Joy can strengthen our resolve, help us unlock creativity, and bolster our resilience. In Fix’s Joy Issue, we explore the importance and power of finding joy in the face of grief, anger, and a changing climate.
“Feed me your feces/ We need to hustle/ Clean up my beaches, show me your mussels/ I’ll give you crabs, I’ll give you turtles/ Build me up baby, I’m filled and I’m fertile.” So sings the Earth — portrayed by eco-rapper Hila Perry (aka Hila the Killa) in a song called “Dirty Talk.” Perry busks and performs live throughout New York City, wearing a big, round Earth costume and spitting verses about all kinds of environmental topics, from water cycles to vegetables to the pesticide glyphosate.
When you watch one of her videos, you can’t help but smile — and also learn something.
Before Perry became a climate activist, her music and comedy focused largely on body and sex positivity. As she learned more about the climate crisis and sustainable living, she knew she had to make those topics part of her act. One of her first environmental projects was the song “I Am Plastic, Man,” with her frequent collaborator Nathan Dufour Oglesby, exploring the production and consumption of that ubiquitous material. They made the costumes and props for the video entirely with garbage collected from the streets of New York.
ICYMI: Watch Perry and Oglesby discuss their art with Fix on Grist’s Instagram account
“I want people to really feel like they’re not just helping the environment, but they’re helping themselves,” Perry says. “And it actually just is really sexy to care about the earth and not trash it.” Sex positivity still shows up a great deal in her earth raps, through songs like “Dirty Talk” and a clever verse about seahorse mating habits. (Warning: the lyrics are NSFW.)
Audiences eat up Perry’s unique blend of comedy, music, education, and advocacy. She’s rapidly gained a following of nearly 40,000 on Instagram, and more than double that on TikTok, and has ambitions to turn her environmental flows into an album, or possibly even a TV series. Fix spoke to Perry about her love for the earth (especially her little corner of it: New York City), her journey as an artist and advocate, and what keeps her going. Her responses have been edited for length and clarity.
Q. Tell me a little about your background. How did you find your path combining climate activism, education, and art?
A. I grew up in New York City and Tel Aviv. I went to school for filmmaking, and I’ve kind of always been creative and made a lot of art. Growing up, I didn’t have a lot of access to nature. When I was 14 and went to the Catskills for the first time for summer camp, I was in awe of the forest. I’d never seen anything like that before. Walking around in the woods, I remember being just totally flabbergasted, thinking, “This [must be] what drugs are like.”
It took me a long time to find a passion for learning about the earth — and when I did, it was like, well, this is the most important thing to think about. It’s the most basic connection that we have to life and what’s really important as human beings. I’m learning a lot now. Everything that I put out is me regurgitating things that I’m learning. And there’s so much more that I have yet to learn.
Q. Can you pinpoint a moment that ignited your passion for sustainability and learning more about the environment?
A. Going to Burning Man after I graduated film school kind of opened my eyes to the concept of “leave no trace.” It was really inspiring, the culture there of caring about trash. People would point out MOOP, which is an acronym for “matter out of place.” So anytime somebody drops something or something flies off in the wind, people call it out: “MOOP! MOOP!” It’s also part of the guidelines [that you] don’t bring things that are packaged — if you’re buying stuff for Burning Man, leave the packaging at home. There are no trash bins. Everything you bring in, you have to take out.
Those concepts were really impactful for me, because New York is such a big city — kind of like Burning Man is a big city. I came back, and waiting for me was all the packaging that I’d left behind in my apartment, like the Amazon boxes. And I was like, “Now that I’m not there, what am I going to do about being here?” That’s where I started my zero-waste journey. One of the biggest projects that I did was build a compost system at the cafe where I used to work. I just fell in love with compost.
Q. And now you have a whole song about the magic of compost! Do you have a favorite song to perform?
A. I really love performing “Dirty Talk.” It’s raunchy, but it’s really educational. It’s just all innuendo.
Q. What is it about rap and hip-hop that appeals to you? Why rewrite the lyrics to “WAP” as opposed to, say, an Adele song?
But I’ve always been rapping. I just love hip-hop. As a kid, I would memorize rap songs and recite them and cover them for my friends, in English and in Hebrew. When I was in college, I made my debut as Hila the Killa — although I was nicknamed Hila the Killa in summer camp when I was 14, I didn’t know it was going to be my rapper persona until college.
At the beginning, [the persona] was kind of a joke. I didn’t think anyone would ever take me seriously as a rapper. When I first started, I just thought it would be a funny bit for my standup routine. But I obviously love it. When I met Nate [Oglesby, of Nate and Hila], we both recognized in each other this alternative rap style of communicating these ideas and topics. He opened me up to thinking I could actually just be a rapper. I could communicate through this music. I love rapping. It’s so fun. It’s the best, most effective way to get a lot of words into a small span of time.
Q. That makes sense for an educational piece. You can fit a lot of information into a rap.
A. Yeah. That’s the challenge, and the most exciting part about it — merging the education with the creative and figuring out the most artistic way to get the information across. There’s a lot of educational music, even hip-hop, where it’s not that creative or not that lyrically complex. I really try to make it more than just the information in rhythm form. I look for wordplay and metaphors. All that stuff is really important to me, to make it just that much more exciting for people when they listen to it.
Q. What’s next on the horizon for you?
A. My big dream is to have a television series. I kind of want to be the next Bill Nye.
I think individual action is amazing and super empowering. I want people to really feel like, when they do certain things, they’re not just helping the environment, but they’re helping themselves. And it actually just is really sexy to care about the earth and not trash it.
But more than that, I want to be affecting things on a systemic level. It would be really great to get into rooms and have conversations with politicians, legislators, community organizers.
Here where I live, in [the Brooklyn neighborhood of] Bushwick, I’m really close to a water source: Newtown Creek ends right here, near Morgan Avenue. And nobody knows that, because it’s completely blocked off by all of these factories and warehouses. These waters here in Bushwick are [some of] the most polluted waters in America. What would it take to get rid of all of those factories and warehouses and move them inland, away from the water? How much money, how much influence? Or, how do we get green roofs on all the roofs that are able to hold that? These are the kinds of things that I’m really passionate about. And I think having a TV show would be great to communicate these ideas. I just hope that’s enough to reach people who have power to actually do these things.
Q. Is your love for New York a driving force behind your sustainability work?
A. Definitely. I feel like I don’t want to abandon the city. I think that a lot of people who are into environmentalism, they’re like, “Well, how could I ever live here in this garbage dump of a city?” But it’s really not that for me. There is a lot of trash everywhere, a lot of concrete, but there are so many people here that care. I grew up here, and I know that when it really comes down to it, people in New York take care of each other. They just do. Like when Hurricane Sandy happened, it was so clear — everybody got their resources together and went outside and provided whatever they could to everybody. I think New Yorkers are really incredible people. And with all the environmental stuff that I do, it’s always for the people.
Q. How does your work bring you joy? And how do you think it spreads joy to others?
A. I love performing live. When I get feedback from an audience, when I see people’s smiling faces, or when they’re dancing or their little kids are dancing, I can’t even describe the amount of joy that gives me. I just get so happy exchanging joy with people while performing. And then also online, I get beautiful comments and messages and people feel really inspired by my work. And that inspires me to keep working.
Q. Who would be your dream collab?
A. Oh my gosh. There’s so many … but maybe Doja Cat? I’m obsessed with her. I mean, I don’t think she’s ever written a song that I didn’t like.
But honestly, I would collab with anybody. There are so many great rappers and artists out there that I could see myself collaborating with. It would also be cool to inspire them to do an earth song with me.
Q. Who would you most want to come see you perform?
A. Honestly — not because I love him or anything — but maybe Jeff Bezos? Anyone who is sort of a controversial figure who could potentially get inspired and change the world with their influence and power because they saw me, and somehow I put a spell on them, and now they wanna restore the wetlands. It’s about inspiring and making a positive change at the end of the day — there are a lot of incredible artists out there who I feel like would align with the mission, but who can I get to a show that I can actually change their mind? That would be the coolest thing.
Bill Gates, with all his farmland, oh my God. I would do a song like, “This is what you gotta do with all your land/ Give it back, give it back/ Indigenous farming practices/ Let’s go, let’s go.” And if he was like, “Yeah, Hila the Killa! Let me do that,” that’d be pretty epic.
Explore more from Fix’s Joy Issue:
- What joy does to your body
- 13 ideas for building a climate-friendly lifestyle you can stick with
- Q&A: Dallas Goldtooth on the liberation of laughter