Hip-Hop Inspired His Fight for Climate Justice: ‘It’s a Form of Protest’

Newark native Marcus Sibley draws on the hip-hop soundtrack of his upbringing—"the voice of the people"—in his work as a national activist.

Marcus Sibley, sitting in a chair

Newark climate-justice advocate Marcus Sibley understands how important open space is for people who live in cities. Photo courtesy of Erin Patrice O’Brien

Growing up in Newark, Marcus Sibley saw firsthand the negative impact on people in his community by a lack of access to open space. 

“My background is in mental health. I know the data supporting the benefits of open spaces. If people don’t have access to the outdoors—people who bear the brunt of being Black, brown, poor and Indigenous in this country, and never have a release of that anxiety and frustration—what does that manifest into?” asks Sibley, 41, who trained as a social worker.

The experience led him to become a national activist for climate justice. He is now the Northeast director of conservation partnerships for the National Wildlife Federation.

The path that led him there was circuitous—and it started with music. 

As a young man growing up in Newark, the soundtrack of his upbringing was undeniably hip-hop.

“Hip-hop is the voice of the people. It’s a form of protest. I wanted people to be drawn in and act toward empowerment, love for community, and respect for the Black woman. Good music can be a class that people don’t even know they’re sitting in,” says Sibley, a poet and musician himself, who has released three albums as Walkin Contradiction.

He uses that fundamental education from hip-hop to amplify the voices of the people.

Sibley began his professional career as a family-crisis intervention specialist, but he wanted to help a greater number of people. He felt he could impact more families by becoming a speaker. By 2006, he was traveling around the country, speaking at universities and conferences. 

But after 10 years, he says, his friends told him, “Instead of complaining about what’s not being done, why don’t you hop in here and do the work yourself?”

“Once I got involved in the NAACP in 2017, it dawned on me that we were spending time and energy addressing police brutality, voting rights and segregation—all very important, but [we] weren’t as alarmed about the environment, which impacts us worst and first.” 

Then he was appointed the NAACP’s statewide environmental and climate chair. 

Sibley points out that our society doesn’t associate environmental activism with Black and brown communities because they are busy putting out other fires, the root causes of which go back generations.

“It’s a result of racism and redlining. Different communities have traditionally laid claim to the outdoors. So if marginalized people don’t have an opportunity to release their stress…if these parks, forests and open spaces are not inclusive environments, what happens to those people? When you take the cumulative impacts of exploitation, degradation and stress manifesting inside of people and add it the exposure to pollution, you have sick people walking around without a chance to heal themselves in the outdoors.”

But as Sibley builds momentum for climate justice, he understands the links between the ecological and the social.

Sibley, who is also the environmental and climate justice chair of the NAACP New Jersey State Conference and chairman of the New Jersey Progressive Equitable Energy Coalition, is a proponent of offshore wind energy, one of New Jersey’s hot-button issues, especially at the Shore.

“None of the groups I represent are saying we should develop offshore wind willy-nilly. We recognize that it lessens our reliance on fossil fuels. But if we don’t carefully assess the potential environmental impacts or be intentional about the job creation for the communities overlooked and exploited forever, we’re not much better off,” he says.

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