Can Music Save the World?

The organizers of the annual Tibetan Freedom Concert think so.

If Adam Yauch were wearing a suit, he'd fit right in at your average corporate staff meeting. With his close-cropped hair, dark-ringed eyes, and serious expression, the 32-year-old Beastie Boy could easily be a young ad exec rather than a member of one of the country's most popular rap groups.

On this swampy Saturday morning in Washington, DC, Yauch is submitting to press grilling under hot TV lights not for his music but for his activism: He co-founded the Milarepa Fund, which mobilizes young Americans in the cause of nonviolent social change and organizes the annual Tibetan Freedom Concert. Yauch became interested in the Tibetans' struggle after meeting refugees from the country during a trek in Nepal.

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The fund is named for Jetsun Milarepa, the first "common" Tibetan to attain enlightenment in a single lifetime, back in the 11th century. After an unruly youth, Milarepa devoted his life to using music to teach compassion. Comparisons between the fund's namesake and the world-weary Yauch—who has a gray-hair quotient similar to fellow Tibetan activist Richard Gere's—are easy to make. MCA, as he's known to fans, has clearly come a long way from the Beasties' "Fight for Your Right to Party" days.

The two previous Tibetan Freedom Concerts—first in San Francisco, and last year in New York—raised $1.25 million for Milarepa. This year's star-studded RFK Stadium concert seems destined to make double that figure. Fans snapped up 110,000 tickets at $50 a pop six hours after they went on sale, making the event the second-largest benefit in history, behind 1985's Live Aid.

A lot of star power has been marshaled for this morning's press conference: Yauch, Thom Yorke and Jonny Greenwood of Radiohead, reggae star Mutabaruka, and Sean Lennon (following the peace-activist footsteps of his parents, John and Yoko) sit alongside Xiao Qiang, executive director of the New York­based nonprofit Human Rights in China. There's also Chinese democratic activist Wei Jingsheng, Tibetan monk Palden Gyatso, and Kay Dougherty, the national head of Students for a Free Tibet, which recently organized a successful boycott of Holiday Inn after it opened a hotel in Tibet's capital, Lhasa, and staffed it with Chinese workers.

When one reporter suggests that, hey, maybe lots of these kids are here just for the music, 22-year-old Lennon responds with youthful vehemence, berating the "cynical" attitude: "The media is what controls our society today. Look around you at all these people broadcasting worldwide—if all of this doesn't influence our culture, I don't know what will."

A short history of China's actions against Tibet since its 1949 invasion: In search of more land and domination of the strategically located Tibetan plateau, the Chinese government has destroyed 6,000 monasteries and sold off the country's natural resources, meanwhile punishing Tibetans for any attempts to assert their cultural or religious identity. More than a million Tibetans have died due to famine, torture, and forced labor. One particularly chilling symbol of China's policy toward the Tibetans is the kidnapping three years ago of the Panchen Lama (who was 6 years old at the time)—he's the youngest political prisoner in the world.

Other than raising money, the weekend's objective is to convince President Clinton that on his upcoming trip to China (the first visit by an American president since the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre), he must persuade Chinese president Jiang Zemin to hold talks with the Dalai Lama, Tibet's leader-in-exile.

When RFK Stadium isn't full of bodies, it looks surprisingly small. Two enormous TV screens flank two stages. The crowd is a bit thin for the five-minute opening set by monks from the Drepung Loseling Monastery and nuns from the Tibetan Nuns Project, who stand and chant before a huge Budweiser banner. MTV News operates from a giant platform in the center of the stadium floor with an enormous, silver-plated, rotating logo that's visible from practically every seat.

The weekend's first electric act is Beastie Boys keyboard player Money Mark, modeling the official Tibetan Freedom Festival T-shirt during his 20-minute set. Next up is Mutabaruka, whose dark, bass-heavy, roots reggae is the most overtly political music all weekend. At the press conference earlier, he summed up his motivation in one elegant sound bite: "The freedom of one is dependent on the freedom of all."

It's heartening to see how busy the gold-shirted volunteers are as they solicit signatures for pro-Tibetan postcards to the White House.

Tibetan monk Gyatso tells the story of his 30-year imprisonment by the Chinese. You couldn't ask for a more adorable symbol: He's a tiny man with a round face and big ears, who wears an expression of calm even when he's describing being hung from handcuffs and splashed with boiling water. Other gruesome tortures involve serrated handcuffs and electric cattle prods. "The power is in your hands," his translator says as pictures of the violent Chinese occupation flash on two huge screens.

Then it's KRS-1: The stadium floor transforms into 50,000 writhing pink snakes, as those in the front rows pump their fists in the air. The audience is uniformly white, college-age, and scantily clad; there are lots of "Co-ed Naked Lacrosse" T-shirts on view. Most of the sartorial accessories are borrowed from a previous generation—tie-dye, long hair, macramé chokers. KRS-1 quotes the Dalai Lama before he heads off stage: "Be patient.... Don't hate. Show love." Two shirtless white guys near me start to break dance.

Back in the press tent, the atmosphere darkens: The DC area is under a tornado warning. Bad weather is coming from New York City, where all scheduled flights have been canceled (which is why Patti Smith never materialized). The sky now a menacing shade of gray, KRS-1 takes a seat in front of the cameras. He's lapsed into stream-of-consciousness when a tremendous thunderbolt sounds. "The Goddess represents!" he shouts gleefully. "The Goddess represents!"

The Goddess was representing in a decidedly nasty way: four songs into Herbie Hancock and the Headhunters' first live show in 25 years, several people were struck by lightning—including 25-year-old Lysa Selfon, whose heart stopped beating for nearly 20 minutes. The music stopped at about 4:15, when the rain began to pour. Forty minutes later, the rest of the day's show was officially canceled.

The next morning, when I tell the cab driver to take me to RFK Stadium, he says, "You didn't learn your lesson, huh?"

I ask him which lesson that would be.

"Get a bunch of crazy white folks together, and anything can happen."

He's more than willing to share his view of the concert: "Nothing's going to get solved," he says, "until Billy Bobs' jobs go away. The corporation moves and takes his job, and he can't get his beer fix, then see what'll happen."

Just the day before, there'd been another school shooting, and you didn't see any famous musicians organizing concerts about that. Why focus on Tibet when there are so many overwhelming problems in America's backyard: domestic violence, AIDS, homelessness, violence?

On the other hand, you've got to start somewhere. The Tibetans' path of nonviolence makes them both incredibly vulnerable and incredibly symbolic of the lessons humans—particularly young American humans—most need to learn. Start with violence, you get kids walking into their homerooms with loaded fire-arms. You reap what you sow, as the cabbie points out.

Sunday's show comes close to making up for all of Saturday's bad vibes. Sean Lennon, who at certain times eerily resembles his father, plays an uplifting set, and Radiohead proves once again its skill at making an arena seem like a small club.

On the speaker side, Rhodes scholar Tashi Rabgey, a Tibetan born in exile, really gets the crowd going—almost as much as the sets from MOR darlings Blues Traveler and the Wallflowers (who pointedly perform a cover of the Who's "Won't Get Fooled Again"). "Fifteen years ago," notes the twentysomething Rabgey, "people said, 'Tibet is dead.' You couldn't even get six people in a room to address—now I'm talking to a stadium full."

More great performances follow: There's Sonic Youth, Wyclef Jean, R.E.M. (with Michael Stipe wearing a midriff-baring shirt and skirt ensemble that had several women around me cooing with envy) and Tribe Called Quest. But the day's real highlight is, understandably, the Beastie Boys, whose set includes a couple of songs from their upcoming record, Hello Nasty. The crowd goes crazy for the trio; Yauch's stage presence is markedly more subdued than his fellow Beasties.

In the stadium clubhouse, which is packed with Milarepa volunteers and music-biz types, I glance furtively at people's feet, obsessed with identifying their sneaker brand. For empirical proof of America's dependence on trade with China, visit your local department store and try to find a pair of running shoes that were not made in China. Nike, of course, uses factories in Indonesia, where they pay their mostly female workers 30 cents an hour—but that's another story. The only hypocrite I can find all weekend is a woman with a walkie-talkie wearing Converse slides.

Inside the stadium, the official T-shirt (100 percent organic cotton) sells for $20, and the official concert program, a mini zine/comic book, costs $2. The program includes an essay, "The Big Yak Daddy Syndrome," dealing with Tibet's trendiness, exemplified by various current ad campaigns, including those of Airwalk shoes (made in China!) and Apple Computers, which has lobbied the US government to renew China's Most Favored Nation trading status.

Back on stage, Seattle musicians are making their presence known. R.E.M. has two Seattleites with them: drummer Barrett Martin and Scott McCaughey on keyboards. Then there's Pearl Jam. Singer Eddie Vedder wins the Most Political Between-Song Banter award, dedicating "Can't Find a Better Man" to "the dysfunctional relationship we have with our government." Later, Vedder refers to Clinton as "the fucker" (as in "Let the fucker know how we feel").

No matter how skeptical you might feel about the efficacy of musicians championing the cause of a country halfway around the world, the Tibetan Freedom Concerts have raised not only money but also awareness; there are now 350 chapters of Students for a Free Tibet, up from 50 chapters in 1996. That's a lot of college kids—and a lot of voters.

Estimates of the number of people at Monday's rally on the Capitol lawn vary widely, from a credible 5,000 to a wildly optimistic 20,000. In contrast to the stadium crowd, most people are here for the politics—though one group of teens holds aloft a "Party for Your Right to Fight" banner.

The stars appear, starting with Lollapalooza founder Perry Farrell, who performs the weekend's oddest number, a spoken-word piece accompanied by canned music that attempts to link the plight of the Jewish diaspora with that of the Tibetans. Wearing a metallic silver-and-crimson outfit complete with turban, Farrell looks like an extra in a community theater production of Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves.

Dignity is restored as several members of Congress from both sides of the aisle parade to the podium to make pro-Tibet speeches. One, Joe Scarborough from Florida, in baggy khakis and a plaid shirt, could have easily blended in with the concert crowd; he quotes a long passage by Bobby Kennedy on youth activism. Democratic Congressman Chris Cox of California lobbies for House Resolution 283, which calls for the Chinese government to discuss Tibetan autonomy with the Dalai Lama (the resolution was passed in the House by a vote of 416 to 5, but Clinton has yet to endorse it). California Rep. Dana Rohrbacher proclaims dramatically, "Our country stands for more than short-term blood money in the hands of profiteers! Yes, I'm for free trade, but that's free trade between free people, buster!"

Never have so many pierced college students cheered so wildly for a Republican. And for once, the rabid anti-Communist Republicans are being admirably (if unconsciously) consistent: If you believe pop music can influence kids to commit suicide, you have to also concede that it might be an equally strong means to positive ends.

With all its rebellious associations, rock music has fueled every major political upheaval of the past 30 years. Czechoslovakia's Velvet Revolution, the Sandinistas' fight in Nicaragua, the protests against the Vietnam War, the fall of the Berlin Wall, the end of the Cold War—each one had a rock 'n' roll soundtrack. For the Tibetans' struggle, the score happens to be by the Beastie Boys. Now the trick is to get the kids to listen to more than the music.

For more information on the Milarepa Fund, call 1-888-MILAREPA.

Related Links and information:

Official Free Tibet Concert Site

Beastie Boys

Students for a Free Tibet

Human Rights in China

Radiohead Fan Page

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