In the shady cool of one of the smaller stages at this year’s Vancouver Folk Music Festival, electro hip-hop artist Kinnie Starr decided to take a stand about water.
She sang the first lines of her song “Who Will Save Our Waters” pounding out a rhythm on her acoustic guitar and backed by beat-boxing from longtime collaborator Ostwelve. Then, as she reached the chorus, her voice growing into a wail, women stood throughout the audience, each echoing the song’s plea for action.
Over the phone several days later she explains that the women were friends who she asked to join as a statement about the danger we’ve created through our global passivity on issues surrounding water.
“That idea was to have a visual element in the crowd around the concept of standing up against all the different changes in the laws here in Canada but worldwide too,” she says. “I wanted a visual that was like, ‘no, f— you, I'm going to stand up for this.’”
The lake, which sits on the border between Ontario and Michigan, has been stirring up controversy lately regarding water levels, which hit a record low in January of this year before seeming to rebound after the spring’s flooding, leaving locals feeling vulnerable to the effects of climate change.
Starr worries of the effects of these kinds of environmental changes not just on the ecosystem, but on the lives of those who live near the water.
“In my lifetime, our dock went from being under the water to being completely out of the water,” she says. “That doesn't sound like a big deal, but that's like $6000 to repair. My family, we're a middle class family. We can access money like that, but a lot of businesses and families can't.”
Recently, all the Great Lakes came under scrutiny for the the tiny plastic particles scientists discovered in massive quantities throughout the water system. Marcus Erickson, research director for the 5 Gyres Institute told CBC’s As It Happens that the “microplastics” measuring about a third of a millimeter each could be tracked back to commercial grooming products such as facial scrubs and toothpaste. The beads may enter the food system via small fish that are eaten by bigger fish, which are in turn eaten by humans. The discovery has served as a stark reminder of how, as populations grow, the most casual choices can have terrible consequences.
Starr is no stranger to controversy. Over her career, which began as a graffiti artist in the 90s, she’s been an outspoken advocate for women and LGBT rights and First Nations issues. Her sixth full-length album “Kiss It,” which comes out on August 20, is a meditation on positive female sexuality and sense of place. It represents a return to her hip-hop roots after the previous album’s foray into singer-songwriter territory.
Starr says she does worry that the current political climate is less than friendly to artists like Franke James who speak out on the environment, but water is an issue she simply feels too strongly about to ignore.
“I just feel like there are so many people who have a lot more power than I do and they don't say anything,” she says. “So I feel like it's good to talk about, because there are tons of people who don't know what the tar sands are. Tons.”
What’s lacking, Starr believes, is a sense of connection to nature, which she sees as causing a kind of collective trauma. “In cities we're just really disconnected from ourselves because of the speed at which we communicate and the lack of contact with dirt and trees and what makes us feel grounded.”
“I think it's becoming critical that we try and reconnect,” she says. “Our bodies as the soil and the soil as us; our bones are calcium and the rocks are calcium, so therefore we're part of it. So when we ruin the earth, we are ruining ourselves.”
To Starr activism of all kinds constitutes a powerful expression of compassion; that means speaking out, even at the risk of sounding “flaky.”
“You can't feel compassion for the natural world and be an environmental activist if all you're doing is making money and living in a house and watching television and playing video games.”
An artist’s power comes in her ability to connect with people emotionally, a strategy that Starr feels can work where logical arguments fail. “That really is the goal, to reach people on a fundamental level,” she says. “Because if you think about how a great song feels, a really beautiful song can make you feel more connected and alive, even if it makes you feel sad."