African reggae star Rocky Dawuni on music’s power to drum up climate action

New album uses art’s force to mobilize masses for change

Rocky Dawuni performing at the Global Landscapes Forum Nairobi in August 2018. His new album, Beats of Zion, released 8 March 2019. Global Landscapes Forum
11 March 2019

On 8 March 2019, International musician, humanitarian activist and global ambassador Rocky Dawuni released Beats of Zion, the seventh album in his career of using art to push forward environmental and human rights agendas hand-in-hand.

Living between Los Angeles and Accra, Dawuni is a leading African voice on the international reggae scene, with his powerful songs addressing global issues ranging from women’s rights to education, and from poverty and health to clean air and climate change.

The Ghanaian-born singer and songwriter was designated a UN Environment Goodwill Ambassador for Africa at the Global Landscapes Forum in Nairobi last year, where he headlined a concert at the UN headquarters in front of a crowd of some 1,000 policymakers, business and finance experts, scientists, indigenous and community leaders, and media.

Prior to this album’s release, Landscape News caught up with the Afro-roots artist to hear about the process of creating his latest work and the role of music as a mobilizing force in making sustainable development “sexy” enough to earn the world’s attention.

This transcription has been edited for length and clarity.

What you have been up to since August last year when you received your UN designation?

It has been such an amazing journey. I came back to Los Angeles, and then I was invited to participate in the Global Climate Action Summit that was put together by Governor Brown in San Francisco. I was then invited to the UN General Assembly and participated in various environmental law initiatives, where I also had the opportunity to meet a mayor from Andhra Pradesh [state] in India who is doing some incredible sustainable initiatives and leading the country’s push to become a leader in sustainable economies.

My trip to India took me to every nook and cranny to meet other environmentalists on the ground and try to get as much information and knowledge to educate myself, to help me with this designation and do it in a way that I feel contributes tangibly to the world vision of the UN and the environmental agenda around the globe.

I then went to Geneva for the World Health Organization’s first conference on air pollution. And then there’s my work with the Clean Cooking Alliance. I am also working to launch a big tree-planting initiative within Ghana. So I really hit the ground running after the designation.

That’s quite a lot. How do you find the time to work as a dedicated globetrotting ambassador and as a musician?

You know, the thing is, music is part of the process of the service and the work that I do. Music always provides me with a platform, but in the process of doing all this work, my inspiration comes from the everyday people that I meet on the ground: the unsung heroes, the champions fighting for the earth, champions of innovation, champions of bringing people together. All of these are themes that eventually I seal into my music.

After everything, I took a block of time in the studio to finalize the record, and then the first single got released, and now we are getting ready to launch a full album on 8 March. But the thing is that the music and the release of the album also provide me opportunities with press and profile to push all the ideas that I have to contribute to the environment much more. So, it’s all coming together, and it’s all working hand-in-hand.

Photos: Amir Magal

Your album is also releasing on International Women’s Day.

Wow! You know, it sounds ridiculous because I had not even made that connection. It was a day we chose because Ghana’s independence is on 6 March, so I wanted to launch a few days after the independence celebrations. But it falling on Women’s Day, I actually feel that is a beautiful synergy, because my work has been focused not only on social justice and environment but also women’s empowerment – not only within my country but also around Africa and the globe. So to launch an album that is about the empowerment of people…and elevating freedoms for everybody around the world on Women’s Day is definitely an honor. I think that when you follow your path… the universe usually works in alliance with you. So all the subtle things that sometimes you do not even think about, they add significance to a project.

What are your thoughts on music’s role in sustainable development?

Music, art and voices of artists are very critical to add to the conversations [on sustainable development], and also to provide the needed momentum and connection to the ideas being created, and communicate that to the general public. The voices of artists are very important, and the potential for music to really push the agenda is so immense.

If you look at all the major changes that have happened in history, a lot of times, even during the Civil Rights Movement, you have songs that became the driving force for a lot of the people who were marching. When you look at events like Live Aid that brought people together for the famine in Ethiopia, and even during the Vietnam War in America – musicians like Bob Dylan were the voices that provided the soundtrack that mobilized people to apply pressure to solve these issues.

Do you think enough is being done in the music industry in terms of raising awareness about the state of our environment?

I feel like we have not been able to fully use this force right now, at a point when we are being faced with so many existential challenges, not only in our individual countries but in humanity as a whole. We look at the ocean and see that it cannot be sustainable – that much plastic and that much pollution going on without a solution. If we are not able to arrest it in time, it’s only going to lead to further disaster.

You need a big movement of people who have made the decision, ‘No, this is where we don’t want to go,’ and I believe that to get to that, music will be critical. So I think the potential is there, a lot is being done, but we are at a point where we need a bigger push to get our voices to a wider audience.

What do you mean by ‘a bigger push’?

Artists who are doing this kind of work require investment and funding. The support needs to happen around us, so that the agenda can be pushed ahead. It’s no [longer about] politics. This is existential. This is a problem that requires all humanity to come together to solve right now. We are the generation where this issue is in our hands, and we have to find a solution. We are speaking on behalf of both past and future generations, and we have to step up to the plate and do the right thing, and I feel that art and music is the tip of the spear to make this happen.

Do you think that the environment is just not sexy enough for musicians? If we are saying that we have a 12-year window to turn things around, then why is the world still not waking up?

It would be sexy if there was the right kind of support behind it, to present it in the right way. In the long run, it’s all about all partnerships and coming together. Artistic forces can be the ones to drive this agenda at a critical time when we need galvanized people, and to inspire action.

Tell us about your latest album, Beats of Zion.

Zion, for me, is where we all want to get to, the new world where we won’t have to deal with a lot of these issues that we are dealing with now. But to manifest that world, it will require work to be done. So it is a dream and a vision; but at the same time, the album is about igniting movement, igniting action. A musician does not necessarily have to be talking about plants in his music. He just has to have something he stands for, and then the music inspires people.

What stories have you witnessed on the ground that give you hope for our future?

In my involvement with Clean Cooking Alliance, I really saw the inception of an idea, its incubation and nurturing. And all of a sudden, it has become a global idea. The beautiful thing was traveling to various villages from Ghana to India and Indonesia, being able to see women becoming aware of smoke in the kitchen and its health implications and aspiring to do better by adopting cooking stoves, so that they can take care of themselves and their families.

Then, seeing that message disseminated and reaching as far as refugee camps on the border of Congo and Rwanda, it showed me that once you commit to an idea and put energy behind it, then you are very likely to create success stories.

So, I have seen tangible progress, and that is what makes me hopeful. That is why I am still in it, working as hard as I can, because I know that my passion and my focus can be an inspiration to others. Then once they also ignite that deep passion, they can also ignite others, and then we all in the long run will see it’s a bigger movement that can help us make the world a better place for ourselves and the future.

How about we end on the future. What is the role of young people?

Well, for me, that is one of the most important parts of the equation: engaging young people, giving them the rights to education, health. And especially in the parts of Africa where I come from, I feel that there is a certain moral communication that needs to be given to them because of rampant corruption and the pressures of poverty.

Africa as a continent has the highest number of young people in the world, so if the youth are going to be the driving force for the world’s development, Africa is going to play a very central role. It is important to equip African youth with the right knowledge base and leadership. This is where I will be putting a lot of energy going forward.


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