“100 years from now none of us will be here. But what will be here is the spirit of us fighting for a just, sustainable, prosperous world for all. We fight not only for ourselves but for future generations. Power to the people!”
President and CEO of the Hip Hop Caucus
Elder in the Church of God in Christ
Graduate of the University of the District of Columbia and Howard University School of Divinity
Former Chaplain for the U.S. Air Force Reserve
National Director of the Gulf Coast Renewal Campaign
Organizer of “Make Hip Hop Not War” concert tour
Activist for voting rights, community empowerment and envionmental justice
Climate change and hip hop have been brought into radical convergence by the Reverend Lennox Yearwood, Jr., president and CEO of the Hip Hop Caucus and an elder in the Church of God in Christ (COGIC), where he is known as “the Rev.” Using the powerful phenomenon that has revolutionized music and culture around the globe, his work engages the world’s most pressing crisis.
It was in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, when the storm’s impact on vulnerable African American communities became clear, that Yearwood saw the relationship between a changing climate and vulnerable African American communities; “[i]t didn’t take me long to connect the dots between climate change and environmental justice. So many people who suffered during Katrina were the disadvantaged and poor.” Once Yearwood connected those dots, he committed his hip hop sensibility to the movement for climate change solutions and environmental justice. Seeing links between the student sit-in demonstrations for civil rights in the mid-twentieth century and today’s fight for environmental justice, he says, “Climate change is our [Woolworth’s] lunch counter moment for the 21st century.”
Yearwood’s parents immigrated to Shreveport, Louisiana from Trinidad and Tobago, then moved to Washington, D.C., where Yearwood grew up. He graduated from the University of the District of Columbia in 1998 and from the Howard University School of Divinity in 2002. Both institutions are historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs). In 2000, Yearwood received his commission with the U.S. Air Force Reserve and completed the Chaplain Candidate Program in 2003.
While he was in the air force, Yearwood began working with hip hop mogul Russell Simmons, serving as Political and Grassroots Director for Simmons’s Hip Hop Summit Action Network. Drawn to the the intersection of music and activism, he also worked with the AFL-CIO and with several hip-hop luminaries – Sean Comb’s, Jay-Z – on get-out-the-vote campaigns. In 2004, Yearwood founded the Hip Hop Caucus, an organization focused on “mo-vote-bilizing” the hip-hop generation into political action. Yearwood says that “[a]s the ‘Hip Hop generation’ … we have the ability to bridge the gap and link movements for peace, justice, civil rights and the environment in true solidarity.” In an interview with Yale Environment 360, he explains the meaning of the name of the organization in the following way: “To ‘hip’ means to inform, to ‘hop’ means to cause to move, and to ‘caucus’ means to do it together.”
Following the breach of the New Orleans levees in 2005 due to Hurricane Katrina, Yearwood headed for Louisiana. As the national director of the Gulf Coast Renewal Campaign, Yearwood advocated on behalf of the survivors of Katrina, particularly with regard to housing and criminal justice issues. On the muddy ground in Louisiana, Yearwood made the connection between climate and justice. It became clear to him that “the biggest target of Climate Change and pollution is communities of color, because polluters have been able to locate their facilities in our communities by promising jobs that never come to fruition and lying about the deadly health impacts of their pollution.”
Yearwood’s opposition to the Iraq War continued even after he became a U.S. Air Force Reserve Chaplain. In 2007, Yearwood organized the concert tour “Make Hip Hop Not War” to protest the U. S. presence in Iraq. As a result he “received notification from the air force that they are taking action to honorably discharge me on the basis of ‘behavior clearly inconsistent with the interest of national security.’ Ironically, this letter arrived six days after I announced the launching of the [concert] tour.” Yearwood received an honorable discharge, but got to make his point: “We will not make the world safer – or achieve true national security – by starting wars that put our humanity at risk and we are certainly not making our country safer by intimidating veterans who courageously speak out.”
During the 2008 presidential election, Yearwood and the Hip Hop Caucus worked with hip-hop artists on voter registration and get-out-the-vote drives. To attract new voters, Yearwood invited young people and people of color to “use our cultural expression to shape our political experience. This is how we make voting, to some degree, sexy. We make voting fun.” Addressing the limitations that most movements face, Yearwood says, “[m]any movements become stalled because the primary focus is turning people out to protest, march or boycott, while overlooking the greater need for policy to support the demands of progress.” Specifically regarding the climate change movement, Yearwood says, “[t]he moral urgency of this crisis requires a rainbow coalition of people – reflecting the diversity of our [hip hop] generation – coming together to solve it.”
The father of two sons whose future he works to protect, Yearwood writes, “[w]e must look at climate change as a serious civil and human rights issue for the health of our world because if we don’t solve this now, nothing else will matter.” Yearwood also offered a critique of the movement: “[T]he climate movement, being a predominantly American, predominantly white, predominantly rich, and educated from the standpoint of a traditional academy … does not win this battle. We have to build a more diverse and inclusive movement. If we don’t do that, it’s game over. We lose.” Despite this critique, Yearwood acknowledges the challenge this poses for the African American community: “[T]he climate movement does not have the same cultural relevance … as civil rights issues, voting rights issues, even education and healthcare issues.” Despite this, Yearwood keeps using the Hip Hop Caucus to build a bridge between movements in his actions and language: “… [The climate movement] for us … isn’t just … another political front for any politician. And it’s not about … recycling things … it’s about recycling lives.”
Yearwood supports a 100 percent clean energy future that benefits the health of the planet and the health of the economy. “It is time,” he says, “for America to unleash its entrepreneurial can-do spirit through a war-time like mobilization to help save America, and the world.” The number “zero” is the most important number of our time, because “[a]ny chance of stabilizing the climate hinges on transitioning to zero greenhouse gas emissions as quickly as humanly possible.” Keeping his eye on lifting people from poverty, he says that “[i]nnovating to zero emissions will not only help ensure our collective survival, it is the key to revitalizing our ailing economy and putting America back to work.”
Yearwood recognizes that we’re running out of time: “We’re having too many people being put into coffins simply because we’re not willing to get off of our dependency and our addiction to fossil fuels.” The battle against that addiction was on full display in 2016, as the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe stood up to the powerful interests of fossil fuels in their fight against the construction of the Dakota Access pipeline. The pipeline was slated to be built under Lake Oahe and through tribal sacred sites. When the Army Corps of Engineers was denied an easement for the pipeline near the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation, Yearwood cheered the victory for the “Water Protectors” of Standing Rock, praising the convergence of so many diverse groups to support their efforts. He noted that “… the credit for this victory goes to the courage and vision of the Standing Rock Sioux and the over 200 tribes who unified with them. They led a spiritual movement based in love, prayer and peace, fortified by culture, the wisdom of the elders and courage of youth alike. There has never been anything like it and we thank and honor them. …”
That spirit of unity is what Yearwood brings to the climate change movement: “[t]o overcome the vicious forces in our government that have disregarded our constitutional and fundamental values of civil and human rights, we must come together as human beings fighting for justice.”
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