Thomas RaShad Easley grew up in an apartment in an urban neighborhood in Birmingham, Ala. But he learned to love nature, in part because his grandparents cultivated a lush garden amid the concrete and blacktop.
He was also an Eagle Scout, and Scouting got him out of the city and into the woods, where he enjoyed spending time at Tannehill State Park.
“Yes, we would go camping, and I’m glad that we did it. Because at first, I didn’t want to do it,” Easley recalled. “And then, when we got out there, it was so much fun. You know, me and the guys. And the other good thing about our scout troop was we were a diverse scout troop. So we had black, white, as well as brown young men in our troop. So it was almost like a social experiment – Troop 49 in Birmingham, Alabama.”
Easley went on to earn an undergraduate degree in forest science from Alabama Agricultural & Mechanical University; a master’s degree in forest genetics is from Iowa State University; and eventually a doctorate from North Carolina State University. He is now an assistant dean at the Yale University School of Forestry and Environmental Studies.
But in his work with environmental groups, he noticed that they were not like Troop 49 in Birmingham. They were almost entirely white – with very few African Americans like him, or Latinos or other minorities. This ethnic narrowness caused a problematic narrowness of focus – in terms of both audience and subject matter.
“It’s almost like saying having first-world or rich-people problems, I think as far as the topics,” Easley said. “One group may want to talk about fish. And the people may be like, yes, fishing is an issue. But then, drinking water is an issue that the people here are going to be concerned about.”
To help bridge that gap, and reach out to more people of color – Easley advocates for a rethinking of how environmentalists communicate. He is a contributor to a new book, titled: “A Better Planet. 40 Big Ideas for a Sustainable Future.” Easley’s chapter is titled: “Hip Hop Sustainability.”
In the classroom, in community meetings, and in music clubs, RaShad Easley is a pioneer of “Forestry Hip Hop.” It’s the translation of the treehugger ethic into a form of music aimed at reaching more urban audiences.
Here’s a sample: “I took a different pathway, and not a pipeline. I became a disciple of a discipline that’s unheard of by blacks, Latinos, Indigenous populations, who’s ancestry starts before land’s domination. Way before emancipation, before cutting down trees, before the PTSD when blue and red lights are behind me. For life is hustle, hard with a couple jobs. I want to do a new thing. From concrete to flood plains you see our blood stains.”
The flood plains he talks about are the low-lying areas in New Orleans, North Carolina and many other places around the world, where minorities often suffer the worst damage and displacement from sea-level rise caused by climate change. The bloodstains reflect the death and destruction that indigenous people have suffered from European-style exploitation of the natural world and native people.
“My ancestors are my ghost writers,” Easley said. “I feel like my music and my lyrics are actual messages – almost like sermons.”
Easley does not pretend that rap is the sole avenue through which environmentalists should expand their message. His point is that a radical opening of the mind and methods are required – whether it involves online videos, movies, music, dance or demonstrations in the street.
Everyone should be worried about a world that’s on fire. And everyone should be invited to the meeting of the minds about what to do about it.
Easley's song, "Hip Hop Forestry," under the name RaShad Eas, is available here.