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Recycling lives
Rev. Lennox Yearwood and the Hip Hop Caucus are changing the face of environmentalism
Rev. Lennox Yearwood

Created in 2004, the Hip Hop Caucus was the brainchild of minister and community activist Rev. Lennox Yearwood, who saw an opportunity to engage the hip hop generation in efforts to change social and political issues.

The organization is now more than 700,000 members strong, and has worked on campaigns for voter registration, against war in the Middle East, in support of post–Katrina aid and now to promote a green technology and environmental responsibility.

On April 17, Rev. Yearwood will stop in Savannah to be a special guest at the Green Summit hosted at the Coastal Georgia Center, while he is touring the country in support of the “Green The Block” initiative, promoting green job creation as a means to fight poverty in low–income communities.

We caught up with Rev. Yearwood last week by phone to talk about the environmental movement, rappers driving hybrids, the power of celebrity, and how people can recycle lives as well as materials.

What was the inspiration behind this new set of environmental initiatives?

Rev. Yearwood: We were successful with some of our get to vote efforts in 2004 with “Vote or Die” and in 2008 with “Respect My Vote.” For our generation, the climate is our lunch counter moment for the 21st Century.  Our parents were dealing with equality, but we’re dealing with existence. We must stand up to special interests and groups who are making a lot of money off fossil fuels and push for clean energy now.  We can fight poverty and pollution at the same time.

Hip Hop and environmentalism, at first glance, are an unlikely partnership. What has the response been so far to your efforts?

Rev. Yearwood: We’ve been dealing with the effects of pollution in our communities. We’ve been talking about it – from asthma, to cancer and lead poisoning. The face of environmentalism has changed. We have a black President.

There’s a yellow brother in charge of energy. There’s a brown sister in charge of labor, and there’s a sister in charge of the EPA. The color of environmentalism is changing. It’s not just Birkenstocks and hippies. We must transition from fossil fuels to clean energy – that has to happen. So what better way than showing that the Hip Hop Generation – a generation that will be around for quite some time – is at the forefront of this discussion and at the forefront of making sure this change happens. At first glance, it might seem strange, but with hip hop, using one’s cultural expressions to form one’s political experience has always been there. That hasn’t changed from Dr. King and Harry Belafonte to Muhammed Ali and Malcolm X.  We must continue to speak truth to power.

You’ve got these concerts promoting awareness with artists like Drake, Trey Songz and Fabolous. What was it that brought them on board? Was it simply their appeal to young people or were they also down for the cause?

Rev. Yearwood: At the Hip Hop Caucus, I’ve been able to work with a number of artists, and we choose artists for different reasons. We chose T.I. for a voting campaign, and at the time we thought he couldn’t vote because he was a convicted felon. What better example? He said ‘I want to vote but I can’t, so why don’t you use your gift and your opportunity to make your voice heard.’ That was unique because he wanted to be involved, as did Keyshia Cole. A lot of artists get engaged. It might be getting out to vote. Sometimes it’s been ‘Make Hip Hop, Not War.” We let artists come to us. Trey Songz is very much interested in future generations and what that means – the whole clean energy movement, and how he can use his celebrity. Fabolous was with me back when we did get out to vote efforts back when I was with Russell Simmons. A lot of times, a lot of artists have just been around. They’re at the forefront, that’s what they’re paid to do, but a lot of times their activism doesn’t get put in the forefront.

If you’re bringing kids in with these concerts, and part of the draw is these names, how do you ensure that they get message? How do you bridge the gap between them wanting to show up for the concert and them leaving with more knowledge than they showed up with?

Rev. Yearwood: To go back to Dr. King and Harry Belafonte – Harry Belafonte’s job, when they were marching from Selma, his job wasn’t to just speak. His job was to audience build and keep people encouraged along the way. It’s the same thing now. I’m not asking these artists to be hardcore environmentalists. I want what Ludacris did. I want them to get a hybrid Tahoe and I want them to get solar panels. Their job, really, is to make sure that this generation – whether they’re in their forties or their teens – is gonna come out. If you say a townhall meeting on clean energy, as important as it is, that might not grab the people.

We’re growing because there is an appeal, because people feel like this is their culture. With that, we get them and educate them and hopefully move them from being energized to being mobilized, and then, hopefully, being organized enough that they can become advocates in their communities.

We’ll go back to our communities and let them know how important this is, and the importance of green jobs. We’ve got to find a better way. People have lost their lives on oil rigs and in coal mines trying to dig up the ground for energy. There are better ways, cleaner ways to do that, and more jobs that can be created that can help our economy. We can reclaim our communities, and we can restore our planet. Those are the things this campaign so exciting so why not use celebrities to get the word out to the community.

Is it realistic to expect an influx of green jobs into some of these lower income communities when issues like school performance and academic achievement are already affecting the qualifications of the workforce in these areas?

Rev. Yearwood: It’s a great question. That goes to policy, and why the Hip Hop Caucus is very big on understanding how policy affects these issues as well. Two things we say: One, either we shape policy or policy will shape us. And two, in some of our hardest hit areas, where people say it’s not worth it to be engaged in the process, we tell them, you’re at the table or you’re on the menu. There is no in between. For too long, we’ve been on the menu. We must work with the federal, state and local governments.

Sometimes, a lot of these young men and women have been outside the process. We were recently at the Columbus Community College at their workforce development center. I have young brothers who were just out of prison who were more articulate than my good friend Al Gore. I told him that. I said, I ran into some young brothers and sisters in Columbus, Ohio who were in prison just six months ago, and who are now engaged in this issue. They are excited about what it brings, not just for their lives, but the changing effect it can have on other lives.

What we’re finding out is this movement is not just about this recycling thing, but you can also recycle lives. That’s what’s so powerful. There are no throwaway things in this movement, and there are also no throwaway people. We can transform these lives, and fight poverty and pollution at the same time.

One of the major challenges with green technology, especially in low–income communities, is the price tag. CFL bulbs, hybrids, organic vegetables – all that is more expensive. How do you sell the importance of that extra cost to families who barely make ends meet?

Rev. Yearwood: That’s again where some of the policy can come in to help with those costs. We can put some dollars into some these to make sure that corporate partners can reduce some of these costs or give away kits. That would be important. The change now isn’t how much we spend, but also how much we save. Our accounting methods are changing with this movement. It’s not just that we’re going to spend more, but we’re going to save more.

This hybrid might cost $20,000, and the SUV might cost $10,000, but you’re going to spend $20,000 on gas because you get 5 miles per gallon. You’re going to save money. That method is changing because it has always been on the front end, but not on the back end.

Rev. Yearwood speaks at the Greening the Southeast Summit

When: April 17, 12 p.m.

Where: Coastal Georgia Center, 305 Fahm St.


Cost: $99 for 2–day conference. Registration required.