African musicians use song to protest a world marred by climate change

“Music is an emotional tool. It goes directly to your heart.”

This article was created in partnership with the National Geographic Society.

When Maureen Lupo Lilanda visited the countryside as a child, her family would return with armfuls of flavorful fruits and vegetables.

“Everything was plentiful,” she says. “Now with lack of rainfall, you go to the village and there's nothing to harvest.”

The Zambian village had no irrigation system; for decades they had relied only on the naturally occurring rain cycle to bring life to their soil. In the past 20 years, Lilanda estimates, those rains have stopped falling.

“It occurred to me that things were changing,” she says. “Once I understood it, it felt imperative that I change the mindset.”

Lilanda wanted people to understand how deforestation and charcoal burning could be permanently changing their homes. As a singer she has one of Zambia's most recognizable voices and a large following. She rose to fame as a teenager and has been in the spotlight ever since. Themes about conservation and the natural world have always found their way into her lyrics. Now, she's one of a growing number of singers in southern and eastern Africa using music to convey messages about adapting to and preventing climate change.

Last month, the singer joined several Zambian musicians to create the song “Samalilani.”

The song's video begins with a montage of grim scenes. The charred remains of a burnt tree stump; an arid riverbed; a wall of flames cutting through a lush green forest. The images are emotive, and the words that underscore them match.

With Lilanda are prominent Zambian musicians Theresa N'gambi, James Sakala, and Pompi and Shaps Mutambo.

The lyrics touch on some of the most pressing environmental issues facing Zambia, like deforestation and charcoal burning, and the chorus implores listeners to preserve nature and animals.

“Music is an emotional tool. It goes directly to your heart,” says Sakala.

Spreading the message

For the past three years, National Geographic Explorer Alex Paullin has been traveling through Africa with his non-profit, Conservation Music, to facilitate workshops and bring together communities to create songs about protecting the environment.

Both a trained geographer and musician, Paullin was inspired to create the organization after traveling through Botswana's Okavango Delta, a place that's said to be one of the last great wildernesses.

In March of last year, Paullin and his team kicked off their latest initiative—K2K. He and his crew will travel from Kaapstad (the Afrikaan spelling of Cape Town) to Kilimanjaro. During the 13-month stretch, they spend one month in each region, developing, producing, and eventually recording a song that conveys information about the environmental issues each region faces.

The road is tricky to navigate, Paullin explains of both the overall effort and the literal dirt road on which he's driving one night while we speak on the phone. Many of his hours are filled with driving, from small towns to filming locations to large cities across Africa. Then there's the challenge of forging successful music collaborations.

“We meet musicians generally through word of mouth,” he says. “We haven't come across a community where people don't sing and dance.”

Getting the message across

To create their songs, the Conservation Music team and their local collaborators first spend a day or two brainstorming.

“If you make it sound like an advert, people won't listen to it. It has to feel like a song,” says Sakala. His song-writing skills helped create the tune “Samalilani,” and he says making it seem authentic was the biggest challenge.

Melodically, Samalilani is a blend of a uniquely Zambian style of music called kalindula, which features fast tempos and bass guitars. For Sakala, the song both spreads messages about conservation and conserves a traditional style of music he doesn't want his country to lose.

“There isn't any other tool [besides music] that you can use that is as effective,” he says.

Catchy and memorable, songs like “Samalilani” get air play on local radio stations, meaning they can reach homes that may get information primarily over the airwaves.

“They don't have to wait for politicians or corporations. We focus on the grassroots approach,” says Paullin.

Last August, his team collaborated with another Zambian group to produce the song “Sons of October,” a reggae-inspired warning about the perils of climate change. The song is imbued with political undertones of the Zambian independence movement that liberated the country in October 1964 and suggest Zambians now band together to save their natural resources.

Continuing the fight

Conservation Music's K2K program will end in March of this year after spreading music through South Africa, Lesotho, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Swaziland, Botswana, and Tanzania.

In Zambia, Lilanda says she plans to continue using her voice to amplify the need for reforestation. She also wants to create songs for children to inspire an appreciation for their natural places.

Sakala too plans to continue writing about the environmental issues facing Zambia, even devoting his second album to the topic.

For the Conservation Music team, their ambitions are high. Paullin hopes to one day establish a headquarters in Zambia and says a record label that deals exclusively in environmentally conscious music isn't off the table. He wants to make these songs global.

“Every day of our lives, we're making sacrifices to be on the front lines of climate change,” he says. “We can never do enough.”