Friday, May 24, 2024

Meet the Musician Whose Next Album Has a Track for Each of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals


From rhymes to renewables, entertainer, songwriter, and entrepreneur AY Young is bringing the climate crisis — and its solutions — front and center.

AY Young’s activism dates back to his formative years, growing up in Kansas City, Missouri. He was deeply moved by The Troost Divide, a notorious boundary segregating communities along lines of race and wealth. Channeling his feelings into creativity, Young began penning poetry when he was just 14 years old, which led to an appearance on The X Factor, where he received unanimous approval from all four celebrity judges. This recognition propelled him into a successful career that has seen him share the stage with renowned artists like Wiz Khalifa, Flo-Rida, and Wyclef Jean, among others. Last month, Young, now 32, performed at Times Square in New York City during Climate Week in a show entirely powered by renewable energy.

After touring globally for more than a decade, Young learned a fact often overlooked in the West: more than a billion individuals worldwide are without electricity. Inspired by his parents’ community development efforts, Young founded the Battery Tour, aimed at promoting renewable energy. The initiative hosts concerts powered solely by clean energy sources, acting as a cornerstone in alignment with his dedication to environmental sustainability.

Young’s green efforts have not gone unnoticed. In 2018, he successfully completed the Kauffman FastTrac Tech Venture Program. He has received numerous awards, including the Rocket Grant and the Arts KC grant in 2019. Recognized by The Energy News in its “40 Under 40” list, Young has also performed at the Joe Biden Inauguration Clean Energy Ball and was hailed as one of the world’s top 70 environmentalists. In 2020, he received a unique honor: an appointment by the United Nations as one of 17 World Youth Leaders for the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), chosen from more than 18,000 nominations across 186 countries.

This year, Young inked sponsorship deals for Project 17 with General Motors and BNP Paribas. He has also collaborated with organizations like Samsung and the National Wildlife Federation to bolster his dual mission of music and sustainability.

Now, he’s working on a full-length LP that will address all 17 of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals. The first track off the record, “Goals,” aims to unite the experiences of individuals he’s met over the years while touring. “I want this anthem to be a beacon of hope and a call to attention for the stories that are not told yet deserve to be.”

I caught up with Young via email to chat about the music, the state of the planet, and how art plays a role in the healing process.

*This interview is edited for length and clarity.

Jill Ettinger: Can you tell me about your journey from being an artist to a champion of the Sustainable Development Goals?

Ay Young: Well, this journey has been grassroots. It’s been under the radar. It’s been historic, yet unknown. I’ve done these things that no one’s done with clean energy. So, it’s been a journey, it’s been a step-by-step process. But I use my music for impact. I use my music to fund, build, promote, develop, and deploy sustainable solutions energy to people that need it around the world. That’s what my journey is and will continue to be until I get the world plugged in.

JE: Each track on the new album addresses the 17 Sustainable Development Goals. How did you come up with the idea for that?

AY: I came up with the idea when I was talking with UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres. I had just powered more than 800 concerts using renewable energy and brought energy to about 17 countries. I had just left Honduras and that’s when I got the call from the UN that they were designating me to be one of the seven young leaders.

I had no idea what these goals were two years ago, but when I looked at the goals and they were telling me I was achieving goal seven, I realized more people know about Johnny Depp’s or Kim Kardashian’s relationships than these goals.

But I also know and understand that everyone in the world is an outlet for change and that music is a universal language that can break down barriers and build bridges to connect every facet of humanity. I looked at the goals and said, okay, well, the best way to advance the 17 goals is to use music for impact. It’s what I was doing before becoming a young leader, using the Battery Tour to raise money to send one person or one village access to energy. It was the same concept — one song for each goal, but each song with a major artist. I’ll donate the proceeds of the music to organizations that do the work. So, the 17 goals will be advanced.

JE: Your song “Goals” serves as an anthem for hope and resilience. You mentioned, “This song stands as an anthem, a sonic force that ignites the enthusiasm within you, regardless of the challenges or aspirations you face.” Can you expand on the inspiration behind this track?

AY: The inspiration for “Goals” really comes from me and what I’m doing right now. I’m on the road trying to bring the world together city by city and country by country. You know, I’m hitting my goals. The goals of using music to power impact, the goals of growing and scaling the Battery Tour to this global movement. A platform where other artists can plug in and connect to their passion and do what they love to do while making an impact. Hitting those goals, man, every single day, getting up and taking a step forward toward your dreams and goals. It’s the life that I’m living now. And it’s the anthem for people who are trying to do the same thing, what they love to do, what they’re passionate about to reach those goals. Also, as an athlete, as a Division One ex-athlete, this song was built to be an anthem for all those athletes who just work hard on their craft and their passion.

JE: How are you finding the songwriting process about something as heavy as the future of the planet? Has this always been a motivation?

AY: Well, the future of the planet is pretty heavy, but I’ve kind of always just been the kind of artist who could write about anything, what I’m feeling, or what I think in general. I’ve been blessed to be able to take themes, ideas, or statements and turn them into music. I obsess over the best people in the industry like Ryan Tedder, writers like Max Martin, and producers like Pharrell and Timbaland. I strive to be great like them, and it pushes me in a direction to challenge myself with every topic, new idea, or song. I think I’ve always just been motivated to be the best that I can be. And with the sustainability stuff, I aim to be the biggest sustainable artist in the world. It motivates me to be great, because what else is life for when you’re doing something? Give it your all, do everything you can to be great, to maximize the opportunities that you have. It’s just who I am. It’s my nature.

AY Young
AY Young | Courtesy

JE: You’re about to embark on the next leg of your Battery Tour, featuring a groundbreaking renewable-powered concert in Times Square. What’s the significance of choosing this iconic location for your performance?

AY: I chose Times Square because it’s one of the most iconic venues or places in all of America. What better place to do the first-ever renewable energy concert than in Times Square, where it’s never been done before in that location?! That’s why. Because the world is plugged into New York, and Times Square is the best outlet to get the world plugged in.

JE: Your collaborations with corporations like Samsung, General Motors, and BNP Paribas, as well as nonprofit organizations, reveal a holistic approach to your mission. How do you choose your partners and what roles do they play in the Battery Tour?

AY: I think the partners and sponsors are choosing me because they’re choosing sustainability, they’re choosing impact, they’re choosing ESG, they’re choosing radical collaboration, and they’re choosing disruption and innovation. That’s where the synergy lies. These companies like my sponsors BNP Paribas and General Motors, or the nonprofit organizations, are all trying to make radical changes for the future of the planet. And that’s why they align with me, Battery Tour, and Project 17.

JE: One of your previous singles, “2030,” also seems to carry a social message. Can you discuss how it ties into your overall activism and musical journey?

AY: The song “2030” came to me over the pandemic. I spent a lot of time not saying anything between this album and my last project, Hello Again. “2030” was this accumulation of sitting back through the pandemic and experiencing everything from George Floyd to change in presidency, political dynamics, and social inequalities, and then discovering the 17 global goals and then tying it all together. One of the things about what I do musically is, yes, it may be about big topics, it may be these broad goals, or it may be these huge themes about the environment or sustainability, but I’m giving you me in a record and I think that’s what people feel from songs like “2030.”

JE: Do you think your music influences people more toward activism or offers them a sense of hope?

AY: I think music can influence and motivate people not only toward activism but toward action. Music is powerful. It’s a universal language and it can do anything. And I think I’m showcasing that every day with the Battery Tour.

The Goals single banner
The “Goals” singles banner | Courtesy

JE: Can you share an unforgettable moment from your musical career that you think perfectly captures the essence of your mission?

AY: The Times Square performance really captures the essence of my mission. I’ll never forget that image, under the smart flower, the solar flower, while it’s getting energy from the sun, empowering and powering the concert as I’m performing goal seven — the anthem for sustainable development. It was incredible. And a moment I’ll never forget it.

JE: What message would you like to convey to your audience as they anticipate the next phase of the Battery Tour and your upcoming releases?

AY: The message I’m wanting to convey to my audience or anybody listening or paying attention is, hey, we’re all humans. We’re on this planet. We’re all outlets for change. I think in life, we should do what we love to do every day. And if we’re not doing it, what are we here for? And so, I hope that my music can inspire you to do what you love to do every day, to take a step toward your dreams and goals, and use your passion to take positive action for the planet, for your family, for your community, for your city. Get the world plugged in. That’s why I’m here … to bring the world energy.

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