Singing with our ancestors and descendants: Music-making and intergenerational justice theory at COP21

Musicologist Kelsey Kramer McGinnis attended the Climate Change Meeting in Paris. She explains how two very different forms of music-making she witnessed appealed to the assembled crowd by making links between past, present, and future generations. She argues that musicians and artists should consider how intergenerational justice theory can help them as they seek to define their role alongside policy-makers, scientists, and world leaders in tackling climate change.

The constant presence of music during COP21, United Nations Conference on Climate Change in Paris, had an almost desensitizing effect. In the same way that music is almost unnoticeable in a shopping mall or grocery store, the constant sounds of drumming, clapping, chanting, and amplified electronic music acted as a barely perceivable frame for all of the information and constant activity at the conference.

For most conference attendees, the music-making was just one of many aspects of civic engagement with COP21. But as a musicologist observing the role of the artists in the conference, my eyes and ears were drawn to music-makers. Why did they spend the money to attend a conference in Paris? What did they hope to accomplish or contribute? And what good are the arts in general when the world’s leaders are gathered in the next room, arguing about the steps that must be taken to “save the world?”

During my week at COP21, two instances of music-making drew my attention: a hip-hop performance by Inupiaq performance artist and beat-maker Allison Warden or “Aku-Matu” and a series of daily worship services held by a delegation from the Episcopal Church. These are clearly two very different examples; the processional and worship service was a participatory musical activity while Aku-Matu’s concert was representative of typically “performative” music. But in both cases, the music-makers appealed to the idea that past, present, and future generations all have a stake in the future of the planet. As musicians endeavor to find ways to contribute to global conversations about climate change, the theme of intergenerational justice is emerging as a grounding framework that is uniquely illuminated in and by music.

COP21, Intergenerational justice, and environmental law

The late legal scholar Burns H. Weston dedicated much of his career to the development of a robust theory of intergenerational justice and environmental law. According to Weston, living persons have an obligation to protect the rights of future generations to opportunity, resources, and choices. “Somewhere deep inside,” he wrote, “we know that this state of affairs cannot continue if the next and succeeding generations are to enjoy a global environment comparable to what we inherited from our predecessors; that life is a temporary gift we share with a long chain of past, present, and future humanity; that, whatever our ancestors’ failings, we therefore are bound to ensure, with fairness, that the Earth will sustain today’s children and those of the future.”

Champions of intergenerational justice theory assert that, as each generation inherits the earth from the previous generation, every generation’s charge to care for the earth is not simply an obligation to the planet, but to future humankind. Defending this premise, legal scholar Edith Brown Weiss claims, “every generation needs to pass the Earth and our natural and cultural resources on in at least as good condition as we received them.” Many champions of intergenerational justice theory are vigilant about using language that acknowledges this connection between natural resources and cultural resources. Similarly, artists like Aku-Matu expose and explore the connections between the preservation of indigenous music (a cultural resource), the shrinking of native lands and depletion of natural resources, and our obligations to present and future generations.

The United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) recognized this connection in its 1997 Declaration on the Responsibilities of the Present Generations Towards Future Generations. Article seven of the Declaration states: “present generations have the responsibility to identify, protect and safeguard the tangible and intangible cultural heritage and to transmit this common heritage to future generations.”

For those of us in the humanities, the aspirational language in UNESCO’s 1997 declaration about the value of cultural diversity and heritage is a welcome affirmation of a holistic view of a healthy global community. And those of us who study music both as and in culture know that although music has different functions and significance in each human community, it is a constant that contributes to individual and collective identity. That the unquantifiable, even indefinite “cultural heritage” of the human race is worthy of preservation is a belief that we endeavor to defend in a world where scientific method is increasingly persuasive.

In the context of COP21, the interest in the development of a holistic approach to environmental justice was apparent in the framing and planning of the conference as well as in the rhetoric of the world leaders in attendance. Just days after the adoption of the Paris Climate Agreement in December of 2015, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon referred to the agreement as “a health insurance policy for the planet” and a “victory for people, for the common good, and for multilateralism.” In a subsequent statement addressing civil society participants and attendees, the Secretary-General wrote: “From young activists to artists, faith leaders to business leaders, mayors to mothers, all of society has come together under one banner and brought forth this moment of hope.”

What some would call a toothless agreement on climate change has arguably been strengthened by a new emphasis on the role of “civil society;” world leaders seem to be in agreement that not only top-down policies, but also large scale culture change is necessary in the global effort to protect our environment. And who better to help create culture change than the world’s musicians?

Musical Traditions and Intergenerationality at COP21

There is a consensus among music-makers, whether professional or not, that music ought to be present and somehow connected to moments and events of significance. This is a well-documented human impulse; human communities have always made music to accompany rituals, to add weight to ceremonies, or to honor the memory of people and events (see Alan Merriam’s The Anthropology of Music or Bruno Nettl’s The Study of Ethnomusicology: Thirty-one Issues and Concepts for an introduction to ethnomusicological scholarship on the functions and uses of music).

Hundreds of artists and musicians chose to participate in COP21 because of their conviction that art adds dimension, weight, and urgency to advocacy efforts. The musical activities of Aku-Matu and the Episcopal delegation reflected this conviction. And they did so partly by using or referencing intergenerational traditions and beliefs.

On my first day at COP21, I saw Aku-Matu perform in the middle of the crowded Climate Generations Pavilion (the public civil society space located next to the United Nations conference center). She gave a solo hip-hop performance on the “Solar Sound Stage,” which was connected to rows of stationary bicycles and solar panels. At one point, she performed a song in which she chanted, “O-oh, where did all the ice go?” from the perspective of a polar bear (while wearing white, furry claws on her hands and a hat designed to look like a polar bear’s head). Many of Aku-Matu’s songs incorporate elements of theater; during her performance of “Ancestor from the Future,” she dons a crown of plastic spikes and acts as an ancient ancestor and sings to her audience as if they are her great-great-grandchildren.

“I am an ancestor from the future,” she raps, “… I came from a long ago space, to give a message to this place…” She references the environmental changes of the present: “… we are going through times of lots of changes… it’s like the planets are trying to speak…” And she levels a challenge to her audience: “I’m an ancestor and I say, everything’s gonna be okay, but you got to wake up, you know, you can’t pretend it’s not going on…”

Aku-Matu gave several performances at COP21, often tweeting about them using the hashtag, “IndigenousRising.”  There were many other groups at the conference that attended to promote and advocate for the rights of indigenous communities around the world. Leaders from these communities spoke out about the globalization and industrialization that has left so many countries and ethnic groups behind, noting that nomadic and pastoral lifestyles are no longer possible.

A delegation of youth from the Lummi Nation (a Native American tribe in western North America) performed tribal dances and chants in the Climate Generations space. Their leader spoke in between songs, calling attention to their close relationship with nature: “We speak for the salmon and the deer. We are here to bring the message that the earth is alive.” For Aku-Matu and the delegation from the Lummi Nation, music-making at COP21 was a way to give voice to communities that too often have no voice in the large-scale decisions that have a lasting impact on their ways of life. For these communities, cultural identity and natural resources are intertwined, and the depletion of one will inevitably impact the other.

Aku-Matu’s performances at COP21 has a relatively obvious connection to intergenerational justice theory. Her music explicitly refers to the obligations that our ancestors had to us, and the obligations that we have to our descendants. Furthermore, her preservation and adaptation of Inupiaq beats underscores the importance of musical traditions within her community. In the past, such traditions could survive orally and socially, but she and others in her community are increasingly aware that a time may be coming when the practices of their ancestors may disappear entirely.

Aku-Matu’s music explicitly refers to the obligations that we have to our descendants

Aku-Matu’s amplified performance reverberated through the Climate Generations space; the hip-hop beats, her varied use of rapping, chanting, and singing (as well as her costumes and stage presence) demanded the attention of the passersby and anyone within earshot. In contrast, the Episcopal delegation from the United States used no amplification but managed to fill the space physically and sonically by processing around the conference center, singing in unison. I encountered the group on the final Thursday of the conference while searching for the elusive coffee cart.

I first noticed the sound of drumming and chanting, then I was certain that I could also hear a clarinet. The unostentatious chanting now permeating the conference space was a departure from the sounds of rock bands, dance music, and crowds of protesters. Abandoning my quest for caffeine, I started to walk toward the sound of the voices, drum, and clarinet.

In a few minutes, I crossed the path of a processional; a man in a cleric’s collar playing clarinet, a woman playing a drum, and a small group of congregants holding sheet music, singing and praying. I followed the unusual ensemble and was immediately handed a copy of the hymn they were singing, “Many and Great.” The text of the hymn is a meditation on creation and communion with God on earth and in eternity:

Many and great, O God, are your works,
Maker of earth and sky;
You hands have set the heavens with stars;
Your fingers spread the mountains and plains.
You merely spoke and waters were formed;
Deep seas obey your voice.

Grant us communion with you, our God,
Though you transcend the stars.
Come close to us and stay by our side;
With you are found the true gifts that last.
Bless us with life which never shall end,
Eternal life with you.

As I followed the procession, someone passed me a small booklet of prayers and meditations. I was struck by the emphasis on the “here and now” of the liturgy and meditations. The hymn’s language references the natural world (“deep seas,” “mountains and plains,” “earth and sky”), and the present (“grant us communion,” “come close to us and stay by our side”). Only in the final line of the hymn does the singer shift focus from the Earth to eternity. This is certainly not the only hymn on the theme of creation, but in the context of COP21, it demonstrates the intentional shaping of liturgy and worship in a way that calls attention to the value of the physical world.

Similarly, the first daily readings (on the subject of forgiveness), call upon God as “Compassionate Creator, who calls us into right relationship with you, with our neighbors, and with the beautiful earth you have made,” and asked for the ability to “be honest about our need to transform behaviors that cause harm to ourselves and to your creation.” This emphasis on the “here and now” of the Episcopal delegation may also be interpreted as a reaction to the skepticism of some American faith communities, particularly certain segments of Evangelicalism, regarding climate change. There is a long history of escapist themes in Christian worship, exemplified by hymns like “I’ll Fly Away” and the final verse of “How Great Thou Art” (“When Christ shall come with shout of acclamation/and take me home, what joy shall fill my heart”).

Participation in church tradition, specifically musical tradition, is itself an appeal to intergenerational thought. Musical worship is understood to unite members of a congregation with each other and with the corporate “body” of believers past and present (a “great cloud of witnesses”). This perceived intergenerational connection, created through belief and through liturgy, is a powerful mobilizing tool. The “pop-up worship” services at COP21 brought the traditions of various faith communities (services were ecumenical and music was selected from a variety of denominational sources) into the space of COP21, making its presence known, and demonstrating a vested interest in and desire to be part of the conversation. Furthermore, musical worship made the presence of the Episcopal church’s delegation audibly known in the conference center; chants of “Lord have mercy” and “Jésus le Christ” temporarily transformed the space into a house of worship.

The “pop-up worship” services at the conference were also an invitation to congregants from around the world to remotely participate in the work of climate advocacy. While the traditional aspects of musical worship at COP21 intersect with intergenerational justice theory and its emphasis on past and future generations, the delegates’ activity on social media demonstrated an interest in gathering a virtual body of living worshippers and advocates. Throughout COP21, the delegates from the Episcopal church posted updates to the organization’s blog, shared their activities on Twitter, and encouraged congregants to participate in the efforts of the delegation through prayer. Social media allowed the delegates to share videos and photographs of the services, facilitating a form of international participation through sight, sharing, and virtual affirmation.

The tweets and blogs from the delegation were meant to gather a virtual congregation, and to mobilize that community. Social media played a major role in the generation of publicity and global buzz desired by the organizers of COP21. And in this case, social media paired with musical activity simultaneously raised awareness and facilitated participation in the event.

The two examples of music-making at COP21 discussed here were not chosen because they support tidy conclusions about the value of music at COP21. On the contrary, I selected them because they took me by surprise.

There were hundreds of other musical performances and activities that could have been the focus of this piece: Christian musician John Mark Macmillan’s attendance as part of a documentary, performances by various organizations representing indigenous communities, or any of the concerts held throughout the city of Paris during the conference.  But Aku-Matu’s “Ancestor from the Future” and the Episcopal pop-up worship services fell uniquely at two different (but related) intersections between music-making, ecoactivism, and intergenerational justice theory.

For Aku-Matu and the Episcopal delegates, music-making is participation in a cultural tradition that transcends generational boundaries. Aku-Matu and the various indigenous communities present at COP21 believe that the preservation of musical traditions is contingent upon the preservation of the environment. These traditions are tied to a way of life that is becoming impossible as natural resources are depleted. The environmental crisis, and the economic changes that have come with mass industrialization and globalization, have limited the decisions of indigenous groups in determining how they preserve their way of life in a changing world.

The Episcopal Church does not face the same threats as the indigenous communities represented as COP21, but its musical participation in the conference may be seen as an intergenerational practice, linking its past, present, and future members. The intergenerationality of both musical practices parallels the intergenerational nature of environmental justice.

Music-making is participation in a cultural tradition that transcends generational boundaries

While intergenerational justice theory is most often articulated in legal or philosophical terms, it appeals to moral and ethical questions that those in the arts and humanities have long engaged and explored. It provides a framework that musicians and artists should consider as they seek to define their role alongside policy-makers, scientists, and world leaders. It also helps us articulate the value of music and the role it plays in the continuity and preservation of culture.

The utopian vision behind the aspirational language of intergenerational justice theory (and of the UN documents that support and promote it) is of a human society with full access to its cultural goods and traditions. Music-making and musical traditions must have a place in future sustainable communities if we are to, “ensure… that future as well as present generations enjoy full freedom of choice as to their political, economic and social systems and are able to preserve their cultural and religious diversity” (see Article 2 of the aforementioned UNESCO 1997 declaration).

Intergenerational justice theory provides a framework in which music can be understood as a resource, and this framework creates common ground between music and environmental activism. Thus, in the context of conversations about environmental policy and sustainable norms, music can become an ally, a cultural force that helps us understand what it means to pursue justice for past, present, and future generations.


Weston, Burns H. “The Theoretical Foundations of Intergenerational Ecological Justice: An Overview.” Human Rights Quarterly 34 (2012): 251-266.

Weiss, Edith Brown. “Climate Change, Intergenerational Equity, and Climate Change Law,” Vermont Journal of Environmental Law 9 (2008): 615-627.

UNESCO. “Declaration on the Responsibilities of the Present Generations Towards Future Generations.” 12 November 1997.

Banner photo by peoplesworld.

Kelsey Kramer McGinnis

Kelsey McGinnis is a musicologist and staff member at the University of Iowa Center for Human Rights. Her research focuses on the intersections between music, human rights and social justice movements. She teaches courses on human rights and the arts, music history, and topical issues related to human rights and social justice. Her participation in the UN climate change convention has led to continuing research on the role of musicians and artists in the United Nations’ efforts to address climate change. In addition to her current research on music and environmental activism, she is conducting archival research on music-making in POW camps in America during WWII. Follow her on Twitter @kkramermcginnis

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