Power to the People - RSA

Power to the people


  • Picture of Leah Clarkson
    Leah Clarkson
    Editor of RSA Journal
  • Arts and culture
  • Environment

Welcome to the farm.

AY Young

Fellow AY Young’s music has already delivered energy access to dozens of villages around the world — and he’s just getting started.

AY Young, CEO of Battery Tour, UN Youth Leader for the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and one of the RSA’s newest Fellows, is standing on the peaceful winter grounds of an urban farm in what used to be one of the most blighted, drug-ridden neighbourhoods of Kansas City. Crunching through a thick crust of fresh snow on an overcast, sub-zero day, Young rocks ski gloves and reflective shades as he shows off tidy rows of billowing white tarpaulins that stretch into the distance, some protecting clusters of still-green kale from the recent frosts. As he lopes towards the main farm building, his tall, wiry frame exudes pent-up energy, appropriate for a musician and entrepreneur who, in his own words, spends much of his time “obsessing over energy storage”.

Raised for change

The UN’s Youth Leaders for the SDGs are chosen for their commitment to finding solutions to the world’s greatest challenges; that Young was the only American selected during his inaugural year is perhaps not surprising for a man who has activism in his blood. His parents, Alan and Yolanda Young, are well known in the Ivanhoe neighbourhood of Kansas City. Since moving in more than 30 years ago, they have raised four children while simultaneously transforming the community around them, always taking a needs-based, common-sense approach to change, the community farm being just one example. “I grew up in a family of changemakers,” says Young. “I watched my dad change my neighbourhood block by block. Watched my mom bring the city together, mobilising the community.”

But his own path to activism wasn’t always straightforward. He came to music late, at the age of 19, after emerging from a promising four-year stint playing basketball for the University of Kansas, where he assumed he was headed for the NBA. “I always wanted to change the world,” says Young, but, ultimately, “I just didn’t think putting a ball through a hoop for 10 years was going to do it.”

Young quit basketball “cold turkey”. He had started writing poetry and had a sense that music was the direction he wanted to take, but he knew it wouldn’t be easy “to catch up”. A lucky break in 2012 sealed the deal: Young earned an audition on the X Factor, performing as a duo with younger brother AJ Young. The pair received four ‘yes’ votes from judges Britney Spears, Louis Walsh, LA Reid and Demi Lovato, and though they didn’t progress past the preliminary rounds, Young’s path was now firmly set.

Everyone needs energy, and if you store enough, you can power anything.

10,000 hours

To hone his craft, he decided to apply the same strategy to music that he had to basketball, putting in the requisite “10,000 hours” to build up his chops as a musician and performer. At first, his goal was simply to get as much practice in as quickly as possible. But something unexpected happened: the more Young performed, the more he began to think about the energy needed to power his performances, and its true cost. He realised he had to find a more sustainable way to harness and store energy. “Energy is the base resource we need in our food, our water. Everyone needs energy, and if you store enough, you can power anything.” Though Young had never built anything even remotely similar, he began researching how to create what he needed and was soon able to start storing energy in batteries, easing his reliance on the grid. ‘The Battery Tour’ had arrived.

As Young toured, he constantly refined his kit, often performing multiple shows a day, all powered by renewable energy. Soon, there came another major shift. He was sleeping in his car, wedged in with his batteries, Googling on his phone, when he read that 1 billion people globally do not have access to energy. He suddenly understood he had to use his passion for music to get people “plugged in”. That very day he decided to change the Battery Tour’s focus to music for impact, meaning “every concert is going to raise money to send one person or one village energy till I get the world plugged in.”

Young is pragmatic about what, to the average bystander, might seem like a pretty serious bit of inspiration. “Everyone in the world is an outlet for change. If we’re plugged in to each other on the local level, on the community level, on the world level, we can power change. That was what really sparked the mission to go get the world plugged in.”

We’re all in this life together and it takes collaboration — radical collaboration.

Project 17

Young kept touring, delivering his message of sustainable, accessible energy, and soon the world was paying attention. The day he got a call from the UN inviting him to be a Youth Leader was also the day he learned about the 17 SDGs, bringing his journey and mission into even sharper focus. Today, Young is at work on Project 17, a full-length concept album made with 100% renewable energy. The album will include 17 songs, each highlighting one of the SDGs and featuring a celebrity collaborator (Tech N9ne and Peter Gabriel are already signed up), a corporate sponsor (GM and Samsung, tick) and a recipient organisation. “Each song is going to empower organisations that do the work so we can achieve the goals.”

While the line-ups are still being finalised (and Young emphasises that the process is fluid, with collaborators influencing the choice of recipient organisation depending on their own interests and commitments), the album is expected to drop in 2025.

Young started 2024 with major momentum after attending Cop 28 in Dubai, where he performed as one of the featured artists on the Cop 28 anthem Lasting Legacy, written by multi-Grammy-award-winning producer RedOne. When asked about some of the controversies that swirled around Cop 28, Young responds thoughtfully: “Everyone’s looking for someone to blame. But it takes time. I definitely have that patience and understanding that this is going to take a while, and it’s going to take radical collaboration and every facet of humanity working together to take a step.”

Radical collaboration

The cast of ever-growing collaborators on Project 17 proves just how fundamentally Young’s activism is rooted in the idea of radical collaboration, which, according to Young, is “the kind of collaboration that we need to make sure that people have power and energy and water. You should always have counsel and advisers and a network of people that you bounce everything to. We’re all in this life together and it takes collaboration — radical collaboration.”

And that, says Young, is precisely why he decided to become a Fellow. “What drew me to the RSA was the simple fact that you guys are a convener. You’re bringing people together.” His advice for young Fellows would be to spend more time developing your ‘why’. “If you know your ‘why’, if you know what drives you, then you can use your passion to take an action and it will guide you. I really do believe that. And then you don’t burn out, you don’t have climate anxiety, and you’re able to do that thing.

“The RSA is literally the epitome of what I’ve based my life on, of what the Battery Tour is, of what Project 17 is. I keep talking about radical collaboration. The RSA is, across the board, plugging people in and it’s powering change.

“To achieve anything, you have to come together and partner.”

Leah Clarkson is Editor of RSA Journal.

Chris Burrow is a Kansas City-based photographer.

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RSA Journal Issue 1 2024


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