Drag queen Pattie Gonia, Alaskan musician Quinn Christopherson, and cellist Yo-Yo Ma teamed up in 2023 to write and perform “Won’t Give Up.” Filmed in Alaska against a backdrop of melting glaciers, the music video is an anthem filled with hope and a promise to never give up in the fight to slow climate change and save the glaciers.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Yale Climate Connections: Quinn, can you start by telling me what inspired you to get involved in climate activism?
Quinn Christopherson: With climate activism, I’m always wondering, “What can I do?” I always feel so small in the grand scheme of things and [we’re] trying to change such a big thing, and so really, it comes down to “What are my biggest strengths and what can I offer?” And it’s always music and writing and songwriting and spreading awareness and making art. And if you didn’t think about climate before, maybe I can help you.
Yale Climate Connections spoke with Pattie Gonia and Quinn Christopherson about the project and how they bring joy to their climate activism.
YCC: And what makes art such a powerful conduit for that?
Christopherson: For me, art is a way to reach huge audiences that you wouldn’t be able to reach by just talking to people. [Art] can make people look at something differently or change their perspective, and my favorite [medium] is songwriting. So that’s how I focus.
YCC: So Pattie, tell me a little bit about bringing music into your climate activism and why that’s an important part of your work.
Pattie Gonia: Music was my first artistic love. Nothing makes me feel the way that music does, and I think that nothing can really translate messages the way that music does. I think music becomes a part of our life, music can become anthems, and I think the climate movement needs more anthems. I think that art has the power to open minds. Art isn’t telling you this or that. Art is an invitation. And so I love that, and I love music, and I love creating music with amazing people like Quinn and Yo-Yo.
YCC: So, tell me a little bit about the concept and how you all came together and what it was like collaborating.
Christopherson: Pattie wanted to write a song for the climate, and she had all kinds of ideas, and I think it started out as saying goodbye to the glaciers because they’re melting. And with my songwriting, I’ve always tried to kind of turn things around and look at it from a different perspective. And so we were sitting together, and I said, “What if we didn’t say goodbye? What if we didn’t give up?” And that’s really how it started — the first line of the song [is]: “Well, I’m not going to say goodbye”— and we went from there.
Gonia: I think the three of us are the most unlikely trio in the world, but it makes so much sense. I think we all love art that says something, and we all love to create together. And I think when it comes to the climate movement, we need more collaboration. I think that we think of our best ideas when we think together.
Just like Quinn said, this song started out as a requiem for a glacier. It started out as literally part of a funeral procession for this glacier and glaciers around the world that are dying. But then … it’s actually really powerful to not give up. It’s really powerful to fight when the world wants you to stop and to quit. What’s possible if we keep going? And while the realities of climate change are real, so are the possibilities and the solutions, and I think we always need to remember that. We can step up, we can fight back, we can work together. Climate change is the biggest issue we’ll ever face in our lifetime, but it’s also the biggest opportunity to make and build a different future.
YCC: Can you talk about that tension of being overwhelmed by climate change but also the joy of coming together?
Gonia: What’s the point of a revolution if you don’t dance a little bit, if you don’t sing a little bit? So I think joy is revolutionary — I think that joy and collaboration and happiness in climate is what we need more of. If we want to make work around climate sustainable for the long haul, it has to include joy, it has to include celebration, it has to include collaboration and sharing of each other’s cultures and art forms. There’s nothing better — I want more of that.
Christopherson: And also, it’s nature. It’s really hard to be sad in nature for me.
Gonia: I love what you said, Quinn. It’s so much harder for me to feel depressed when I’m out in nature, especially when I’m out in nature with friends and with community. It reminds me why we’re fighting for what we’re fighting for.
YCC: So tell me a little bit about the location for the music video.
Gonia: We shot in a few different locations up in Alaska, and almost all of them were sites where glaciers are receding, and receding at a rapid rate. And one location we were filming at, there was nothing there. There [were] just rocks and a river running through it, and even 10 years ago there was a glacier there. But one of the glacier sites, Holgate Glacier, where we filmed the first half of the video is actually where I scattered my dad’s ashes. And my dad’s from Alaska, and he died a few years ago [of] brain cancer, and I took him up there to lay him to rest. And so, to be back there and to be making art there and to be starting a new chapter in my life there felt really powerful.
I think one of the biggest lessons that I took away from this experience in Alaska and from my friendship with Quinn is that Indigenous people don’t see humans as separate from nature. There’s a lot of this Western and colonized world that loves to separate humans from nature, but really, we are a part of nature — we are not apart from nature. And my dad is a part of this little inlet where this glacier is now. And I will one day be dust again, too, and we all will be, and so what are we going to do with this very brief and precious moment where we can make a difference? Are we going to use it to create a symbiotic relationship with this world?
Christopherson: When we were there, we were just listening to this glacier calve and watching it, and it’s just falling into the ocean right in front of our eyes. It’s like nothing I’ve ever seen before. I am indigenous to Alaska; I am Ahtna, Athabaskan, and also Inupiaq. I grew up in Alaska, and it’s a special place, and no matter how much of Alaska I see, it never ceases to amaze me.
YCC: Could you talk to me a little bit about some of the other stops that you made and the work that you did during this trip?
Gonia: Well, we can’t go somewhere and not throw a freaking drag show. So, we threw a drag show for the community up there, and we had [about] 400 people show up for it and got to do it as a fundraiser for different Indigenous-led and female-led nonprofits in the area, and we raised [about] $66,000. And it was just such a blast to get to meet so much of the community that are really change-makers and are doing this work every single day.
Christopherson: There was a [workshop] that Yo-Yo was [involved with] and he wrote a song [about salmon] with a whole bunch of youth and they all performed it together. And we got to hear it for the first time when they performed it. And then we got to perform our song for the first time together as a trio in this really intimate setting. It felt really wholesome and like we were supposed to be there.
YCC: What will each of you take away from this whole experience of working together?
Gonia: I think I’ll take away that the best work I’ll ever do when it comes to climate work will be collaborative. And I think the best thing that can happen from a project like this, and from any pursuit around climate, is new connections and new friendships, new relationships that aren’t one-off projects, but are really beautiful relationships to shape a lifetime. I feel like when work around climate can be rooted in that, it’s different, it’s special, and I think it has the most impact.
Christopherson: I take away that collaboration and art is key. And I always felt that, but it felt really apparent with this song and this work. And I really believe that when everybody brings in their true self and their biggest strength into a project, that’s when you’re going to make the best thing ever. And that’s exactly what we did. Yo-Yo did Yo-Yo. I did Quinn, and Pattie did Pattie, and that’s it. Nobody else could do that and that’s the most important thing to me.
YCC: What do you hope people who hear the song take away from it? What do you hope is the impact of this?
Christopherson: I didn’t know what I wanted people to take away from it at first, but since it’s been out and seeing all the feedback and what people are getting from it, there’s so much joy. And people keep saying they needed this right now, and no matter what we’re all going through, this is a little blip of joy that people can find. We wrote it for the glacier and then we give it away, and it’s up for you all to decide what it’s about for you. That’s powerful for me.
Gonia: I want people to sing this with other people, sing it at climate rallies, make this the anthem that they need it to be. I want every single person, no matter who they are, to use the pieces of their identity, and the things that they’re good at, and apply it to what they care about in this world. I think that’s how we make a different world. or anyone that’s queer, for anyone that comes from a different intersection of life, utilize that in your climate work. For anyone who has a special talent in this one artistic field or this one really unique subject matter, we need you. Every single movement needs an accountant. Every single movement needs artists. Every single movement needs bridge builders. Use what you’re good at and apply it to what you care about, and this world will never be the same.