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Nature has a mixtape. The U.N. hopes young people will listen to it

Artists UMI (left) and Louis VI (right) teamed up with the Museum for the United Nations - UN Live to re-release songs with nature sounds for Earth Day.
Ryusei Sabi, Orson Esquivel.
Artists UMI (left) and Louis VI (right) teamed up with the Museum for the United Nations - UN Live to re-release songs with nature sounds for Earth Day.

Updated April 22, 2024 at 14:06 PM ET

When London-based hip hop artist Louis VI looked at social media over the past few years, he kept seeing the same image: orange skies from wildfire smoke.

"It was one of those strange, eerily beautiful phenomenons that's, you know, Mother Nature going like, 'Yo, this is not right,'" he said.

The verses in his song, 'Orange Skies,' explore themes of environmental decay.

"Calling climate justice, it's about time

'Cause our Black people on the front line

Ain't you seeing what I'm seeing

Hurricanes and fires blazing, flooding in Savannah basin."

The song was originally released last year with vocals and instruments, but it's been remixed with a new featured artist: nature.

Artist Louis VI's song 'Orange Skies' (feat. NATURE) protests environmental degradation.
/ Orson Esquivel
/
Orson Esquivel
Artist Louis VI's song 'Orange Skies' (feat. NATURE) protests environmental degradation.

The new track was created as part of an advocacy and fundraising project called Sounds Right, a partnership between the United Nations and artists like Ellie Goulding, Brian Eno, and the estate of the late David Bowie. Songs produced for the project will generate streaming royalties for conservation organizations.

Louis VI's remix features rainforest sounds in protest of deforestation that can be caused by palm oil production in Southeast Asia, where the sounds were recorded.

Manufacturers, he said, are "clearing spaces in the jungle [in Borneo, an island in Southeast Asia] to plant a monoculture of palm oil trees, which is really bad for biodiversity and also makes it more susceptible to fire."

After the verse, "Chopping down our forests 'til we cough smoke," there's a five-second recording of a chainsaw before the music resumes.

"I purposely put in sounds that weren't necessarily just beautiful because I wanted a range of sounds of nature," said Louis VI. The sounds, collected by the label Biophonica, also include an orangutan, cicadas, and a blue-headed hummingbird, among others.

'Orange Skies' ends on the dire note of a fire consuming a rainforest. The sound drowns out the vocals.

Why reaching young people matters

The project was created by theMuseum for the United Nations - UN Live, an arm of the U.N. that aims to engage people — especially young people — through pop culture.

"It's one of the most powerful ways to reach people in their everyday lives and bring them into conversation about the biggest issues of our time, including biodiversity conservation," said Gabriel Smales, the global program director for Sounds Rights at UN Live, who helped launch the initiative.

A 2024 Harvard survey of around two thousand 18-to-29-year-olds in the U.S. found that nearly half of respondents felt that the government should "do more to curb climate change, even at the expense of economic growth," though only 6% of respondents listed environmental issues as their top concern.

Efforts to raise awareness about climate change among young people are key to conservation efforts, according to Raisa "Ray" Barrera, the D.C. area program manager at the Student Conservation Association. The nonprofit connects youth with conservation projects like planting trees and building trails.

"I'd love to say that 100% of the youth that come into our programs are well aware of the environmental impacts of climate change," Barrera said. "But I'd be lying if I said that."

Smales, of UN Live, said that the scale of the climate crisis can feel insurmountable, and young people don't always know what to do, "but we have a really simple concept where by listening to a track featuring the sounds of nature, you'll be directing royalties back to conservation initiatives."

Louis VI hopes to draw in listeners with his music, and inspire them with the nature sounds in 'Orange Skies.'
/ Orson Esquivel
/
Orson Esquivel
Louis VI hopes to draw in listeners with his music, and inspire them with the nature sounds in 'Orange Skies.'

Louis VI hopes that his song has enough nature sounds to give those listeners a childlike sense of wonder towards the outside world — but is catchy enough to have widespread appeal.

"At the end of the day," Louis VI said, "The music is what needs to bring people in. It's the sugar around the slightly more difficult-to-swallow medicine of the subject."

He said one of his fears is being in nature — and hearing complete silence.

"When people seek peace and silence, I don't actually think they're looking for true silence," Louis VI said. "What they're actually looking for is the sound of nature, because we evolved for that to mean that all's OK. When you hear birdsong, you know that there's no predator around."

Nature as meditation

Rather than reflecting the realities of environmental destruction like Louis VI's track, Los Angeles-based singer-songwriter UMI takes a different approach.

"The deepest intention I have with my music is for it to be a feeling, where people don't even realize it's happening, but they feel soothed, they feel at ease," she said.

UMI starts her live shows with a meditation to calm her audience. Because being in nature has given her such a sense of peace, she wants listeners to experience that feeling.

Singer-songwriter UMI hopes her music will help listeners feel calm.
/ Eddie Mandell
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Eddie Mandell
Singer-songwriter UMI hopes her music will help listeners feel calm.

"Nature is everything," UMI said, adding that she often goes outside when she has writer's block.

"Something about being barefoot in the grass helps calm my mind when I'm feeling anxious," UMI said. "I feel like you can't help but to care about something that does so much for you."

The remix of her 2023 song 'wherever u r' features V from the K-pop band BTS, as well as some of the roughly five-thousand voice memos she said she's collected on her phone.

"If I see something beautiful, if I'm in a beautiful moment, I think I'm more interested in capturing the sound than the image of it," UMI said.

And now — listeners can hear them too.

The songs (feat. NATURE) can be found on major music streaming platforms.

Copyright 2024 NPR

Claire Murashima
Claire Murashima is a production assistant on Morning Edition and Up First. Before that, she worked on How I Built This, NPR's Team Atlas and Michigan Radio. She graduated from Calvin University.
A Martínez
A Martínez is one of the hosts of Morning Edition and Up First. He came to NPR in 2021 and is based out of NPR West.