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This trio hopes 'Won't Give Up' will become an anthem for the climate movement

Yo-Yo Ma, Pattie Gonia and Quinn Christopherson made the music video for "Won't Give Up" at Kenai Fjords National Park.
William Woodward
Yo-Yo Ma, Pattie Gonia and Quinn Christopherson made the music video for "Won't Give Up" at Kenai Fjords National Park.

"Won't Give Up" was originally conceived as a requiem — an act of remembrance — for a melting glacier in Alaska.

"We were standing, all three of us, on Exit Glacier, in a spot where even five, ten years ago, the glacier was a hundred feet tall," said drag queen and vocalist Pattie Gonia, who collaborated on the song with 2019 NPR Tiny Desk Contest winner Quinn Christopherson and famed cellist Yo-Yo Ma. The trio traveled to the site in Kenai Fjords National Park to shoot the accompanying music video. "And now it's nothing," Gonia added. "Now it's the rocks underneath."

Yet unlike many other tracks reflecting on environmental disaster, from Joni Mitchell's "Big Yellow Taxi" to Anohni's "4 Degrees," "Won't Give Up" — as its title suggests — aims to counteract peoples' feelings of despair when it comes to reducing global warming.

"The reality of climate change is very real, but so are the solutions and so are the people working on them," said Gonia.

"We're not going to give up on nature," said Christopherson, an indigenous Alaskan of Iñupiaq and Ahtna descent. "We're not going to give up on each other."

Melting glaciers — along with rising seas and extreme weather events — have become powerful visual markers of the global impact of fossil fuel consumption, the driving cause of climate change. The National Park Service has been charting the retreat of Exit Glacier for decades.

Ma's cello solo in the song even evokes the weeping glacier.

"He's playing these ethereal harmonics which are beautiful and also a little haunting," said Nate Sloan, a University of Southern California musicologist and co-host of the pop music podcast Switched on Pop. "And that tension to me captures something about the subject of this song, which is preserving this beautiful planet we live on while acknowledging how delicate and fragile it is and how quickly it's being threatened."

Despite the song's connection to melting glaciers, its lyrics don't specifically reference climate change. Sloan said the "Won't Give Up" refrain could serve as a rallying cry for many social movements.

"It's a little vague," said Sloan. "It's a little inspirational, which is perhaps what the world needs from a climate anthem."

The creators of the song said the broadness of the messaging is intentional.

"There's a lot of potential for this song to be sung at climate rallies, to be sung as a part of the climate movement," said Gonia. "But also for the song to be what it needs to be and mean what it needs to mean to other people, no matter who they are. If a person hears it and thinks that it's not about climate but that it's about racial justice or that it's about queer rights, that's beautiful. Take it, go for it."

"Won't Give Up" officially dropped this week. Some participants in Fairbanks got a sneak preview when they joined the artists for a sing-along at a recent community music workshop.

"We have to be able to express these big emotions so we can continue to take action and not fall into this pit of despair," said workshop organizer Princess Daazhraii Johnson, a board member of Native Movement, an indigenous-led advocacy group in Alaska. (Johnson identifies as Neets'aii Gwich'in and Ashkenazi Jewish.) "The song is so much more than just about the climate crisis and our Mother Earth. It is about our connection as a human species and as a family."

The musicians said they hope "Won't Give Up" will become an anthem for the climate change movement, as Charles Albert Tindley's "We Shall Overcome" did for civil rights in the 20th century and "Quiet" by Milck for women's rights in the months following the 2016 presidential election.

Christopherson said the best way to do that is by getting other people to sing it.

"It's for you to sing, to scream, and to dance to," he said. "It's just to be shared."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Chloe Veltman
Chloe Veltman is a correspondent on NPR's Culture Desk.