Clean energy journalism for a cooler tomorrow

This Atlanta duo has a theory to drive climate action: Make it cool

Klean Energy Kulture, founded by a chart-topping producer and a seasoned organizer, aims to take a new approach to engaging Black Americans on climate issues.
By Mike Munsell

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Two Black men clasp hands in front of a city skyline
Klean Energy Kulture co-founders Corey Dennard (aka Mr. Hanky) and Michael Hawthorne (Akachè Marcino)

Canary Media’s Climate Meets Culture column explores the intersection of energy, climate and the culture at large.

Picture this: You’re a young 20-something in Atlanta, and you get an invite to one of the hottest nightclubs in the city. A complimentary electric Uber brings you to the venue, where you bump into an A-list hip-hop artist. One of the city’s most successful music producers is DJ-ing — and he’s also hoping you’re going to come away from the night as an advocate for clean energy.

Yes, you read that right.

This is the vision of hit producer Corey Dennard, more commonly known as Mr. Hanky. He’s worked with artists like Snoop Dogg, Usher, City Girls and Soulja Boy and produced chart-topping songs like Twerkulator” and Smile (Living My Best Life).” He’s also the co-founder of Klean Energy Kulture, a nonprofit production company that he recently started alongside Michael Hawthorne Jr., an environmentalist and political organizer with a track record that includes working on Barack Obama’s first presidential campaign and Sierra Club’s successful Beyond Coal campaign.

Given that I write a column on the intersection of climate and culture, I was delighted when Mr. Hanky and Hawthorne emailed me asking if I wanted to hear about Klean Energy Kulture and its mission of transitioning Black communities to the clean energy economy.”

I started my conversation with them by asking Hawthorne what exactly is a nonprofit production company” — that’s how he initially described Klean Energy Kulture. Hawthorne pointed to Red Hot Organization as an example. Since 1989, RHO has raised over $10 million for AIDS relief and awareness by bringing together the biggest names in music over the last few decades — for example, Nirvana, Dolly Parton and the Wu-Tang Clan — to produce original albums, TV specials and concerts.

We’re essentially Red Hot but for climate,” said Hawthorne. Think of it like a record label meets a grassroots campaign.”

a Black man in a dark blue suit standing in profile
Grassroots activist Michael Hawthorne (Akachè Marcino)

We make music, but at the same time, we integrate multimedia cultural campaigns where we partner with major brands, influencers, the top Billboard artists, and then climate organizations.” He hopes to activate hundreds of thousands of young adults, particularly in Black communities, to take climate action, whether by voting, commenting on regulatory filings or tweeting (xeeting?) at senators.

The climate movement has woefully failed in reaching our target audience,” said Hawthorne, describing the 2145-year-olds that enjoy music and the nightlife scene in Atlanta and cities like it. He said the doom-and-gloom climate message is not landing.

The way around that,” Hawthorne added, is to go completely opposite of selling people on the heartfelt sort of stuff about climate change and make it fun. So we’re positioning clean energy like a lifestyle brand. When you do that, people start to see this reality — like, oh, man, it’s cool to be driving a Tesla or Rivian — or seeing 2 Chainz wearing something sustainable. That’s our theory of change.”

Making climate cooler

While Hawthorne has the know-how on the policy side, Dennard (Mr. Hanky) brings the connection to the music scene. However, climate issues have not always been on his radar.

Early on in their friendship, Dennard was surprised to learn that Hawthorne worked on environmental issues.

I said, What?’ Especially in America, environmentalists don’t typically look like Michael, you know. We usually picture environmentalists to be Caucasian. And even if they aren’t Caucasian, it’s just the whole hippie thing — what they call a tree-hugger.”

So Michael was like, the biggest problem is, people in our community — we’re the last to find out about environmental issues, sometimes until it’s too late and you’re sick.”

Black communities in America are disproportionately impacted by air pollution. In fact, Hawthorne had told me that his uncle died suddenly from an asthma attack while living in New York City, and that’s what motivated him to start getting involved in environmental causes.

For Dennard, the conversation with Hawthorne was a turning point, and he suggested that the two should collaborate and figure out how to make climate messaging cool so people can grasp what is really going on. Klean Energy Kulture was the result.

I asked Dennard how he plans to avoid coming off as preachy.

He said he wants to have a dialogue with young adults similar to the pivotal one he had with Michael. They’re a lot more conscious about everything — politically, what they eat, what they consume.”

A Black man in sunglasses and a white t-shirt strikes a pose on a rooftop
Chart-topping producer Mr. Hanky, also known as Corey Dennard (Akachè Marcino)

Dennard says he and Hawthorne plan to have block parties and symposiums with question-and-answer sessions and involve some of today’s hottest artists and influencers in the conversations.”

He couldn’t divulge what artists will be participating, as he (understandably) didn’t want to get in trouble with any labels. But he hinted that very big names are getting involved. The response [from artists] has been insane,” he said.

Klean Energy Kulture is now gearing up for its first campaign: Electrify the Club kicks off in Atlanta this September and involves a series of nightlife events at some of Atlanta’s most popular clubs, all hand-selected by Dennard. Hawthorne says they are working with companies to provide the clubs with free energy audits. They’re also partnered with Uber to offer electrified transportation to and from the events, and Dennard is putting together the soundtrack for the parties. The pair told me that even Atlanta’s mayor’s office is on board. Klean Energy Kulture plans to hold events in other cities following the kickoff in Atlanta, including Washington, D.C.

The whole goal is that this will be a huge recruitment campaign,” said Hawthorne. We’ll partner with grassroots organizations so that if there are specific actions that they want people to take, we can email those folks to go take those actions.”

I asked both Hawthorne and Dennard if they had any message for Canary’s audience of clean-energy practitioners, professionals and policymakers.

The technical solutions are needed to facilitate the clean energy transition, but don’t forget about the culture,” said Hawthorne. And don’t underestimate its power. I think a lot of people in this space have done amazing work on the technical side. But I see a reality where we can blend the two worlds and accelerate the solution.”

Let’s all get together and make a real change,” said Dennard.

Mike Munsell is director of growth at Canary Media.