Artists, musicians, actors, and activists from all over the world joined Global Citizen Live in September for 24 hours of action to defeat poverty and defend the planet. And whether it was on stage or off, this year showed us that star power can create waves of everlasting change

The COVID-19 pandemic continues to rage on as wealthy countries hoard vaccines and fail to share life-saving technologies. World leaders met in Glasgow for the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26) and failed to meet the commitments necessary to protect the world’s most vulnerable from the impacts of global warming. Global hunger rates rose with poverty, conflict, and climate change pushing 42 million people to the brink of starvation. 

But 2021 was also a year full of humanitarian efforts and philanthropic giving. BTS delivered a hopeful speech at the UN, Selena Gomez stood up for vaccine sharing, Global Citizen artists helped partners announce millions of vaccine doses, and Prince Harry called for environmental protection. From calls for vaccine equity to demands for racial equality, celebrities showed up this year, using their platform to champion change all over the world. 

Here are 10 moments of inspiring celebrity activism that gives us hope for the new year.

1. Lizzo called out institutional racism at Global Citizen Live

Lizzo took the stage in Central Park at Global Citizen Live and brought more than her flute with her. The “Rumors” singer stood in front of an audience of 60,000 people and called for the acknowledgement of the history of racism the US has been built on. 

“I have to shout out that the land we’re standing on is Seneca Village, and if you don’t know what it is, that was an affluent African American community that lived here in the early 1900s,” Lizzo said in the middle of her set. “They were evicted and bulldozed so they could build this park.” 

Lizzo went on to speak about the interconnectedness of issues such as poverty and climate justice. 

“As we talk about climate change and making the world a better place and solving homelessness, we also have to talk about the institutionalized racism that happens in this country all the time. And if we don’t talk about our history constructively, how can we build a better future?”

2. BTS took over the UN General Assembly to deliver a speech on climate action, COVID-19 vaccines, and hope.

From becoming special presidential envoys to South Korea to reaching a $3.6 million benchmark for their UNICEF campaign, Global Citizen artist and K-pop icons BTS have had an awe-inspiring year. 

In September, the seven-membered band joined President Moon Jae-in at the UN Sustainable Development Goals Moment in New York City and delivered a speech about the resiliency of global youth and keeping hope through difficult times. 

“Maybe because we feel an encroaching sense of dread that our time on this earth is limited, we just talk about the things we mourn, and I shudder to think about mourning for the earth,” said BTS member J-Hope. “Everyone agrees that climate change is an important problem, but talking about what the best solution might be … that’s not easy.”

The influential band also spoke on COVID-19 pandemic recovery, vaccines, and the importance of taking action. 

“Yes, all seven of us, of course we received vaccinations. The vaccination was a sort of ticket to meeting our fans waiting for us and to being able to stand here before you today,” said J-Hope. “Just like we said in our message today, we too are doing the things that we’re able to do right now.”

3. Prince Harry penned an impassioned op-ed to stop oil drilling in Southern Africa.

Prince Harry, The Duke of Sussex, teamed up with Namibian environmental activist Reinhold Mangundu in October to call for a moratorium on oil drilling in order to protect the Okavango watershed in Southern Africa. The two wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post outlining the threats oil drilling poses to natural environments. 

“There is no way to repair the damage from these kinds of mistakes. Drilling is an outdated gamble that reaps disastrous consequences for many, and incredible riches for a powerful few,” they wrote. “It represents a continued investment in fossil fuels instead of renewable energies.”

You can join Mangundu, Prince Harry, and Global Citizen partner Re:wild in advocating for the protection of the Okavango from corporate drilling by signing the open letter here

4. Davido raised $600K for orphanages in Nigeria.

Nigerian Afrobeats musician and Global Citizen performer Davido celebrated his 29th birthday in November by raising funds through Twitter for orphanages in Nigeria. The singer donated $120,000 himself and announced that he had assembled a five-person committee to help distribute the funds. 

“I truly appreciate everyone who donated hard-earned funds and I am very thankful for your generosity,” he wrote. “I have always been passionate about giving back and helping people.”

5. Billie Eilish spoke out for climate action and animal protection.

The fabulous vegan star Billie Eilish spent this year advocating for climate action and using her influence to institute change. From executive producing a recently released documentary on structural racism and food deserts to dropping a line of sustainable merch, Eilish consistently championed the causes she believes in. 

In October, ahead of COP26, Eilish joined forces with environmental initiatives Green Futures and Arctic Basecamp along with Rainn Wilson, climate activist Daze Adhaji, Robert Irwin, and other celebrities to share a video message on the power of a unified call for environmental protection. 

“This year our leaders are deciding the global actions required [for] the environment and climate emergency in a critical decade for our planet,” Eilish said in the video. “We must stand together and speak up to save our planet, not just for us but for our future generations.”

In September, the “Happier Than Ever” singer used her Met Gala debut to send a message about animal cruelty and inspire change in the fashion industry. 

“It was an honor to wear this dress knowing that going forward Oscar de la Renta will be completely fur-free!!!!” Eilish wrote in an Instagram post.

Eilish also joined the Global Citizen Live stage in New York in September and called on US President Biden to deliver on the country’s pledge to fund climate finance for developing countries.

6. Rihanna stood up against Asian American hate crimes. 

The fashion, beauty, and music mogul Rihanna made powerful contributions in acts of solidarity this year when she marched against rising Asian hate and donated funds to support grassroots AAPI organizations. The self-made billionaire’s Clara Lionel Foundation teamed up with #StartSmall, Twitter founder Jack Dorsey’s global COVID-19 relief fund, in March and donated $3 million to AAPI communities and organizations. 

AAPI communities across the US were disproportionately impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic which sparked a rise in racially motivated attacks and economic losses fueled by fear and hate. 

In April, the “Love on the Brain” singer went undercover at a Stop Asian Hate rally in New York City, brandishing signs and dancing in the street with fellow protestors. 

7. Rina Sawayama and Elton John released a queer anthem collab for the ages.

Japanese-British pop star Rina Sawayama and Global Citizen Live performer Elton John combined their starpower this year to release a new version of Sawayama’s queer ballad “Chosen Family” featured on John’s album The Lockdown Sessions. The original recording of the song was originally released in 2020 on Sawayama’s eponymous album. The two LGBTQ+ activists came together in 2021 to record it as a duet, citing a renewed sense of timeliness and cultural relativity. 

“I just thought this song spoke about bringing people together and loving at a time when people are so hateful to each other and that the world is so divisive,” John said on his radio show, Rocket Hour. “And this song, I thought, ‘God, this is exactly what we need to be saying right now.’ It’s a song about peace. It’s about acceptance, about tolerance.”

Despite Sawayama being a Japanese immigrant who has spent the majority of her life living in the UK, in 2020 she was denied eligibility for BRIT Award nominations. This year in February, after viral calls for her inclusion in the awards and conversations with the ruling committee, the requirements for eligibility were changed, opening up new opportunities for non-British citizens to compete. Sawayama infuses advocacy into her music, blending catchy pop tunes with Asian cultural experiences and her pansexual identity. 

Sawayama also showed public support and announced her patronage to Positive East, an HIV/AIDS charity in London, on Dec. 1, World AIDS Day. In an Instagram post, Sawayama wrote about preventative treatments such as PrEP, stigma surrounding HIV/AIDS and how it has prevented people from accessing treatment, and commemorated those who have lost their lives to AIDS.

“The concept of ‘chosen family’ is such a pure one, such an important one. And I think especially this year, it’s been really important, the idea of family being rather flexible, and I can’t imagine all the queer people who have had to endure hardship at home,” said Sawayama on John’s radio show.

8. Nikkie de Jager elevated trans visibility at the Met Gala. 

Nikkie de Jager (Nikkie Tutorials), famed YouTube makeup guru, attended this year’s annual Met Gala clad in a fashion statement. The Dutch trans activist paid homage to the late queer icon Marsha P. Johnson with a stunning turquoise dress embroidered with flowers and a sash bearing Johnson’s famous quote, “Pay it no mind.”

“I knew I wanted to pay homage to a trans icon who was at the forefront of the Stonewall Riots … Marsha P. Johnson paved the way for so many of us, and I hope I made my community proud tonight,” de Jager wrote on Instagram. 

2021 was the deadliest year on record for trans people in the US. According to the 19th, 45 lives have been taken as of November and most of the victims were Black or Latinx people. This year, nine anti-trans bills were passed containing dangerous language, raising safety concerns in the LGBTQ+ community. 

From Elliot Page to de Jager, trans celebrities have fought long and hard this year to raise visibility for their communities through using their platforms for outspoken advocacy and education.

9. Olivia Rodrigo visited the White House to promote COVID-19 vaccines.

“Good 4 U” singer-songwriter Olivia Rodrigo made a special appearance at a White House briefing in July to encourage Americans to get vaccinated against COVID-19. The young star met with President Biden at a time when Delta variant infections were increasing and youth vaccination rates were lagging. Since then, vaccination rates for children under the age of 18 have risen from 10.2% to 51%, in part from the expansion of age eligibility for receiving doses (though the Gen Z icon’s influence surely didn’t hurt).

“It’s important to have conversations with friends and family members, encouraging all communities to get vaccinated,” Rodrigo said at the White House podium. She also took to Instagram to extend her message. 

“Even if you are young and not immunocompromised, getting your COVID-19 vaccination is the best thing you can do for your health and your loved ones’ health. YOU have the power to save lives,” wrote Rodrigo in the caption of a photo of her and the president. 

10.  Malala Yousafzai, Vanessa Nakate, and Greta Thunberg championed education, climate action, and youth activism at COP26.

The three activist giants Malala Yousafzai, Vanessa Nakate, and Greta Thunberg participated in panel discussions at the New York Times Climate Hub at COP26 in Glasgow in November. Nakate, a 24-year-old activist from Uganda, spoke out about how current climate commitments were not sufficient solutions for vulnerable regions such as her own. 

“Even right now, it’s already evident that the climate crisis is ravaging different parts of the African continent,” said Nakate, founder of the Rise Up climate movement.

Yousafzai spoke on the effects that climate change has had on young girl’s education around the world. 

“When we talk about the 130 million girls that are out of school, these girls are out school because of different reasons, and some of the reasons include climate disasters including displacement because of climate catastrophes like drought, like floods; many of their schools are washed out because of those climate events.” said Yousafzai. 

Thunberg, speaking to panel chair Emma Watson, warned against greenwashing and expressed her dismay regarding the state of the talk’s commitments.

​​“Since we are so far from what actually we needed, I think what would be considered a success would be if people realize what a failure this COP is,” said Thunberg. 

The three young activists have been leading figures in youth education and climate movements. In May, Yousafzai announced a donation of $150,000 to Palestinian families recovering from the crisis in Gaza. In October, Thunberg wrote an op-ed for the Guardian challenging leaders to increase their commitments at COP26 while pointing out past failures and dishonesties. At COP26, Nakate delivered a powerful speech directly to diplomats, pleading with them to “prove us wrong” and deliver on pledges.

Global Citizen Life

Demand Equity

10 Inspiring Moments of Celebrity Activism in 2021

By Kate Nakamura