Greta Thunberg, Protest Music Star
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because her speeches are being remixed in songs everywhere.
Music composer Liz Johnson had created a three-minute composition called “Gentle Flame,” with a Christmas-carol-like essence, working with the student choir at the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire. But the conductor felt the piece — meant to coincide with the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall — needed more.
Back in 1989, before the Berlin Wall fell, German citizens would often hold candlelight peace protests, and the conductor wanted Johnson’s piece to reflect that sentiment. So she did, incorporating a contemporary twist. “I thought who else is doing a similar thing — a kind of call to arms and being brave and speaking out,” Johnson tells me. The answer she came up with? Greta Thunberg, the 17-year-old Swedish environmental activist whose no-holds-barred speeches and criticism of governmental inaction have turned her into the global face of resistance against climate change.
“I decided then to use Greta’s words and look at various different speeches and newspaper articles and pull out different key different phrases that I wanted to use,” Johnson says. The result was a composition that both celebrates the fall of the wall and champions the importance of standing up for what’s important.
Johnson is not alone in how she views Thunberg as an inspiration for her music. A death metal remix of one of Thunberg’s speeches now has over 5 million views on YouTube. English DJ Fatboy Slim remixed her speech into part of a recent set. The 1975, a British pop-rock band, includes Thunberg in a version of their song “1975” featured in their album released this month.
Even Billie Eilish, the 18-year-old pop artist who recently won multiple Grammys, including album of the year, has made Thunberg-influenced content. She has released a video titled “Our House Is On Fire” — one of the Swedish activist’s best-known warnings — alongside American actor Woody Harrelson warning people about the effects of the climate crisis on the planet. Without singing herself, Thunberg might just be the most influential protest musician in the world today.
It may not be a category at the Grammys or a playlist one would customarily seek but protest music has a long and rich heritage — from Negro spirituals during slavery to the Civil War, when soldiers began to appropriate hymns and marching tunes. These songs span all genres and speak out against injustice, oppression and, in Thunberg’s case, climate change. In fact, during times of duress, it is oftentimes musicians who emerge as the voice of reason.
Whether it’s electronic and dance music or death metal and rappers — they have a countercultural element to them.
George Aspion, music producer
It’s evident from Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young’s lament of “four dead in Ohio” at Kent State, John Lennon’s odes to the peace movement or rap group NWA’s gritty takes on police brutality. Or you can turn to Kanye West’s sampling of Marcus Garvey or rapper YG’s popular single “F*** Donald Trump.” Protest music represents a level of anger, passion and determination to bring change that, with our impending climate crisis, Thunberg’s voice and words are perfect for, say industry experts.
“What’s interesting to know is that most of the genres — whether it’s electronic and dance music or death metal and rappers — they have a countercultural element to them,” says George Aspion, the founder and in-house producer of Kore — a London-based recording studio — who has closely followed protest music for several years.
Aspion says that while artists like Bob Dylan wrote songs that were very much like a love manifesto, it’s the tone and urgency in Thurnberg’s speeches that have elicited the hard-core death metal remixes. “She has a lot more action and confrontation,” he tells me.
And action is exactly what is needed. April 22 this year marks the 50th anniversary of Earth Day and the theme is climate action. Atmospheric CO2 levels are as high as they’ve been in more than 3 million years thanks to our dependency on fossil fuels, and the effects are clear. If the Australian fires, fast-rising coastline in the Netherlands or melting ice caps don’t convince you, the warmer winters, vanishing wildlife and our dwindling resources should.
Thunberg’s speech at the U.N.’s Climate Action Summit to world leaders last year may have felt dire, but that’s because things are. And she has been able to spark the creative response to get artists behind climate change just as they’ve done with social justice, poverty and war. It’s something that Bruno Duprat, a 29-year-old composer and performer based in Boston, feels is part of an artist’s duty. “People who have the means to portray the urgency through music need to do it as much as possible,” he tells me. He has released several protest music compositions, including albums on the Boston Marathon bombing and pollution.
It’s a win-win. Artists concerned about the climate get powerful lyrics and a brand — Thunberg — to tag onto their music. The Swedish activist gains too. Popular music, whether death metal or an ode to those who brought down the Berlin Wall, helps carry the message of climate activists to audiences who might otherwise not absorb them. And if it helps us in the battle to put out the fire, we’re all winners too.