Q&A: Sarah Robyn Farrell makes music to activate a revolutionary love for the planet

by | Jun 4, 2021

Sarah Robyn Farrell wears many hats. Her work as eco-communicator, writer and activist bridges social and environmental justice. And it is all reflected in her music.

Following her debut single, Love in our Hearts, Sarah released a second single, Hibiscus, two weeks ago. As part of (Un)infecting the City Public Art Festival, the song will be featured in the audio programme tonight (Friday, 4 June 2021) along with a spoken word segment by Sarah. Ahead of the event we asked Sarah a few questions:

What is your music about?

Love in our Hearts is about recognising our shared humanity in a time of increasing social tension and ecological decay. It speaks to the fact that most people have a lot to unlearn, while still having the ability to love, and to change. It also speaks to the fact that ‘love’ as we currently understand it, may need to be redefined to include aspects and ideas that can lead to real positive change. This kind of revolutionary love could help us save ourselves and restore our home planet.

Hibiscus touches on the theme of personal and systemic grief in the face of loss, ecological destruction, and socio-political injustice. It makes reference to the roots of many of the issues we face today such as the extractivism and commercialisation that lies at the heart of our colonised societies, and which not only led to a sickness of the land, but also a sickness within ourselves. To me, Hibiscus confronts this reality while still providing a hopeful alternative. To look to the earth as to what to do in times of difficulty. The earth brings us sustenance even through her cycles of decay. So surely, even when we are facing difficulty, we can still choose to give back?

How does your music reflect your work?

When I started finding my way back to music, after years of taking other avenues, all I could write music about was sustainability, socio-environmental justice, the state of the world, hope for a better one… My songs started off being a little more direct, even a little cheesy because I thought musical activism was different to creating what I perceived as ‘real’ or ‘good’ music. But I slowly started to realise that I could connect all these parts of my life: music, activism, writing. That I could have lots of different types of songs, that there were no rules and that I didn’t have to compartmentalise myself. I just had to let whatever needs to flow through me, do so.

Tell us about music that speaks to environmental activism.

For the longest time, music has addressed important social issues, including environmental issues – especially in black and brown communities. Environmental justice is inherently a social issue, even though we have been taught to separate the two. Many artists mention these issues in lyrics or songs.  One activist-musician that stands out for me is Xiuhtezcatl Martinez. In addition to being a hip-hop artist who dedicates his music to important topics, he is the youth director of Earth Guardians, a worldwide conservation organisation. He is one of 21 plaintiffs involved in Juliana v. United States, a lawsuit filed against the U.S. government for failing to act on climate change.

What instrument do you play and why?

I used to be really into reading the Guinness Book of records. One day I was reading it with my dad and came across this “did you know” that said the french horn followed by the oboe are the most difficult instruments to play in the world. My dad had played the oboe in an army band and so made a bet with me that I wouldn’t be able to get really good at it. That ended up getting me into UCT to study classical music. (I think my dad had a plan all along!) In contrast to that, I taught myself to play the ukulele which is one of the easiest and funnest instruments to learn a few chords on. I started playing it after discovering its sound on a Beirut album and becoming obsessed with it because it sounded like sunshine. I also play the piano which is a wonderful tool for songwriting and singing along!

What genre is your music?

I haven’t chosen a genre. I just make music and afterwards I have to think about what genre I fit into. There’s no doubt that Love in our Hearts is a pure indie/alt folk tune, but Hibiscus is a bit more open to interpretation. And that’s the thing I’m learning – is that in today’s post-genre world, genres are a bit more fluid and are sometimes a bit subjective. I do think so far I naturally fit into a folk genre more than not, especially lyrically. But I don’t want to box myself, and I do want to leave room for the possibility of experimenting a bit and seeing what happens.

What motivates your environmental and social justice work?

My mother instilled in me a care for the environment and for conservation – as well as a deep care for others. That and my own experience with trauma has given me deep empathy which I do think is at the heart of why I do this work. As a white middle class South African, I was shielded from the reality, the gravity and scale of what was actually going on in the country or the world. But I think once you know (even if you can’t understand all of it) you just can’t ignore it and do nothing. That understanding of oneself, the self work, that is something I’m trying to do more of – as I also understand that this work must exist within our innerselves and not just in the outer world. But what inspires me most is working with a diverse group of people from different backgrounds, races, cultures, gender identities, sexual orientations and ages all of whom want to work towards a common goal. That gives me great hope.

How do you try to live sustainably?

It’s not always easy and I’m not perfect! I work as an eco-communicator, so sustainability is always top of mind and I do suffer from a bit of moral perfectionism which then leads to burn out and to making questionable choices that aren’t sustainable. But I try my best. I’ve learnt to be less demanding of myself. I now focus on inner transformation, healing, accountability of self, listening and being willing to unlearn, which is the most important long-term sustainability work. Other than that I strive to buy less, buy second-hand, and buy very consciously. At home, we try to reduce waste, water and energy use, and we recycle, compost, eco brick and grow our own herbs as much as possible. I recently published a few instagram reels and a write up on some of the sustainable living actions we implement.

What are your favourite fashion and beauty brands?

I love my local brands! My favourite self-care treat is Ori Organics clay face mask followed by wearing Lola & Co Organics Aloe vera glow up face mask overnight. I also really like SKOON. skin products and I love my body butter made by Hormonal Harmony. When it comes to a little makeup, I like Esse Foundation, Hello Gorgeous Mascara and Inthusiasm lip-stick.

When it comes to fashion, I thrift but I do have my eyes on a few local designers like Sindiso Khumalo, Jeanius Platform and Artclub and Friends, and I love PICHULIK accessories.

If you were our president for one day, what one thing would you do?

I would set in motion what needed to happen to ensure a just transition away from fossil fuel energy with a focus on people and equitable nature based solutions.

What plans do you have for your music?

I plan to release more singles with the goal to eventually create a full EP or album, which is wholly dependent on funding. To this end, I have a Patreon page and a Back-a-Buddy page. Twenty percent of these funds go to the Mining Affected Communities of South Africa, who sit at the intersection of environmental and social justice. I am also taking part in a public 100 day creativity challenge run by Toni Giselle Stuart at the moment to help foster some momentum in my song writing and project work.

Image credits: @xaviervahed

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