1.5 to Stay Alive: Music as the Movement for Environmental Justice in the Caribbean
By Natalie Cross
This blog post is abbreviated from a much longer research paper published via StoryMaps. In order to view the whole story and access music videos/sources follow this link.
Music has been a constant in my life for as long as I can remember. Whether it be dancing to Rihanna in my living room or rocking the car back and forth to the beat of Bob Marley; the melodies and rhythms of Caribbean music are a central component of my connection to my family. My mom has told me time and time again that our shared calypso Spotify playlist is one of the most tangible ways she is able to feel connected to her island home, Barbados, despite living thousands of miles away landlocked in the middle of the United States. These transcendent powers of music are not only integral in strengthening the connections between diasporic community members and their homelands, but also leads to impactful results when musical mediums are leveraged for activism.
This activism is essential as the Caribbean is currently in the midst of one of the most urgent and life-threatening issues — the climate crisis. The small island nations in the Caribbean have been on the frontlines of this crisis for over thirty years . This is nothing new, however a 2018 report by the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) published overwhelming evidence that an increase of over 1.5ºC in global temperatures will result in irreparable damage to many of these frontline Caribbean nations. The phrase 1.5 to Stay Alive is much more than just a song lyric, but a representation of the intensity of this situation. For the people of the Caribbean, climate change is not a future threat but rather a very real matter of life or death.
As a student majoring in Earth Systems, this is a topic that not only aligns with my academic interests but is also deeply personal. The people living on these Caribbean islands are not just statistics, but rather my family members and friends. Throughout my journey of research for this project, I’ve come to learn that music takes on many forms when it comes to activism. Specifically in the context of the Caribbean, I have identified four different facets of how music plays a role in the movement for climate justice:
1. Music as resistance
Known for its strong beats and good vibes, Caribbean music is the ultimate dancing soundtrack. I know that I can’t help but at least tap my foot when I hear the familiar twang of a steel pan drum. However, this type of music extends much further than the walls of the dancehall, these are musical genres rooted in resistance and rebellion. For example, the iconic steel pan drum that we all know and love started out as someone tapping out the beat on a dustpan lid or oil drum in response to the 1881 British colonial ban of the use of percussive instruments in the Caribbean .
Famed Trinidadian calypsonian, Black Stalin (Leroy Calliste), aptly described these Caribbean musical genres as “ resistance languages .” In addition to being born out of rebellion, these genres serve to expose systems of oppression while simultaneously creating something around which people are able to collectivize, reconstruct their histories and celebrate their culture. It is the epitome of the Caribbean spirit, a combination of joy and fun with upfront bluntness. And the power of these resistance languages can be felt far beyond the confines of the Caribbean Sea.
2. Music as call to action
Started as a collaboration between Panos Caribbean and the Caribbean Community Climate Change Centre (CCCCC) , music has been a central component of the 1.5 to Stay Alive campaign. They produced their first full length song, also titled “1.5 to Stay Alive” in 2015. With an upbeat background and tempo characteristic of Caribbean music, the song opens with the lines:
Look at where the sea meets the shore
I can tell you the sea is hungry
Eating up our beaches more and more
Swallowing our beloved country
The air so hot above our land
Poisoned with emissions
And most of that is not made by us
They blow in from much larger nations
The lyrics of this song not only flow extremely well, but they also follow in the blunt tradition of Caribbean ‘resistance language’ musical genres. The intro alone succeeds in bringing attention to the threat posed by sea level rise while simultaneously calling out the inherent injustice that exists when it comes to the climate impacts experienced by small island nations.
3. Music as community mobilization
Although they were not as closely involved with the creation of the specific 1.5 to Stay Alive campaign songs, there is another organization doing very important work in this space that I would be remiss not to mention. The Caribbean Youth Environment Network (CYEN) works specifically to empower and mobilize a community of young people in the Caribbean. Based out of Barbados, CYEN is arguably one of the most important groups in this movement, as young people are the future and we (I say as a young person myself) will be the ones forced to live in whatever conditions are left as a result of today’s inaction. The members of CYEN are dedicated to improving their own “quality of life” and creating a Caribbean fit for the generations to come after them. Alongside many educational workshops and beach clean-up challenges, CYEN has launched their own campaign entitled, Stay Alive and Thrive . A collaboration between CYEN, CCCCC, and UNICEF, this campaign has nearly identical goals to that of the 1.5 to Stay Alive campaign.
4. Music as hope
The Caribbean musical genres of calypso, reggae and soca have hope at their core. Hope that resistance movements will be successful and that conditions will improve. Hope that the global superpowers will stop pumping carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. And hope that we can turn the tide on warming before it’s too late. This hope is ingrained in the lyrics of the 1.5 to Stay Alive campaign songs and expressed by Kendal Hippolyte, the poet who penned these lyrics. He wrote in his journal :
“Perhaps it’s because I’m involved in a climate justice campaign: 1.5 to Stay Alive. Perhaps it’s also to do with being from the Caribbean, which I’ve seen as a zone — inner and outer — of possibilities that defy normal expectations. Perhaps it’s because I’m a father and a grandfather, so I refuse to not hope, knowing that hope is a channel for a higher energy of being and acting. Whatever the reasons, this time of hazard is a time of possibility.”
Possibility brings with it both positive and negative outcomes, and while one might seem more likely than the other, as long as they are both present you can never be sure of how things will turn out. Therefore, we need to keep fighting. We need to keep pushing for climate justice and holding both ourselves and those in positions of power accountable. We need to support the nonprofits and youth-led organizations who are tackling these challenges. And we need to listen, spread, and share the music produced alongside this movement. For the music that comes out of the Caribbean is not only fun to listen to, but it serves a multitude of important roles. From resistance, to a call to action, to community mobilization, to an avenue for hope; Caribbean music is a powerful force.
Natalie is a senior in Earth Systems at Stanford University. She’s really passionate about ocean conservation, environmental justice and environmental communication and gets particularly excited about whales! You can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.