Brow Beat

“Blue White Planet Spinning in Space”

Raffi on his tribute song to Greta Thunberg—and why we should bring climate activism to children.

Photo illustration of Raffi with a cover of "Evergreen Everblue."
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo courtesy of Raffi Cavoukian and Troubadour Records.

Raffi Cavoukian, known everywhere by the mononym Raffi, has been singing music for children since the 1970s. With titles like “Baby Beluga” and “Everything Grows,” his songs have always suggested his affection for the natural world. But in 1989, Raffi heard a five-part CBC radio series called It’s a Matter of Survival, hosted by Canadian environmentalist and science broadcaster David Suzuki, that honed his gentle environmentalism into something more urgent. The series warned that climate change was a dire emergency and described a nightmarish vision of life in 2040 unless carbon emissions were drastically reduced.

Raffi, who had recently been called “the most popular children’s entertainer in North America“ by the Washington Post, took the radio series as a call to change his life. He released an album, “Evergreen Everblue,” aimed at an older audience, with lyrics about atomic waste and “ethical commerce.” A few years into his environmental awakening, he told a reporter that he would not have children himself: “It’s a tough decision,” he said, “but I think it’s a very loving one.”

Raffi eventually returned to the warmth and silliness of children’s music; the title track of his 1994 album Bananaphone remains one of his most popular songs. At 71, he still tours regularly, performing to large auditoriums of delighted preschoolers and their parents, many of whom grew up listening to his music themselves. But he also wants his activism to reach those adults, whom he calls his “Beluga grads.” “Only stubborn deniers can ignore the reality of climate change and its intensifying super storms, melting glaciers, and warming oceans,” he wrote in a 2017 op-ed. ”Finding a remedy for our species is a matter of survival.”

Raffi’s newest song is an anthem in support of climate activists, melodically upbeat but lyrically scathing. “Young People Marching,” which will be available Thursday on streaming services, is dedicated to 16-year-old Swedish activist Greta Thunberg. Raffi recently spoke with me by phone from his home on Salt Spring Island, off the coast of Vancouver, British Columbia, about the role of music in protest movements, how to talk to children about climate change, and Al Gore. Our interview has been condensed and edited.

Ruth Graham: The first concert I ever went to was one of your concerts, probably around 1984, in Chicago. And I have a 4-year-old now, so I’ve been listening to a lot of your music again in the last few years.

Raffi: I’m honored that that my concert was your first. You’re one of 20 million to 50 million estimated “Beluga grads” in Canada and the U.S. It’s quite a big pond.

“Young People Marching” celebrates young climate activists, but it’s also forthright about the fact that we’re in the midst of a dire emergency. It’s not a cheerful tune about planting trees. Why did you take that approach?

Thirty years ago, I first heard about global warming, and it changed my life. I heard about the danger of inaction leading to a situation where the warming could be irreversible and out of human control. And it scared me to the core. Thirty years have passed since we’ve known about the dangers of global warming, and there’s been very little action. Greenhouse gases continue to rise. Can you imagine that? For three decades, they’ve continued to rise.

It’s one thing to have a personal epiphany about climate change all these decades ago. But how did you identify it as an issue that could engage the very young children you perform for?

Well, it engages all of us. How can you really separate who it affects? Doesn’t it affect you? It does, and of course, your 4-year-old.

In 2009, there was a book published by James Hansen, who used to work for NASA. He’s a renowned climate scientist. The book he published was Storms of My Grandchildren, with the ominous subtitle—and I’m reading this word for word—The Truth About the Coming Climate Catastrophe and Our Last Chance to Save Humanity. There’s an organization called the Union of Concerned Scientists that has, for years, issued what it calls a warning to humanity. So we’ve been warned over and over again. And I think the media, by and large, has been intellectually lazy and haven’t given this issue the importance that it deserves. So we’re all now frantically trying to catch up to what we should have known a long time ago. If it’s an emergency, here’s what I say to your readers and to anyone who hears this song: “This moment calls each one of us to be an emergency responder.”

This topic is so frightening. I’m frightened by it, and I get overwhelmed by it, and I’m an adult. How should adults talk to children about this state of emergency?

I would say wherever possible, involve your older children in a conversation about what’s happening, and of course, to address fears they might have. Then you get into a Mr. Rogers mode and you go, “Well, in any emergency, they’re always helpers.” That’s what he used to say: “Look for the helpers.” And more importantly in this case, become a helper. When you go to these climate strikes now—there was a big one last Friday, and another one coming up this Friday—you’re going to see not just adults and young adults. You’re going to see families.

Have you played this song in concert?

No, I will not do that. It wasn’t even written for that. It was written for climate strikes. How many climate strike songs do you know?

I can’t say I can name one.

What I’m saying to all the climate strikers is, “Here, take this song, play it at your rallies, learn it, sing it, do what you like.” This is what I can do. This is what I can offer. I wrote it as an offering, as a troubadour marking a moment in time.

Every movement has had music. The civil rights movement had “We Shall Overcome.” Even “This Little Light of Mine” was used in that movement.

I came out with a song called “Cool It” in 2007. It’s a rockabilly song, and I honestly thought that Al Gore would run with this song, being from Tennessee. You’d think he loved rockabilly! So, if you put it in your piece, this is my call to Al Gore to get behind “Cool It.” It’s been 12 years, damn it. Let’s go!

I’ll see if I can get his attention.

I mean, really, a chorus as simple as, [singing] “Cool it, cool it, cool this planet down,” you’d think we think we might try to get behind some of these words, right?

Have you worried at all about backlash to so-called political songs? People get so touchy about children’s entertainment, that it should somehow not be at all political. Has that been a concern for you at all in your career?

I think defending democracy is not political. It’s the duty of citizens. When it comes to protecting your children’s future, when it comes to the emergency that we’re in, how can anyone say that’s political? My goodness. You’d be delinquent if you didn’t rise to the occasion and become a responder.

You’ve been preaching in the wilderness, so to speak, for all these years and—

Can you imagine how I feel? I feel like, my God, what have we done? We’re all marching to an uncertain future, but we’re in it together, and let’s do everything we can to embrace the Green New Deal, to embrace the most rapid shift to a clean energy economy imaginable. This is like putting a human on the moon times a million.

Do your older environmental songs sound different to you these days? Some of them sound so poignant to me now. I was just listening to “Blue White Planet,” for example: “Blue white planet spinning in space, our home sweet home.” That was somehow so heartbreaking with this crisis on my mind.

I sing “Big Beautiful Planet” in a medley in my concerts. “Big Beautiful Planet,” I wrote that in 1982. The first verse is about solar energy and the second versus is about wind energy. Solar energy, what’s the line in it? [singing] “A gift to every nation from a star.” So I was environmentally aware a long time ago, partly through the yoga classes I was taking and a yoga teacher who was quite aware, talking to us about taking responsibility for our actions. That struck a chord in me.

We have an opportunity to do something historic, and in fact it will need to be historic to turn this world around.

Are you hopeful, Raffi? Is my daughter’s generation going to be OK?

[Pause] I’m going to answer you by saying I’m active.