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What role can contemporary world music play in tackling environmental challenges ?

Last Novem­ber, the Lon­don-based orga­ni­sa­tion Julie’s Bicycle, a pio­neer in sup­por­ting the crea­tive com­mu­ni­ty to act on cli­mate change, recei­ved the award for pro­fes­sio­nal excel­lence at WOMEX 2019, the inter­na­tio­nal world music expo. The year 2019 was mar­ked by a focus on envi­ron­men­tal issues within the music indus­try : in the UK, the Music Declares Emer­gen­cy move­ment, which has more than 3,000 artists, orga­ni­sa­tions and indi­vi­dual signa­to­ries to date, decla­red an eco­lo­gi­cal and envi­ron­men­tal emer­gen­cy, deman­ding sys­te­mic change ; Glas­ton­bu­ry and We Love Green made head­lines by announ­cing a ban on single-use plas­tic bot­tles, while Cold­play and Mas­sive Attack final­ly brought the ques­tion of the envi­ron­men­tal impact of tou­ring into the spot­light, LED of course.

The August 2018 report from the IPCC war­ned that, at the time, we only had 12 years to stop the pla­net hea­ting up by more than 1.5°C, the point beyond which the risk of floo­ding, drought, extreme heat – and the resul­ting pover­ty – would increase. While no one can now deny this rea­li­ty, the music indus­try inclu­ded, artists and pro­fes­sio­nals from a num­ber of regions around the world did not wait for this wake-up call to ini­tiate and exchange ideas about rethin­king res­ponses to envi­ron­men­tal change, brin­ging toge­ther com­mu­ni­ties and rege­ne­ra­ting musi­cal practices.

A recent issue of the Jour­nal of Eth­no­bio­lo­gy cele­brates indi­ge­nous songs and music as sources and a means of han­ding down tra­di­tio­nal eco­lo­gi­cal know­ledge, empha­si­sing the impor­tance of pre­ser­ving these ances­tral lan­guages and tra­di­tions. Music is also a way of high­ligh­ting envi­ron­men­tal struggles, pro­mo­ting social dis­cus­sion and action for cli­mate justice.


In 2015, Björk cal­led for glo­bal action to prevent the des­truc­tion of Iceland’s highlands :


While many music pro­fes­sio­nals are keen to get invol­ved, it is some­times dif­fi­cult to know where to start or how to pin­point the right ways to achieve genuine change. In a context in which fewer and fewer musi­cians can rely on album sales as a source of income, the empha­sis is on tou­ring and sel­ling mer­chan­dise. How then can an eco-conscious res­ponse be recon­ci­led with a sta­tus quo that involves frequent air tra­vel ? Espe­cial­ly in geo­gra­phi­cal areas where there are no alter­na­tives and where access to Wes­tern music scenes is vital for artists from regions of the world where the most extreme impact of cli­mate change is being felt. In addi­tion, issues with visas, taxis and exclu­si­vi­ty clauses impo­sed by some music venues and fes­ti­vals are yet more obs­tacles to tou­ring in a way that reduces the car­bon footprint.


The music pro­ject The Nile Pro­ject, foun­ded in Aswan (Egypt) in 2013, offers an inno­va­tive example of inter­cul­tu­ral dia­logue and envi­ron­men­tal action :


The recent can­cel­la­tions of fes­ti­vals such as Lost Para­dise and A Day on the Green in Aus­tra­lia have rai­sed ques­tions about the future of sum­mer fes­ti­vals in the face of the threat of increa­sin­gly extreme wea­ther. It is no lon­ger a ques­tion of redu­cing emis­sions, but of adap­ting to a new situa­tion. Spea­rhea­ding the music industry’s envi­ron­men­tal com­mit­ment, fes­ti­vals are labo­ra­to­ries for expe­ri­men­ta­tion and risk-taking, able to offer us the vision of a more sus­tai­nable world and sug­gest solu­tions that can be taken up in our dai­ly lives.


The Bra­zi­lian rap­per Edgar, who per­for­med at the Les Escales and Trans fes­ti­vals, des­cribes him­self as an “arti­vist” and makes his cos­tumes from recy­cled materials :


Ano­ther major glo­bal chal­lenge in the years to come will be the impact of strea­ming. While the advent of digi­ti­sa­tion has encou­ra­ged the cir­cu­la­tion of music, the broa­de­ning of audiences and their per­mea­bi­li­ty, its envi­ron­men­tal cost is often over­loo­ked. In his recent book Decom­po­sed. The Poli­ti­cal Eco­lo­gy of Music, Kyle Devine, co-author of the aca­de­mic stu­dy The Cost of Music, demons­trates that while the glo­bal pro­duc­tion of plas­tic in the recor­ding indus­try has fal­len, the tran­si­tion to strea­ming recor­ded music has resul­ted in signi­fi­cant­ly higher car­bon emis­sions than at any other time in the his­to­ry of music. He adds : “The amount that people are strea­ming and down­loa­ding is increa­sing at such a rate that they may out­weigh any gains in the effi­cien­cy of the sys­tem. […] Once we take into account places where strea­ming is huge – Chi­na, Afri­ca or India – places where there are less strin­gent requi­re­ments on the gene­ra­tion of power for the Inter­net, I don’t have those num­bers, but my sense is the pic­ture gets even uglier”.


In 2019, Fulu Mizi­ki per­for­med for the first time out­side the Congo at the Nyege Nyege Fes­ti­val ; the group has deve­lo­ped their sound from recy­cled objects, buil­ding a futu­ris­tic nar­ra­tive ins­pi­ring eco-awa­re­ness and resilience :


Music has the power to cross bor­ders and bring people toge­ther. It embo­dies the notion that we are all in the same boat and that this is a mul­ti­fa­ce­ted glo­bal pro­blem. Beyond a need for the imple­men­ta­tion of a cata­logue of best prac­tices, a dif­ferent sto­ry must be told in the face of envi­ron­men­tal chal­lenges ; as sug­ges­ted by the phi­lo­so­pher Mal­colm Fer­di­nand, author of Une éco­lo­gie déco­lo­niale. Pen­ser l’écologie déco­lo­niale à par­tir du monde cari­béen [Deco­lo­nial Eco­lo­gy. Thin­king of Eco­lo­gy from the Carib­bean World], we must make the pla­net the focus of eco­lo­gy : “Tal­king about a cli­mate emer­gen­cy is all very well, but it is impor­tant to unders­tand that this is not enough as a res­ponse. Rather than taking a sole­ly envi­ron­men­ta­list approach, the goal is also about poli­tics, socie­ty and mind­sets”. This is undoub­ted­ly where we, those invol­ved in the world music indus­try, can add our voices.

Gwen Sharp

Constanze Flamme


Gwendolenn Sharp is the founder of The Green Room, an organisation that pushes for environmental and social change in the music industry. She has worked with cultural institutions, festivals and environmental NGOs in Poland, France, Germany and Tunisia and has a broad experience in concert production, tour management, project design, international cooperation and the development of tools and strategies. Since 2016, she has been co-creating solutions with musicians and technicians focused on low-carbon touring and carrying out assessments, initiatives to raise awareness, and operational training on artistic practices and environmental issues. She is a member of the board of directors of the Réseau Eco-Evénements (REEVE) and an assessor for A Greener Festival (UK).

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