What happens when science is merged with art to deliver conservation messages? Words flow with an attitude to tell a story through a science-based rap and music video called “Prospects.”

“Prospects” is an introduction to current wicked problems of biodiversity loss and climate change. It presents some pressing concerns, but ends with messages of hope.

The initial lyrics for “Prospects” were written by researcher Simo Sarkki from University of Oulu, Finland. The music was composed and performed by Joona Mikael Moilanen, and the video filmed and produced by Teemu Halmetoja. The core team also involved cultural anthropologists, an archaeologist from University of Oulu, and a music professional from the University of Sussex to modify the idea, lyrics, video script, and overall message.

Starting from first version of lyrics and ending with publishing on YouTube took around one year – see the chart for details!

A chart describing the process for creating "Prospects."

This timeline recounts the development of the “Prospects” music video – both the successes and challenges faced along the way!

Lyrics on environmental concern

Simo: I wanted to write about sustainability challenges, using the Arctic as an example of a region where these issues are impacting indigenous and local communities. The idea was to convey scientific messages by lyrics that would express the urgency of the problems in a compelling way suitable for a rap song. My lyrical style combines funny and even absurd rhymes while maintaining focus on the topic. I use references to popular culture, including movies, songs and books. While some may consider this futile name dropping, I think it increases the depth and complexity of the lyrics by telling long stories in few words. I also used some common phrases from policy and science discussions – for example, the UN objective “to leave no one behind” provokes discussion about sustainable development while providing a nice introduction to the chorus.

Music to express emotions and strengthen the message

Joona: From the beginning, it was important for me to understand what kind of emotion Simo wanted to convey with the rap. The team agreed that vigilance should be the central theme. However, in attempting to convey vigilance, we felt that the piece was overly negative at times, making it sounded like I was ‘preaching’ when our aim was to spread awareness and encourage hopefulness. We created a further development to the piece where the mood switches from aware to hopeful, the raps switch from technical terminology to personal anecdotes, and the music from a darker minor tonality to a type of a love song in major. Personally, I find that a great deal of togetherness is also communicated by the chorus, where ‘Everyone’s a prospect’ as opposed to one’s responsibility solely.

Some changes were made to Simo’s original lyrics in order to support the rhythmic flow and rhyme scheme. Together with my brother, we brainstormed possible harmonic structures and melodic lines. Once we came up with the idea, we started creating the soundscape. The creative process reminded me of film composing, as the ‘storyline’ of the piece had already been laid out, and my job was to create a framework to communicate it to the audience. In the later stages of production, my friend Severi Seppänen assisted with mixing and mastering.

In this chart, Simo and Joona share lessons learned from working in a collaborative team of scientists and artists.

In this chart, Simo and Joona share lessons learned from working in a collaborative team of scientists and artists.

Merging rapping, news items, and pictures to support the message

When the song and the music was ready, we started to make the video with Teemu, who had worked with Joona before. We filmed the video in two days around our hometown of Oulu, Finland. Teemu wanted to find curious places to illustrate the messages in the song. Joona had a vision of the video, where sharp cuts distinguish between normal music video shots and pictures representing the song’s topics. We planned punch lines over the pictures but dropped those in favor of a news feed on the bottom of the screen. The news feed allowed us to communicate scientific messages in more formal language than the lyrics. We used “Creative Commons” pictures in the video, which created constraints when we couldn’t find suitable pictures for each part of the song, though it also created opportunities to use innovative and symbolic pictures to stress the messages of the lyrics.

Messages of hope

Simo: In the end, we tried to highlight urgency while avoiding anxiety and stress. We believe that hope is more powerful in shaping the future of sustainability – as the lyrics say, “I am not a preacher, but try to be vigilant.”

Joona: At the end of each of the three verses are ideas about what people can do to promote sustainability, including personal approaches after the beat switch. To reflect that personal touch, we made a video in which the camera follows me so the viewer spends time cycling with me in the city. Actions responding to environmental concerns can be down-to-earth and even fun. Hope is embedded within each of us. “Everyone is a prospect.”

Simo Sarkki has a PhD in anthropology and holds docentship on “anthropology of environmental governance” at University of Oulu, Finland. Sarkki’s research interests include science-policy interfaces, land use in northern areas, scenarios, participatory approaches, and multi-level governance under the broader theme of environmental governance.
Joona Moilanen is a 19-year-old musician from Finland, currently studying the Bachelor of Music at the University of Edinburgh. His interests and proficiency lie mainly in the creative aspect of music – writing and producing original material. He was recruited to this project by Simo, who had previously heard from a common acquaintance of Joona’s adequacy for such an interdisciplinary project.