Writing Music About Climate Change, Oakland Artist Reclaims Feminine Power

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Woman stands in front of lush foliage, looks seriously into camera. She’s wearing a white shirt with black polka-dots and a green and white head scarf.
After wildfire smoke blocked the sun in September 2020, Maddy 'MADlines' Clifford centered her latest album, 'downCHANTS,' on climate change. (Courtesy Vanessa 'AGANA' Espinoza)

To address climate change, experts say we all need to get to work. So how do you do that, as just one, busy person?

Here’s one idea: Consider what you’re good at, what you love, and what in the climate world needs doing. Your climate sweet spot is where those things intersect.

Top circle of Venn diagram says "what brings you joy?" A circle on the left says "What are you good at?" The final circle on the right says "What is the work that needs doing?" Where the three circles overlap is a space named: "What you should do."
Marine biologist Ayana Elizabeth Johnson created this Venn diagram to help people find their place in climate action. (Courtesy The All We Can Save Project)

We’re bringing you a series of stories of people who are doing that, like musician and writer Maddy "MADlines" Clifford. She’s penned an entire album about climate change, finding it to be surprisingly … fun, which is not a word most people associate with climate change.

KQED’s Laura Klivans spoke with Clifford about her latest creative venture and how it intersects with injustices affecting so much more than the natural world.

The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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LAURA KLIVANS: When was your climate awakening?

MADDY CLIFFORD: That day that we all woke up in 2020 and the sky was like this apocalyptic ashen color for the whole entire day.

I think that was a really big moment for a lot of people, especially on the West Coast. And it really cemented in my mind how dire the situation is and has been.

I felt a lot of despair.

How'd you relate to climate action before?

I'm from Seattle, born and raised in the city of Seattle and in the northwest. Environmentalism is a really big topic that we talked about.

I remember when I was in elementary school, they even had us in different "orca pods," but [environmentalism] was still largely seen as a white, hippie, upper-middle-class issue, and it wasn't really talked about in the Black community in particular or the community that I was in.

I just didn't really see myself reflected in a lot of the environmental movements until more recently.

Where did you start when it came to taking action?

I started to research and learn a bit about Indigenous stewardship around fires — how that related to colonization and the ways in which we've lost a lot of really vital information about how to protect the planet because of racism and colonization.

Then last year, I was lucky enough to find this really cool project called Creative Wildfire, and it's a collective action involving different artists from across the country.

Their purpose was to educate artists on how to really amplify issues around the climate emergency and push back against this idea of returning to normal. I really liked that concept because I was just experiencing such profound change over 2020 and 2021, and I was like, I really don't want to go back to some of the things that were problematic, especially as it relates to pollution and the destruction of our climate.

We had to attend classes. We learned about all types of different things, from solidarity economies [economies prioritizing people and the planet over endless growth and profit] to different grassroots organizing that was going on in different parts of the country around climate.

I started to feel really excited about how to draw connections in my arts practice. I was able to reach out to one of my colleagues and friends, Charles Burchell, and he created these instrumentals and I wrote songs to the instrumentals, and we put out this project called "downCHANTS."

Tell me a bit about "downCHANTS."

It's inspired by the Bob Marley and the Wailers song "Chant Down Babylon." [Chanting down] is a spiritual pushing back against all this negativity.

Going through a lot of these different workshops as part of the Creative Wildfire cohort, I realized everything is connected to the climate emergency. Women are going to be more disproportionately impacted by the climate crisis. Immigrants, Indigenous folks, all the people that are actually the ones that can make a difference. I really got inspired by that and invigorated by that.

What are some of your favorite songs [on the album]? 

"Black Imagination" is one song where I bring up the fact that the Black imagination is so rich, even though there is a serious racial wealth gap in our country.

I begin the song with, “The end is near, but also the beginning.”

That has to do with this balance between pessimism and optimism that I see a lot of Black writers and Black intellectuals bring up. It's this balance between being really clear and aware of the obstacles that we're facing, but at the same time having a healthy dose of joy and excitement about the future.

With "Femme Future," I thought a lot about the way the Earth is gendered feminine, and how this degradation of anything that's non-male really contributes to people not caring about the climate crisis, or thinking that it's inevitable.

Woman wearing a red and gold shirt throws back her head; her dark golden hair flies up behind her and around her face.
Maddy Clifford was surprised when writing songs about climate change: It was actually fun. (Courtesy Jenn Wong)

I wanted to reclaim femininity as something that was powerful. In a lot of ways, I felt almost a sense of pride in the fact that the Earth is seen as feminine.

I do love "Bike Life." I love riding a bike: It gives me the ability to exercise, it's really fun, and biking culture is a huge part of the culture in East Oakland.

I don't think people realize — in their cars all the time — the fact that the city was literally built for cars and that it didn't have to be built that way. I also think about the ways that freeways, for example, desecrated and destroyed a lot of thriving Black communities in Oakland.

What challenges have you come up against?

How do I make these issues around climate and social justice visceral? How do I make them poetic? Because you want to show people, you don't want to just tell them these things. That's what makes these topics really resonate with wider amounts of people at the end of the day.

How do you juggle this new work with your life?

I've always been a politicized artist because I believe art is innately political.

And this is a way to strengthen the work that I've already been doing around intersectional feminism and empowerment. It really actually complimented my work in a lot of ways, and it felt really exciting to go in this direction.

What have you gained from this work?

I have had such a good time just writing about climate, I didn't realize how much fun I would have.

A lot of the discussions around the climate crisis become really apocalyptic and really depressing, and I think that can often cause people to just ignore it. And for me, it wasn't so much that I was ignoring the issues, it's just I felt I didn't know where to get in.

Then I thought back to rappers that I admire and a lot of them actually have written songs about the climate, like "New World Water" by Yasiin Bey. I was like, "Wow, that's one of my favorite songs of all time."

I started to realize this is not something that's so outside of me, but it's part of a tradition within the hip-hop community, within my practice and my medium.

I was surprised how much I actually fit perfectly into this idea of a climate activist.

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Editor’s note: Maddy Clifford has written for KQED Arts.