What can the subversive genius of rap teach us about climate change? Quite a lot, it turns out, writes Nadine Anne Hura.
When my brother died two years ago, he didn’t leave a note, but he did leave a Spotify playlist in which I listened, for the first time, to ‘Space Bound’ by Eminem. I’d heard it before, but this was the first time I’d really paid attention to the lyrics. Disturbed, I went home and fell down a rabbit hole of fans and critics debating, line by line, Eminem’s undeniable skill with the English language. I read conflicting views about Marshall Mathers’ misogynistic, appropriative, homophobic and ablist personas. I pinged back and forth between the various controversies he’s been at the centre of over the past two decades, and wondered if I’d been living under a rock in some parallel universe.
I emerged from my room, bleary-eyed and confused, and asked my kids, older teens, if they knew that Eminem was actually Slim Shady, who was really Marshall Mathers.
Here is how they looked at me:
So you actually like him? I asked.
“Meh,” said my daughter.
“Retro nowadays,” said my boys.
But they could all, quite effortlessly, quote whole verses from ‘The Real Slim Shady’ and ‘Without Me’.
Thank god for my own ignorance. What would I write about otherwise? In my defence, Eminem was at his height when I was deep in the pages of Ranginui Walker’s Ka Whawhai Tonu Matou and listening to Radio New Zealand while breastfeeding. If I looked at him at all, I just saw a white dude shouting angrily about things that were irrelevant to my life.
But the more I asked around, the more disconcerted I became. It seemed that there were only three other people in the whole lower North Island who did not know that Slim Shady was Marshall Mathers, and none wanted to be interviewed for this story.
Apart from a deep burgundy shame, the one thing these social outcasts and I had in common was a lack of any real understanding or appreciation for rap. We had heard rap, we could identify rap, we could name a few 90s rappers. But none of us could say that rap spoke deeply to us.
Given words are my trade, I decided to sign up for a rap workshop with Allenzo Tamatoa. Not because of Eminem, but because the first step in overcoming ignorance is realising there is a whole world of things out there that you didn’t even know you don’t know.
My brief and humbling foray into rap
The community room at the back of the Living Waters Baptist Church in Ōtara was packed, mainly with aunties and cousins and little kids tearing through. When the free notebooks and pencils were passed around I smiled like a nerd and held up my journal to show I had come prepared. I took a seat in the back row and tried to follow.
Schemes, rhymes, beats, bars.
The words were familiar, but their interpretations new. I struggled to keep up. In one exercise, I felt like we were deliberately mining random words for what I would have thought were dad jokes or puns, in order to produce double entendre. These sophisticated word plays are intended to deliver one idea on the surface, while concealing a more ambiguous, often provocative message inside a pithy turn of phrase.
Then came the rhymes – something considered entry-level by serious poets, aka the literati, unless of course you’re Shakespeare, in which case you’re a genius. In rap, I learned that while rhymes are a distinguishing feature of the form, they are not, on their own, enough to carry a whole song. The skill of the lyricist, like Shakespeare, is the capacity to blend rhyme and double entendre to convey multiple, sometimes contradictory ideas at the same time.
It suddenly occurred to me, like a match struck somewhere in the periphery of this tiny brain of mine, that there was deep possibility and unbridled power in that idea. It was exciting. It was daunting.
We were all given 15 minutes to compose our own rap deploying these new skills. I squirmed in my seat and stared at my page:
Lying… lion… lie-in
It’s incredible how quickly arrogance can turn to humility, no? When the floor opened for sharing I tried to read my rap aloud with a kind of… attitude. But no-one was fooled. I had not written a rap. I had written a poem. A rhyming poem. Scorned by the literati, disqualified by the rappers.
There was an awkward smattering of applause to acknowledge my effort. One of the Aunties smiled showing all her teeth. She put up her hand to share after me. I could see her thinking: I can’t possibly be worse than that palagi woman.
As I sat there soaking up this talent for language I clearly do not possess, it occurred to me that these are the messengers of climate change we need. Not the Aunties specifically, and not the rappers solely, but anyone who has a facility with words and has the power to command an audience.
Are acronyms just sophisticated double entendre?
The interesting thing about rap is that it uses language as a screen to either reveal or to conceal. Climate change, as a topic, isn’t that dissimilar.
For a start, there’s so much of it. It’s loud and densely packed and hard to follow. The language is almost always technical, economic, bureaucratic and political. News headlines, half a dozen a day at least in Aotearoa alone, are all written by, and for, people who already seem to have an excellent grasp of the subject – the same way everybody but me seems to know that Marshall Mathers is from Detroit and that two trailer park girls went around the outside.
There’s an endless stream of documentaries, podcasts, books, magazines, blogs, Facebook groups, TikTok threads and Reddit rabbit holes about global warming. Often, the solutions to climate change, despite being infinitely complex, are presented by government and politicians and farmers and activists with such conviction it makes anyone who has just joined the conversation feel ignorant.
In order to understand what the government is doing, or not doing, to address climate change, you have to invest time (which you probably don’t have) to become fluent in the highly dominant language of science and politics.
It makes you realise, like I did when I discovered just how many people can sing Eminem songs at the click of the fingers, just how much power those who can turn a phrase really hold.
Language can be used to deflect, to strike, to exclude or to deceive. Or even, like Slim Shady, to ridicule. The less people understand or pay attention to the double entendre, the easier it is to confuse them.
You could even appropriate their own voice and language and have people disseminating your personal convictions dressed up as universal truths.
A non-scientifically robust experiment
Here’s a little social experiment for you. Ask the person next to you if they can name an Eminem song. Give them bonus points if they can quote any lyrics. Now ask the same person if they can tell you the significance of 1.5 degrees.
The results of my own, unscientific Instagram sample, were fairly predictable. Everyone could name an Eminem song, even people who flat out hate him. A friend was shocked to report that even her seven year old knew about the explicit rhymes of that guy Shady something.
But when it came to “1.5”, most assumed I was referring to degrees of separation (cute). Some had a hunch it was to do with climate change (“sea level rise and stuff”). But only a handful of people could connect 1.5 degrees specifically to the Paris Agreement’s target to limit global warming by 2100.
Once enlightened, a lot of people reacted the same way I did when I realised that Eminem is a word play on Marshall Mathers’ initials. But just because someone is aware the planet is warming (or that Eminem is a rap artist) and may even be prepared to join a climate protest or invest in an e-bike (name his songs or quote his lyrics), doesn’t mean they necessarily understand the complex science of climate modeling or the intricacies of international treaties (or double entendre).
My 20 year old son, who works on minimum wage in retail, says he “gets it”, referring to climate change, but just wants to know what he’s supposed to do about it. As far as teenagers go, he’s not especially environmentally conscious. He worries about the future, he’s smart, but he doesn’t obsessively read about climate change. Like so many people, he moves around in the world hearing the stories and seeing the images of wildfires and floods, but like me when it comes to rap music, the information and the details just aren’t speaking deeply to him. If this article had climate change in the title he would have scrolled right past.
The moral of the experiment? I think climate scientists need to work on their schemes.
Art and Science: Waiting for the (apoc)eclipse
If colonialism was a universe, science and art would orbit each other like celestial planets. The world of art, inhabited by musicians like Eminem, is ignited by a multitude of tiny embers that spontaneously spark and travel vast distances, both in distance and time.
The world of environmental or physical science (which is to say, the science that a typical, English-speaking brain defaults to when it hears that word) is fuelled by a large, relatively contained centralised woodburner known as research and observation – not that many people feel its warmth directly.
In a Māori universe, everything is not compartmentalised this way. The kupu “toi”, usually narrowly translated as art, has multiple, applied interpretations. One of them is knowledge. Another is summit. Other definitions include source, tip, point, indigenous. No doubt there are more still.
The point is, art is knowledge. Mātauranga is deeply embedded in the things we make, the landmarks we name, the stories we pass down, the songs we sing.
In this must-listen Taringa podcast, Dayle Takitium, says it isn’t an accident that a Māori world view has been so drastically diminished. “The first thing the British did,” Dayle says, “in every country they have been to colonise, is take out the poets, the storytellers, the spiritual leaders. It’s a clue that they target the psyche before they target the land. They did that carefully and deliberately, swapping out our emotional and mental loyalty to one world view for another, until we are almost colonising ourselves because we bought into the system.”
So what can you do?
The arbitrary separation and subjugation of the artistic disciplines in Aotearoa is a problem for humanity. For Papatūānuku, it’s a crisis. My son, who can sing all the lyrics to ‘Lose Yourself’, asked me how I expected him personally to influence the trajectory of the 1.5 degree target of doom, which is a fair but hard question to answer. What can the least powerful do about global warming? Is it right that people with already limited resources should have to sacrifice to fix a problem they didn’t cause?
Dayle acknowledges it can be difficult, but paradoxically, she also says it’s simple. Chances are, you’re already doing it.
“Go outside, take off your jandals, put your feet in the soil.” Healing and protection of whenua can be as simple as sinking your bare feet into soil. Reconnecting with the source that provides us with life. The truth springs from, and will forever be retained by, the land.
By that frame, learning te reo Māori, is climate action. Overriding our own internal shame to revitalise and reassert the language of our ancestors, te reo rangatira, which natively normalises the knowledge that most of us carry subconsciously and spiritually, is climate action. We know that everything past, present and yet to come is connected, though we may need to look to poets rather than the scientists to articulate exactly how.
Learning the names and the stories of the mountains and rivers you live in the shelter of is climate action. Immersing yourself in the tapestry of colour beneath your feet is climate action. Listening to the stories of Māui, and Hinenuitepō and Tāwhaki and Māhuika, and paying attention to the practical ancestral wisdom that is revealed with each fresh retelling, is climate action.
Protecting the integrity of our whakatauki from misuse and appropriation, which, like Eminem’s raps, will long outlast the memory of 1.5 degrees, is climate action. In the same vein, honouring the promises of Te Tiriti as opposed to the principles is climate action. This would see a return of whenua and taonga to hapū for the protection and benefit of all our mokopuna.
And finally, not being embarrassed to ask when you don’t understand the jargon of climate change. Chances are, there are thousands of other people out there who also don’t. Participating in conversations about climate change, like rap, requires a certain literacy. There’s so much assumed knowledge and specific language and it doesn’t speak deeply to everybody. Not only that, the subjects can sometimes feel irrelevant to your daily life, or simply more than you can cope with. But fatigue and shame and overwhelm have a way of excluding us. Deliberate or not, it’s a convenient situation for those who hold the power to decide where money and resources go.
This puts an onus on those who live and breathe the science and data and policy on a daily basis, and have years of contextual experience, to recognise their own internal biases and address them. Not just by being prepared to feel foolish while discovering all the things they didn’t know they don’t know, but by actively recognising and supporting the skills, wisdom and talent of artists – like Allenzo – as practitioners of knowledge in their own right.
This is the terrain of Dayle’s PhD, in that Taringa podcast I really urge you to listen to. “Self-determination lies in the conscious reinvestment in and prioritisation of the keepers of the narrative – the artists, the storytellers, the poets, the composers.”
“With the belief,” Dayle says, in a line worthy of the finest rappers, “of the weight of a hundred thousand tūpuna behind them.”
This is Public Interest Journalism funded through NZ On Air.