An Interview With ‘Hila the Killa,’ Eco-Rapper and Climate Clown
Hila Perry, 32, known as “Hila The Killa” is an eco-rapper. Her recent video “Wet A** Planet” went viral on TikTok with over 5.7 million views. In this video, Hila performs in Times Square wearing a big and round Earth costume. The song, released in May 2021, was a call to action against climate change.
Hila grew up on Mercer Street in New York surrounded by concrete. As a city kid, she didn’t have much of a relationship with the natural world. However, she has a passion for performing and learning science. In 2017, after leading a zero-waste life for two years, she started creating songs about environmental science. Her first eco-song, “I am a Plastic, Man,” taught listeners about the environmental burden of plastic.
Nowadays, Hila’s raps about vegetables, composting, and more entertain and educate her massive following on TikTok. Environmentally oriented organizations like Greenpeace and Lime, the electric scooter and bike company, commission Hila to write educational songs.
Hila is one of many artists who have decided to use their creativity to inform their audience about climate change.
“In this moment of ecological crisis, artists like Hila are playing an important role as agents of change,” said art historian Julie Reiss, who will teach “Art and Sustainability” in Columbia University’s Sustainability Management program this fall. The course will look at the varied ways that artists communicate urgency and agency to different audiences.
“In less than sixty seconds, [Hila] can provide accurate information on the importance of mushrooms and dirt in eco-systems, and memorable reminders of the need to love and protect planet Earth to ensure our own survival,” said Reiss.
In the Q&A below, edited for length and clarity, Hila shares her unique journey to becoming a self-taught scientist who writes songs to educate her growing audience about climate science.
How would you describe yourself?
I love earth science edutainer: an educator, and an entertainer. That’s a hip-hop term from the 90s or 80s. Also an eco-rapper and climate clown.
How did you come to work at the intersection of entertainment and environmentalism?
I’ve always been an entertainer. That’s just what I love to do. I love to make people laugh and smile and also think about things. When I started learning about the Earth, the plants, and the cycles of the Earth, it became so important to me to communicate about this.
Do you have a background in science?
I’m a self-taught scientist.
I read a lot of books and articles. I’ve been reading “The Kingdom of Fungi.” I also read “Introduction to Permaculture” by Bill Mollison. I was reading Meg Lowman’s book, “The Arbornaut,” which has a lot of great information about trees. I have this book called “The Empire of Water,” which is about the history of water in New York City. I started reading a book on metal. I have some books on soil and a book on microbes.
Can you tell me the root of your passion for science?
I’ve always loved science. I like communicating about science and why it’s important. If you understand how things work, then you can make great decisions.
Science and math were my easy subjects in school growing up. I always felt like I was able to understand and connect with the material, even more so than humanities topics.
I entered into science thinking based on trying to eliminate all the trash in my life.
Why was Burning Man, a music and art festival in the desert, impactful for how you came to feel about garbage and trash?
Going to Burning Man was a big transitional moment for me.
One of the principles of Burning Man is to leave no trace. The festival doesn’t have trash bins. Everybody has to take responsibility for the trash that they create. MOOP is an acronym for Matter Out Of Place and it’s very known in the Burning Man culture. So whenever somebody sees something on the ground that is not supposed to be there, like a piece of trash or a sequin or a cigarette butt, people yell “MOOP!” and everybody goes to make sure that that thing is picked up.
That was very impactful for me because when I got back to New York after Burning Man, I was like: well, I want to be responsible for my trash. That’s when I began my zero waste journey. I became very curious about the lifecycle and I wanted to know where my food came from. It set me on a path of discovery and connection with the cycles of the Earth.
You are now an eco-rapper commissioned to write science-based songs. Who has commissioned you?
I’ve been commissioned by Lime, an electric scooter company, and by Greenpeace. I have a song that I made for Reformation, the clothing company, on sustainable fashion. Bye Bye Plastic is a group that we [with Nate Dufour] made a song with. I’m in partnership with a solar panel company in Brooklyn, and I’m writing about mushrooms for a festival.
What are these organizations looking for?
They want me to communicate their message. I write a verse, and maybe I come up with a hook. It’s usually under a minute for Instagram and TikTok.
Sometimes, I get commissioned to write a whole song. One of my first songs was with Meg Lowman, who is a tree scientist. That was a song about her book, “The Arbornaut,” about an astronaut who explores trees.
Can you make a living with these commissions?
Yes. I feel very grateful to be able to make a living. All my work is supported by the commissions. Some clients are able to give me more, some less. I’m pretty much barely making it through every month, but I am. I’m trying to get more and more money so that I can save and grow but right now I’m just making freelancing work.
How has your audience been responding to your art?
People will tell me that I’ve inspired them to change things. For example, they started composting.
That’s everything to me. When I was a kid, I said: I want to be an artist and I hope that I can change one person’s life for the better. A lot of people have told me that I make their life better. They also make my life better. It’s a reciprocal relationship. The show is as good as the audience is.
Are you trying to educate both adults and children?
Yes, everybody. I want it to be fun and colorful, like children’s entertainment, but I’m teaching adults and young adults.
Some might say that climate change issues require a serious approach. What do you think?
It should be seriously fun to take care of the Earth and be part of the Earth. We’re here to celebrate life. What’s the point of taking care of the planet if we are going to be so depressed about it? It’s really important to inject joy into everything. I love Earth, a lot, and that’s where my motivation comes from. Anxiety, doomsday, and depression don’t motivate me. I do my best to accept that things are difficult and maybe irreparable. There’s a lot of anxiety about what we’ve already done to harm our natural ecosystem. I just have to keep believing that it’s going to be okay and that we can fix it and have fun fixing it.
I think it is serious — seriously playful.
Pascale Déau is a student in Columbia University’s Sustainability Management master’s program. She wrote this Q&A for the course, “Writing About Global Science for the International Media.”