Sounds of Injustice: the unspoken link between hip hop and the Flint water crisis.
By Robert Murphy
“Sound waves, Chi-town graves, dug deep. Water dirty like the police that flood the street.” Hip hop artist Common raps about the devastating environmental injustices in Flint Michigan. This music is being used to unite and mobilize the community to fight against environmental injustice.
In Flint, Michigan January 2016 it became clear that dangerously high levels of lead were found in the tap water. This disaster disproportionately affected people in poverty who could not afford water filters and bottles every month. The state government did not take the claims seriously and overall failed to react in time. This is where hip-hop artist and activist groups stepped in to help raise awareness, encourage donations, and reach out to government officials.
Flint was the heart of manufacturing for General Motors until the company started to outsource and de-urbanization began. By the time of the Flint water crisis the city had lost half its population, 200,00 to 100,000 since its peak in 1960. “Flint is about 53% African American and around 32% of people live below the poverty line”. Most will go on the witness the rise and the Black Lives Matter movements while heading into a new Trump era where the oversight and injustice will only continue. Throughout all the injustices, the community and culture of Flint stayed strong.
Being a musician all my life, I want to answer the question: how has music impacted the environmental injustice movement? Has music helped the population of Flint, Michigan fight for their rights against an unjust government? How will music help the environmental justice movement in the future? Based on my research, I found that in Flint Michigan, hip hop music has united people around a culture to bring a large amount of awareness and help collect resources, money, and man power to fight for environmental justice.
I want to focus on the history of the Flint water crisis. Then look at the history of hip-hop relating to the environmental justice movement. Next, analyze some of the music made in response and about the Flint water crisis. Lastly, I will study the peoples, media, and political reaction to see what kind of impact this music has on the environmental justice movement in Flint.
It will be valuable to learn about the impacts of hip hop so we can know how to use this tool in the future to progress the environmental justice movement. I hope this paper will encourage musicians and artists to help grassroots activist groups connect and reach more people to strengthen the effectiveness environmental justice movement.
The Flint Water Crisis
Up until 2013 Flint purchased its water from the city of Detroit. Its water system sourced from Lake Huron, the closest Great Lake. A new project was in motion to create a water system that avoids using Detroit’s pipes to lower costs. In 2014 Flint’s water supply was changed to come directly from the Flint River while construction on a regional water system was underway.
The river was more corrosive than the previous water source and eventually started to breakdown Flint’s aging pipes and infrastructure. By 2016 Flint’s water supply was contaminated with lead and other dangerous elements. In Flint, roughly 40% of lead water tests were over 5 parts per billion or ppb, 16% of tests exceeded the EPA limit of 15ppb.
A report done in March 2016 by the Flint Water Advisory Task Force or FWATF shows that Michigan department of environmental Quality or “MDEQ bears primary responsibility for the water contamination in Flint.” This is partly because “MDEQ waited months before accepting EPA’s offer to engage its lead (Pb) experts to help address the Flint water situation and, at times, MDEQ staff were dismissive and unresponsive.”So while the state government reamed apprehensive more people got poised with lead. This slow response started outrage and anger throughout the community.
Music and Environmentalism
Modern protest music was born out of the counterculture movement of the 1960’s, where the younger generation started to criticize and judge the “perfect” world of the 1950’s. Ideas like racial norms, gender roles, and political opinions were all challenged. It did not take long for people to start criticizing America’s environmental policies.
While hip hop or rap music stems from soul, R&B, and Jazz. As technology progressed new distortion and effects made this music into what we call funk. Then in the mid 1970’s rap was born on the streets of New York City. This music ripped through the laws of Jim Crow segregation to let African Americans and all minorities expressed their views and how they see the world.
Into the 1970’s, the civils rights movement and the environmentalism movement were becoming integrated with each other. Many environmental issues such as hazardous waste, nuclear plants and chemical spills seem to happen near or in predominantly minority towns. So, it also became a civil rights issue because these people are being targeted and treated unfairly. Naturally, these movements joined together to want is known today as the Environmental Justice Movement.
Hip hop music was the perfect music to reach these people because it speaks to people who are not respected and thought of. A great example of the origins of hip hop and the EJ Movement is a song from 1975. Famous poet and jazz musician Gil Scott Heron wrote a song called “South Carolina (barnwell)” about a nuclear power plant built right near Barnwell, a predominantly African American town. He states: “It would house atomic waste and be a constant reminder, That they got a great big timebomb ticking in South Carolina”. This quote shows me that most people thought it was dangerous to build a nuclear plant near a town, but nobody seemed to care. Heron asks, “whatever happened to the protests and the rage? Whatever happened to the voices of the sane? Whatever happened to the people who gave a damn? Didn’t they just apply to dying in the jungle of Vietnam?” . It’s clear that Heron knew this was immoral and unjust and nobody was trying to stop it. This is one of the earliest songs I can find dealing with environmental injustice. Even though this song does not go into much detail and does not call for any action, it is clear that Heron wanted to expose the unfair and unjust behavior to his people.
Next, analyzing songs made about Flint will show us what the unheard voices of the city really think. This song from 2016 shows that the angry and frustrated Flint residents demand change against a greedy government. DMT the rapper was born in Detroit in 1990. His father passed away before DMT turned 8. He started rapping in his local church as a way to get off the streets. In the wake of the flint water crisis DMT calls for: “Rick Snyder just handles your bis. Don’t you know what this water will do to our kids.” Also claiming: “You don’t think none of our safety important, you just been worried about saving some quarters.” It’s clear that DMT is accusing his state government of not doing their job. He exclaims: “We want a change.”
This song reflects on the poor government response while showing imagery of the harsh conditions Flint residents are living in to make it clear that something needs to change. This artist does not really specify in what way we should change or how to change. For this reason, I would say this song is just about spreading the message of the injustice happening in Flint and failed to promote any real-word or physical change for people to get involved with.
The rap group known as “The Dayton Family” have been based in Flint since the 1990’s. The flint water crisis was happening in front of their eyes which inspired them to write this song called City of Lead. This song shows how their people and culture in Flint is being ignored and misunderstood. Claiming “not one pipe has been replaced and not one hole has been dug, Because they tryna sweep the water crisis under the rug.” He is not wrong to say this because as we saw before Flint’s government was hesitant to react. But he also says that “Phony celebrities keep coming claiming that they support us, But we need money in flint and not just some cases of water”  Now, I do see the point that donations of water bottles are not a long term sustainable solution. Flint needs new infrastructure, pluming, and filtration systems, but this is far too expensive for outside funding. I do not agree that donations of water should be turned down, all help should be appreciated in an emergency.
Overall, this song lacked any direction or option for progress. The music video does show people protesting and handing out water bottles but there is no claim that encourages that. If the artist were really unsatisfied with just water bottles, they could have started a charity to help fund pipe construction in Flint Michigan.
Looking at these songs will give us a clear picture of what the artist thinks but does not show us how the music is helping. To see the real impact of hip hop music to the E.J. movement, we need to look at the reaction of the community.
Music’s Impact on Flint
Let us take another look at Common’s song “Trouble in the water”. This song came off an album called H.O.M.E. or heal our mother earth. Released in partnership with the Hip Hop Caucus, an activities group dedicated to using hip hop to spread change. This song came has a link to a donation fund for flint and to sign a petition asking Governor Snyder to create a relief fund. Hip Hop caucus claims that “Over a million people watched the video on Facebook in less than 24 hours. Thousands of people contacted Gov Snyder demanding justice.”
This song obviously had a direct impact to improve the lives of flint resident by raising global awareness that then leads to donations. Unfortunately, I could not find any further research about the petition linked with the song. I’m not sure if it actually persuaded any government official but even if it didn’t, it does show the potential impact and influence that hip hop music can have in our democracy.
Donations of water bottles and filters are one of the main way’s musicians can directly improve Flint. For example, rapper, and Detroit native, Big Sean created a go fund me specifically to raise money for treatments for kids affected by lead water. So far, the site has raised over $80,000. This is nowhere near the amount of money it takes to replace an entire city’s water pipes, but it’s a start to a better future. I also found that “rapper Diddy partnered with AQUAhydrate to donate $1 million worth of water bottles to Flint residents. Rapper Meek Mill also donated 60,000 water bottles to the Food Bank of Eastern Michigan.” When these rappers use the large fan follow and recognition to promote charity its always a good thing.
This is not that special that celebrities are using their fame to acquire donations. This happens all the time with movie stars, athletes, and musicians. What make this special is that hip hop music is heavily linked with the African American community. And the African American community is sadly linked with environmental injustice. So rock or country music would not have to same effect for the environmental justice movement. The music is speaking directly to those affected and unties everyone around a culture.
Looking at these two images will show how music can unite a culture around a common goal.
This image was taken in March of 2017 during a protest against the Dakota access pipeline. The protestors are marching in Washington DC, towards the White House, to oppose the capitol’s and the new presidency’s vote to construct a pipeline through the native land.
In this photo we see mostly Native Americans, from all ages, walking with bright blue banners and signs. The older ones in the group use a drum to create rhythm and lead the march, while it looks like some teens are holding up banners to express their cause. We do not see any other people besides protestors, there’s no pedestrians or police to get in the way of this march.
A big part of this image is the contrast between grey and blue. Grey can represent coal or dirt and blue represents clean water and clean earth. The grey Roman-style pillars of Washington DC in the back are being opposed by the bright blue, handmade clothes, signs, and drums. This could be an indication that Native Americans and European American cultures still have not fully converged. But maybe through the power of music these two cultures can be heard and understood to form a more united America.
This next photo is a standoff between protesters and law enforcement near a pipeline construction zone. This picture was taken on Dakota Highway 6, south of St. Anthony, N.D., Oct. 10, 2016.
This image captures a very tense moment between the protesters and armed law enforcement lines coming close together and staring at each other. It seems both sides are determined to make a stand for or against the construction of the pipeline. The drummer man that is pacing the line between each group is breaking the tension of this standoff. Even though the pipeline was eventually built, this shows that music can break down walls and barriers to send a message when words and physical can’t.
Both the protesters and the police are wearing dark heavy clothes. It is only the man drumming that is wearing bright native clothes. It appears that he is enlightened and different from the crowd. He is using the power of music to create a silver lining to this bad situation. If all else fails, music will be there to help to heal the pain of being robbed by having your homeland destroyed. This draws parallels to why so many artists make music about climate change and environmental disasters.
These photos are very similar because they show the Native American protests against the Dakota access pipeline in 2016-17. The one difference I see is that the first photo is in motion and the drums are leading the march on. While in the second photo the protest is a stop because of armed police and the drum is the only weapon these citizens can use. I would take away from this that music can be used to inspire and lead a moving through the right steps but is not especially useful for getting real tasks done. If the journey is open for justice, music can lead and guide us to a better future, but music will never go against law enforcement and congress to actually write and change laws, that has to be on us, the people.
Hip hop music has certainly had an impact on the environmental justice movement. Artists are writing songs to encourage donates and put pressure on government officials to act. Others have simply writing songs to attract attention to the hard ships in Flint, Michigan. Activist groups have used concerts to build a following among the community. Hip hop music has united communities around the country around a culture.
Unfortunately, I was unable to find any evidence of real long-term effects of hip hop protest music. I believe the most promising evidence is groups like Hip Hop Caucus that have large followings but more importantly clear ways for everyday people to contribute. For example, signing a petition, or donating to a cause. So currently I would say that hip hop music has failed to enact any sustainable methods for environmental justice. As time goes on and more group start to form and grow, I know that music will be a significant tool against the fight for environmental injustice.
2016 was a time or great injustice from water crisis, police brutality, and a racist president. This paper shows how music will always be an option to unite people who normally would not come together. This is even more important now in 2020, America is more divided in politics, morals, race, and class than ever before. Music might be the tool that unifies and rally’s us to rise against the forces of evil and greed in our world.
Keywords: Art, Community, Popular Culture, Class, Global
 Hip Hop Caucus, “Trouble In The Water – Official Video,” YouTube Video, 4:03, April 22, 2016,https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qDUY3eXv-UY&feature=emb_title
Victoria, Morckel, “Legacy city residents’ lack of trust in their governments: An examination of Flint, Michigan residents’ trust at the height of the water crisis.” Journal of Urban Affairs Vol. 41, Issue No. 5 2019: EBSCOhost.
 This statistic is form CensusReporter.org. Could not find much info about authors and publication date. https://censusreporter.org/profiles/16000US2629000-flint-mi/
 Nancy, Kaffer, “Year before water change, state knew of risks in Flint” Detroit Free Press, November. 7, 2015.
 Parks, Jeffery, “Lead testing results for water sampled by residents” Flint Water Study.org,
 Flint Water Advisory Task Force Final Report, March, 2016. https://www.michigan.gov/documents/snyder/FWATF_FINAL_REPORT_21March2016_517805_7.pdf
 I have taken 2 classes at my community college about American music history, 2016-2017
[11} Horton, Kerry, “Bootleg of The Dayton Family – City of Lead featuring Mikki Wade [OFFICIAL RELEASE] [VIRAL VIDEO]” YouTube Video, 2:21, Noverber 8, 2017. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qtfv2mF8pEo
 Hip Hop Caucus, “Trouble in the Water” https://think100climate.com/music/peoples-climate-music/trouble-in-the-water/
 Pearce, Jade, “Let’s rap About Flint” WEACT.org August, 2018. https://www.weact.org/2018/08/lets-rap-about-flint/\