Harmonising Climate Protest with AI

Protest singer on an empty street corner (DALL.E created)

Protest songs have a rich and powerful history. They bring attention to issues and catalyse social change. From Bob Dylan’s poignant ballads to John Lennon’s “Give Peace a Chance“, music has been a potent force in shaping public opinion and spurring political action.

Most of us will never be a Dylan or a Lennon. I can barely hold a tune in the shower, and the only protests I ever hear are from my partner begging me to stop singing.

When it comes to the existential threat of climate change, there has been a surprising dearth of anthems that capture the zeitgeist and propel politicians forward. Given the urgency and scale of the crisis, one might expect a groundswell of musical activism akin to the protest songs that defined the civil rights, anti-war, and environmental movements of the 1960s and 70s. While there have been some notable examples, climate change hasn’t spawned a recognisable musical rallying cry that has permeated public consciousness and political discourse in quite the same way.

We are not missing information about the extent of the threat. Climate change has been a topic of discussion among scientists for at least four decades, and the evidence of its devastating impacts has been well-known for at least two decades. Despite this, the world’s response has been inadequate. Major carbon emitters have talked about the issue and have taken some actions, but these have been too limited, aimed at protecting a political base, and have not addressed issues of equity. The result? Global temperatures continue to rise, and the threat of climate change looms larger than ever.

Where are those protest songs that can galvanize the public and demand action from our leaders? Most of us lack the musical talent to create such anthems. We do not know a bass clef from a semi-quaver or Ska from a xylophone, but what if there was a way for non-musicians to give voice to their fury?

Enter AI.

Large language models such as Mistral, Claude, or ChatGPT can help write a song, and AI music generators like Suno can help voice it and set it to music. By combining these tools, anyone can create music. With luck, it may inspire, educate, and motivate people to take action. While these tools are not yet as good as good musicians, good musicians are relatively rare and they’re not necessarily interested in singing your song.

To illustrate the idea, I generated a couple of modest examples of climate protest songs using two completely different musical styles. The first, “Climate change love” is a dark scat jazz satire of what is (or may be) to come. “Le futur proche” (the near future) is a “rock anthem” on the short-sightedness of the upcoming UN Summit of the Future that completely misses the opportunity to consider what happens if we fail.

I know nothing about composing jazz or rock, but AI gives me a touch point to an expressive medium that is otherwise completely out of reach. It can democratise the protest song and give voice to a tin-eared muser. My two examples will not create a groundswell of protest or spin the earth off its axis (to paraphrase one of the songs). Each one took about 15 minutes to generate from lyrics to the final product.

My partner tells me they are repetitive and derivative, and I should not be as impressed as I am. She’s probably right! But the songs are infinitely better than anything I could produce on my own. You also can’t expect too much from the level of minimalist effort I expended. Hopefully, smarter and more talented people will be inspired to explore this medium and maybe spend an hour or two creating the song. Voice your protest in afrobeat rockabilly, sitar southern rock, or lo-fi Pacific reggae.

AI protest songs may not be perfect, but if Bob (Dylan or Marley) would like to contact me, perhaps we could collaborate on something that will shake the world.

In the meantime, let me leave you with Claude.ai ‘s lyrical take on the UN Summit of the Future …

Summit of the Future, planning for the peak
But what if we’re on the brink of a valley deep?
Climate’s getting hotter, world’s in decline.
Leaders need to wake up before we’re out of time!