Written by Priya Parrotta Natarajan, Director, Music & the Earth International 

Cities can be overrated. Sound pollution, air pollution, over-crowding, crises related to safety and sanitation, social isolation, removal from the natural world. Such concerns are common, and they have social as well as environmental ramifications. Urbanization is rapidly transforming the face of this Earth. It is creating deeper strains on our countries’ ecologies, and is also creating new social constellations. People are coming into contact with each other in historically unprecedented ways. Many are engaging in forms of conflict that at times reflect the past, and at times signal clearly that the world is in flux.

In light of the potential and pitfalls that they offer, cities need intentional spaces—places where people can gather for healthy purposes. Music has an important role to play in the creation of such spaces. Unlike many aspects of life in large and hectic cities, music is non-confrontational. Within a musical encounter (whether you are a listener, performer or both), conflicts can transmute into conversations. In fact, musical vibrancy often emerges out of an engagement with tricky divides and controversies. It is no coincidence that some of the world’s most spirited musical traditions come out of longstanding engagements with questions of diversity and hybridity.

Climate change, and the human crises connected to it, is a global emergency that puts such diversity at risk. If our species is to survive, cities and the explosive numbers of people who live in them must embrace environmental consciousness. Imagine, then, if you will, an approach to urban planning which seeks to correct the hierarchies and segregations that are often associated with urban life (indeed, with human life) by bringing music to the service of social and environmental dialogue and problem-solving.

Last year, Green Sun Cities initiated a project that resonates with such a vision. Climate Art—Nairobi gathered multimedia artists from Kenya, as well as from Rwanda, to create original music, poetry, and visual art to promote awareness of climate change. To paraphrase the words of co-organizer Benedict Muyale, the intention of the project was to take the issue of climate politics out of closed-off conference halls, and onto the streets of Nairobi. The initiative involved workshops, concerts, and interviews with the artists involved. It set a precedent for similar events in the future, and in retrospect, it seems an excellent example of curating urban space in ways that encourage public environmentalism.

The dynamic intersection(s) of space, music, and environmentalism in public life is of great interest to me. It is also among the core themes animating the work of the NGO which I direct. Put briefly, the mission of Music & the Earth International (musicandtheearth.org) is to promote cross-cultural environmental dialogue through music and dance. We seek to confront, and resolve, tensions and disconnects between diverse groups of people by engaging them in the listening, performance, and enjoyment of musical traditions around the world. There are many reasons why such an endeavor is helpful and needed. One of them is the fact that climate change is common to all of us—though certainly, some are experiencing its impacts more than others. At Music & the Earth, we are intrigued by the possibility that music can help us to communicate more effectively around this issue. We actively pursue this potential and events such as Climate Art—Nairobi serve as inspiration and as grounding for the research questions we ask.

Numerous questions have already emerged: what are the conditions that make events such as Climate Art—Nairobi successful? How can the experience of an event in a public space (such as a concert) serve as a gateway for long-term relationships between environmentalists and/or people experiencing the effects of climate change? Is it possible to transform these events from moments in time to established recommendations for environmental policymakers?

And perhaps most significantly for us at Music & the Earth: can robust dialogue on the linkages between diverse musical traditions and the environment occur as a result of concerts like Climate Art—Nairobi? Related to this, can cities become spaces for ongoing artistic development in the service of pressing environmental problems?

Taken together, these questions comprise an ongoing discussion, a bustling convergence of ideas, experience and critiques. Without a doubt, these concerns extend far beyond the purview of either Green Sun Cities or Music & the Earth International. They are as far ranging as they are urgent. And that is half the fun.

Priya Parrotta Natarajan is an author, singer and founder/director of Music & the Earth International
Find a link to an interview done with Green Sun Cities co-founder here .

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