act of complicity — reflected by the provocative question ”Which side are you on?” — also engages passive listeners, who would much rather see themselves on the side of “our generation” than on the side of bad actor corporations.

“Does It Weigh On You?” is among many climate movement songs that have explicit roots in historical struggles for social justice. This song is based on “Which Side Are You On?” written by activist and poet Florence Reece amidst the 1931 coal miners’ strike in Harlan County, Ky. The song illuminates connections between the climate and labor movements, apparent today in discussions around a just transition to a clean energy economy, which centers fossil fuel workers and marginalized communities in the transition process. Meanwhile, “The People Gonna Rise Like the Water” originates more recently in the Flood Wall Street protest of 2014, which took place only one day after 400,000 people participated in the NYC People’s Climate March. Also aimed at the unsustainable capitalist system, the song's original call for the financial industry to stop contributing to environmental destruction — "I hear the voice of my great-granddaughter / Saying shut down Wall Street now!" — has become a call to do right by future generations and marginalized communities disproportionately impacted by climate change: "I hear the voice of my great-granddaughter / Saying climate justice now!" Like many protest songs, it also represents “people power” as a force that can overcome systemic barriers to change.

Thematically, climate music also bears a strong resemblance to iconic protest songs of the 1960s era civil rights movement like “We Shall Overcome.” This song depicts a future of peaceful coexistence where “we’ll walk hand in hand,” while also stating that “we are not afraid” to fight to realize that vision. The use of a collective “we” to unify singers and listeners persists today. A protest version of Chance the Rapper’s “Blessings” includes the line “They try to stop us, but we keep coming back.” While also reflecting the growing role of pop culture in the climate movement, this song creates an us-versus-them narrative that connects the performers and audience in a shared struggle and encourages resilience.

As the climate movement looks to the past in fighting for a more just and stable future, music provides a fundamentally human call to action. While they can evoke a sense of ecological grief and despair at the gravity of the crisis, climate songs can also create a sense of empowerment and even celebration. Especially among youth-led organizations, climate music represents a form of resistance to structural disempowerment and injustice. Songs defy the system propagating the climate emergency by espousing a shared vision of a more harmonious way of life. This vision is optimistic and thus celebratory. It provides a kind of radical hope for the future—one I felt at the Sept. 20 strikes. That people can sing together and enjoy being with one another, while also recognizing the imminent need for change, is itself transformational.

Ultimately, music like the strike song serves as both an invitation and a challenge. It asks all of us to ask what side of the song we’re on, and whether it’s the right one.

— Contributing writer Ilana Cohen’s '22 column, “Expressions of the Climate Emergency” is a nonfiction column that discusses artistic response and resistance to the climate crisis.

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