Blazing a trail towards a green future for the Earth
by Annie Muscat
I have yet to experience anything cooler than belting the lyrics to Patti Smith’s 1988 rock hit, “People Have the Power”, with the artist herself while folk legend and activist Joan Baez gets down in the grandiose Stern Auditorium at Carnegie Hall, all in the name of combating climate change. Have I peaked? Probably. Will I replay this awesome memory over and over in my head until the day I die? Obviously.
That night at Carnegie Hall, in an effort to expose and counteract climate change, environmental non-profit Pathway to Paris partnered with the United Nations Development Programme and 350.org to demonstrate the unifying force of music.
Founded in 2014 by Jesse Paris Smith (Patti Smith’s daughter) and Rebecca Foon, Pathway to Paris spreads awareness about environmental issues and proposes solutions. Since its founding, the organization has hosted similar events with artists, innovators, and activists from across the world.
On November 5th, Pathway to Paris launched their new initiative called 1000 Cities which invites global cities to divest from fossil fuels and convert to 100% renewable energy by 2040, fulfilling the Paris Agreement. All proceeds generated were donated to the UNDP and 350.org.
There were a dozen musical artists and speakers present including Patti Smith, Joan Baez, Bill McKibben, Dr. Vandana Shiva, Michael Stipe, Red Hot Chili Pepper’s Flea, and Cat Power.
“Music is our universal language,” Jesse Paris Smith insisted at the start of the evening. She took to the piano and was joined by her mother, who recited Emily Dickinson’s poem, “Nature is what we see” as Foon played cello. This beautiful rendition set the tone of the night, one of hopefulness, urgency, and solidarity.
Passion rang strong as Patti Smith covered Cat Stevens’ “Where Do the Children Play” accompanied by piano and acoustic guitar. Authenticity and raw emotion carried on throughout the nearly three-hour show with each unembellished song centering around nature.
Visual artist and R.E.M. frontman Michael Stipe took the stage next, covering Ringo Starr, Velvet Underground, and Nat King Cole. The brilliant and accomplished Dr. Vandana Shiva then spoke with eloquence and conviction, discussing harmful food production and reversing carbon emission.
Between musical sets, speakers encouraged the audience to draft letters urging NYC Comptroller Scott Stringer to allocate the city’s pension funds away from coal, oil, gas and pipeline corporations. I found it difficult to focus on writing my letter however, as the experimental Tanya Tagaq demanded attention through what can only be described as “throat singing”. Her intense performance was as unusual as it was captivating.
Red Hot Chili Pepper’s Flea played some sick bass riffs and was joined by Patti Smith reading “Mother’s Prayer”. Tibetan cultural ambassador and musician Tenzin Choegyal channeled his ancestral traditions in a heartfelt set as Tibetan elders swayed around him. Jesse Paris Smith supported the indigenous group on piano, reciting lyrical poetry about peace, the natural elements, and Buddha.
Performance artist Olafur Eliasson directed the audience to retrieve a box from under their seats. Inside was a solar lamp resembling a sun. He orchestrated a collective effort in which the entire hall was filmed gradually turning on and waving the dazzling lights in unison so to mimic a “solar-powered sunrise”. This was part of Eliasson’s 2017 project, Little Sun Foundation, which strives to bring light to vulnerable communities. After we finished, the lamps were collected and were to be donated to Puerto Rico, to alleviate their struggles following the devastating hurricane.
The intimacy of the evening culminated as 90’s indie rock icon Cat Power sat to the piano under the soft glow of red lights. Finally, the legendary Joan Baez sauntered onto the stage. She was undoubtedly the most anticipated performer that night. Not only did Baez pioneer the folk music genre in the 60s and 70s, but she also serves as a fervent and prominent activist for social justice, having marched in anti-war and civil rights protests.
Baez opened with a cover of Antony and the Johnsons’ “Another World”. She made a few not-so-subtle jabs at Donald Trump between songs to which the audience responded with delight. I may or may not have died a little when Patti Smith embraced Joan Baez after her set. Two fearless and unapologetic female icons thriving as they do what they love for a just cause.
The night came to an impactful end as all performers gathered on stage behind Patti Smith, enthusiastically engaging the auditorium in singing “People Have the Power”. Joan Baez’s impromptu dance moves contributed to the cheerful atmosphere and as hordes of people filed out of the venue, there was a lingering optimism. We can do something and we must. Patti Smith was right in 1988 and she is right in 2017. People do have the power.