When producer and Kanye West collaborator Malik Yusef was 10, he would collect and recycle empty cans with his unemployed father to help pay for "food, lights and heat" for his family. While his early green efforts were more financially driven than altruistically motivated, they began an environmentalist streak that continued into adulthood, culminating in Home, a recently released environmentally-themed hip-hop/R&B album featuring Common, Raheem DeVaughn and Ne-Yo.
Executive produced by Yusef in conjunction with civil rights organization Hip Hop Caucus, the album – the title of which stands for Heal Our Mother Earth – has been released under the banner "People's Climate Music," a reference to the massive People's Climate March held in New York in September. Proceeds from the record will go to organizing in communities impacted by climate change.
Home features a mix of green-conscious covers (Ne-Yo takes on Michael Jackson's "Earth Song"; Karmin interprets Joni Mitchell's "Big Yellow Taxi") and original songs that aim to educate listeners about the importance of protecting the planet without sounding didactic.
"You can't preach," Yusef tells Rolling Stone. "I always think about how corny anything about an issue is; how the music is always super subpar. All that shit is out the window. We gonna make music like we workin' on Kanye's album. And then we'll slip the message in. I work with 14- and 15-year olds and cool is its own currency. You have to be cool."
Common, Malik Yusef, Kumasi - "Trouble in the Water"
Home eschews the gentle folk and singer-songwriter melodies that typically accompany similar ecologically-minded albums in favor of hard hip-hop rhythms. On "Trouble in the Water," Common rhymes, "We think our opponent is overseas/But we messin' with Mother Nature's ovaries" over martial drums and ominous synths that could have been a Yeezus outtake.
For Yusef, social protest and hedonistic excitement aren't mutually exclusive. "People need to know that there's a place that's in between dancing and rallying," says the producer. "The pendulum swings both sides, but this is about finding that constant foundation point that never moves." The album's organizers hope to promote President Obama's proposed Clean Power Plan and use the record as a promotional springboard to increase awareness of the United Nations Climate Change Conference held in Paris next year.
Antonique Smith - "Mercy Mercy Me"
"This is the crisis of our time," says climate change expert and author Bill McKibben. "The environmental movement has done a better job of appealing to the side of the brain that likes bar graphs and pie charts. We also need to reach the side that gets art and music. In fact, that's probably more important.
"We've moved backward for a long time in terms of thinking that environmentalism was something for rich white people," adds McKibben, who founded the global climate change organization 350.org. "I like hearkening back to a day when it didn't seem odd at all that Marvin Gaye, bard of urban America, was also worrying about 'fish full of mercury.'"
For Yusef, the goal of the album is to make progress incrementally. "I want people to say, 'You know what? I can make a small change,'" he says. "Now if you have 100 million people that's going to be privy to this project, that is the world shifting in another direction."