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How ‘Hot in Herre’ Became a Climate Change Anthem

Activists say they reference Nelly’s 2002 paean to stripping at events to make global warming a sexier, less apocalyptic topic of discussion.

Bridget Heos knew as soon as her editor suggested that she write a book on climate change targeted toward teenagers that there was only one title that would do. In addition to being a children’s and teen author, Heos is a human being who was conscious during the early 2000s, and, as such, was not impervious to the melodic allure of rapper Nelly. So the name was a bit of a no-brainer: It’s Getting Hot in Here.

“When I heard ‘a book for teens about global warming,’ I just thought, well, obviously, it has to be called It’s Getting Hot in Here — that’s such a great song,” she says. Heos pitched naming her project after Nelly’s “Hot in Herre,” the No. 1 single from his 2002 album Nellyville; the resulting book, which explains the science behind global warming and encourages for teens to take action to combat it in the private sector and at their schools, was published in February of 2016.

While Heos didn’t know it at the time, she is one of many climate change educators and activists to have repurposed Nelly’s 2002 summer smash hit and perpetual wedding reception anthem to reframe the Earth’s inexorable and frightening uptick in temperature as an accessible, fun—and occasionally comedic—topic.

The list of Earth-huggers spinning “Hot in Herre” at environmental get-togethers and awareness events is long and eclectic: Participants at the 2014 People’s Climate Change March sang an altered version of the song; The Daily Show With Trevor Noahname-dropped it on a segment on the COP21 climate conference in 2015; an episode of Ellenplayed it to introduce Leonardo DiCaprio on his press tour last year for Before the Flood. And the fervor hasn’t died in 2017. Last month, Hamilton creator Lin-Manuel Miranda included the song in his 2017 climate-change playlist alongside REM and Radiohead, and, just last week, Al Gore opted to greet a crowd gathered for the unveiling of the Inconvenient Sequel trailer through that familiar refrain: “It’s getting hot in herre, so hot, so take off all your clothes.”

“Hot in Herre” has inspired others as well: environmental publications, broadcasts, event names. Take the aptly titled environmental blog It’s Getting Hot in Here, which operated from the mid aughts to late teens. Or the two law papers on environmental regulations published in 2006 and 2009. Or It’sHot in Here, an environmentally themed podcast started in 2008. Or a 2017 Australian climate change exhibition. Or a 2017 music and comedy fundraiser for the Union of Concerned Scientists. All quote the song in their titles. Not bad for a single about a rich guy flashing his keys and bragging about his Four Seasons penthouse to get a girl to strip for him in a club.

The song’s appeal for climate change believers is to some extent obvious. The “hot” in “Hot in Herre” was indeed intended asa double entendre, referring to both the literal temperature and the not-so-literal sexual energy in a club. While Nelly’s performances have always underscored the less literal interpretation, he’s had fun with climate imagery too. On tour the same year Nellyville was released, for instance, Nelly performed the song with a cartoon thermometer showing the temperature rising into the five digits. Writers began subverting this heat theme almost immediately after the song was released, cracking easy jokes about climate change—in 2003, Vibe magazine called the song’s success “a different kind of global warming.”

But Nelly-loving activists speak to positive qualities that make the song a recurring anthem for their set beside the fact that it’s a song partially about taking extreme action in the face of rising temperatures — namely, that sampling Nelly can make climate change a less politically charged, dismal topic for discussion.

Jennifer Lee Johnson, an assistant professor of anthropology at Purdue University who co-founded the It’s Hot in Here environmental podcast while a masters’ student at the University of Michigan, claims the song’s sex appeal helped liven up the show’s serious subject matter. “In the chorus, Nelly says, ‘It’s getting hot in here/so take off all your clothes’ — it’s like, yes, we have to make concern and attention to things like global climate change sexy, or, at the very least, interesting,” Johnson says.

“We have to make concern and attention to things like global climate change sexy, or, at the very least, interesting.”

Johnson thought up the title early in developing her podcast, and it helped to shape its content. Though It’s Hot in Here incorporated reporting and analysis, she avoided the “doom-and-gloom approach” to climate change coverage by incorporating humor, music (she played “Hot in Herre” on occasion, she says, “but not as often as you’d think”), and innuendo — when Johnson penned blog posts to announce an “extra special” show, she often spelled “extra” with three X’s.

Heos points out that the song has a fittingly proactive message. While she initially thought it would be ironic and funny to repurpose a song about clubbing for climate change, as she did her research on efforts to combat climate change, she found the title to be far more straightforward than she initially assumed. “I wanted my book very much to be like, we are rolling our sleeves up, we’re getting this thing done,” she says. “Just like when you hear a song like this, you want to get up and you want to move, it calls you to action.” (She notes that she wrote her book around the time when the Paris Agreement was being signed.)

For mainstream comedy writers, the song offers a chance to make climate change more accessible.Hot in Herre” ended 2002 as No. 3 on the U.S. Billboard top 100 chart — and made headlines again last September, when fans attempted to help Nelly pay a reported $2.5 million tax bill by streaming “Hot in Herre” on Spotify — prompting streams to increase by 200 percent in one week. For Daily Show senior writer Daniel Radosh, that ubiquity is an asset.

“It’s a song that everybody knows and loves, so when you’re asking people to focus on difficult and unpleasant scientific statistics, dropping in 10 seconds of the video gives them a chance to catch a breath and smile again, before we get back to the punishment,” Radosh writes in an email. In a 2015 segment on COP 21, a clip of the “Hot in Herre” music video featuring Nelly in a club, and the backside of his love interest, breaks up a segment quoting a BBC News article that calls the climate change conference “Earth’s ‘last chance’ for action” and showing a clip of then-Secretary of State John Kerry saying Earth’s rising temperatures makes today “a time of extraordinary urgency.”

For Azzurro, the curator of this year’s Australian art exhibition “It’s Getting Hot in Here,” the song’s popularity can help reframe an issue that divides Australians. Azzurro crafted his exhibition to be a “real, immersive event” where both climate change believers and deniers could voice their opinions in person, rather than in echo-chamber Internet forums. To attract young people, he chose cheeky, outrageous art, he says — and cited Nelly.

“It’s a song everybody knows that you actually hear in your head as you read the words of the title,” he writes in an email,I believe using this song as our central anthem saw to it that this issue, which has become an ugly politicized discussion in Australia, was given a refreshing make over as something totally unseen.” (Azzurro adds that as the song played, “drinks were streaming out the bar.”)

Anthony Rauche, an associate professor ethnomusicology and music theory at the University of Hartford, likens the song’s re-adaptation by climate change activists to traditional folk music. Songs like Pete Seeger’s “We Shall Overcome” and the Italian folk song “Bella Ciao” (with roots in the child’s song “La me nòna l’è vecchiarèlla”)have been repurposed and slightly altered — in the first case, by sports teams, and, in the second, by the Italian Resistance during World War II — to encourage solidarity and inspire groups throughout history. Indeed, when People’s Climate March participants sang a version of “Hot in Herre” (lyrics: “Ohhh, it’s hot in here, there’s too much carbon in the atmosphere”) in 2014, the song was included alongside folk songs like “If I Had a Hammer,” “We Shall Overcome,” and “We Shall Not Be Moved.”

He believes that “Hot in Herre” has stuck around because it’s funny, direct, and “down to Earth.” Like all the best folk songs, “Hot in Herre” will probably continue to circulate among the group that’s adapted it, he says. Not just for its catchy Chuck Brown & the Soul Searchers, “Bustin’ Loose”-inspired hook and breathy chorus, but because it’s a community meme. “I get the impression that it is fairly well-established, and it’s been used enough so that people will keep it going.If it was a fad, it would have been used just a few times and disappeared,” he says.

Nelly could not be reached for comment.