Mad Squirrel Keeping it Rural: Reflecting on Twenty Years of Hip hop Environmental Awareness and Advocacy


  • Anthony Kwame Harrison Virginia Tech
  • Ahad Pace Independent scholar



Hip hop, Environmentalism, Animal stories, Black aesthetics, Social movements


In this autobiographical piece, I reflect on my twenty-year history as an emcee working at the intersection of hip hop and environmental awareness. Since summer 2000, I have recorded and performed environmentally situated hip-hop music under the moniker “Mad Squirrel.” This includes co-founding two groups—the San-Francisco-based Forest Fires Collective and Washington DC’s The Acorns—as well as releasing various solo projects and taking part in a handful of performances. In what follows, I explain the origins of my nature-based performance identity by, first, recounting my experiences growing up as an avid hip-hop fan in a rural New England (USA) mountain village and, then, expounding on how Mad Squirrel’s forest narratives marked a return to the Black diasporic tradition of animal stories that align with my West African heritage. I go on to describe how this identity and approach became the springboard for a small circle of Bay Area artists to produce a series of critically heralded releases in the early 2000s. After relocating to the East Coast of the United States, I continued to create nature-based hip hop and, notably, performed at several fundraisers and political rallies organized around the movement to stop Mountain Top Removal coalmining in Southern Appalachia. Underlying these narrative accounts, in this piece, I critique hip hop’s presumed urban-rural divide by highlighting its longstanding presence in in rural communities; I compare and contrast the effectiveness of using didactic versus coded environmentalist lyrics/themes; and I draw attention to the underappreciated connections between environmentalism and anti-racism. While acknowledging hip hop’s failure to thoroughly embrace an environmental justice agenda, through this personal case study, I draw attention to some of the groundwork that has been done in alternative hip-hop spaces and advocate for fruitful directions through which to move forward.


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Author Biographies

Anthony Kwame Harrison, Virginia Tech

Anthony Kwame Harrison is the Edward S. Diggs Professor in Humanities and Professor of Sociology at Virginia Tech.  Dr. Harrison is author of two books—Hip Hop Underground (Temple University Press, 2009) and Ethnography (Oxford University Press, 2018)—on the editorial boards of the Journal of Popular Music Studies and Global Hip Hop Studies, and has published widely in the field of popular music studies. In addition to being a hip-hop performance/recording artist, his musical/lyrical essays have been featured in Catalyst: A Social Justice Forum and in the French arts-based journal Dysfunction.


Ahad Pace, Independent scholar

Ahad Pace is a professionally trained, multifaceted artist who creates fantastic images through stylized free-hand illustrations, paintings, or digital imagery through multiple softwares. Ahad has also enjoyed over 20 years of success in the ever-changing field of graphic art and design, working with major companies aswell as independently free-lancing.






Creative Writing and Arts