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Great Wall Of Sound
Concert to Aid Tibet Roars Into RFK

By Richard Harrington
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 7, 1998; Page G01


    Sonic Youth Alt-rock stars Sonic Youth play a set Saturday at the Tibetan Freedom Concert. (Courtesy of Geffen Records)
The Dalai Lama has called the Tibetan Freedom Concerts "a loud expression of friendship." Tibet's exiled spiritual leader might just as well call it the loudest expression of pop compassion since Live Aid in 1985.

In fact, the third annual Tibetan Freedom Concert, to be held at RFK Stadium next Saturday and Sunday, will be the largest rock-and-roll benefit since Live Aid, featuring more than two dozen of today's top rockers and rappers gathered to protest human rights violations in Tibet by the Chinese government.

The lineup is a virtual Who's Who of what's happening now, including Beck, Radiohead, A Tribe Called Quest, Wyclef Jean, Dave Matthews, the Verve, Pearl Jam, the Beastie Boys, a reunited Herbie Hancock and the Headhunters and the first performance by R.E.M. since the departure of drummer Bill Berry.

Little wonder that 110,000 tickets were sold in less than six hours.

Or that the Chinese government has reportedly threatened to ban participating bands. According to a statement made to ABC Radio News by a cultural attache at the Chinese Embassy in London on April 22, "Western artists have no right to intervene in the internal affairs of our country. Any of those performers who do will not be permitted entry to China, including Tibet, and their works will never be welcome in our country."

(An official statement from the Chinese Embassy in Washington simply said: "We are firmly opposed to activities, in whatever name or under whatever pretext, which support the Dalai Lama's political maneuvers to split Tibet from China.")

According to Erin Potts, co-founder with Beastie Boy Adam Yauch of the Milarepa Fund, which produces the Tibetan Freedom Concerts, this year marks the first time that the Chinese government has reacted publicly to the annual concerts, which were launched in 1996. (Chinese officials took a similar hard-line position last November, threatening to stop doing business with Hollywood studios Columbia-TriStar, Disney and MGM/United Artists after they released, respectively, "Seven Years in Tibet," "Kundun" and "Red Corner." The first two portrayed in brutal terms the Chinese takeover of Tibet in 1950. The Chinese, however, did not follow through on their threats.)

Potts says that no artist has pulled out, and none has expressed reservations about participating. "It's absurd if the Chinese think [such threats] are going to have any effect on any artist in a free society," R.E.M. manager Bertis Downs said last week.

Next weekend's concerts -- which will be broadcast live by the Voice of America's Tibetan and Chinese language branches as well as Radio Free Asia -- will be followed Monday by a National Day of Action for Tibet. What organizers say will be the largest rally ever held for Tibet will take place at the west front of the Capitol just days before the first presidential visit to China since the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989.

There will also be a substantial lobbying effort on Capitol Hill that day urging President Clinton -- who declined in 1995 to link trade issues and Chinese human rights concerns and who on Wednesday renewed China's most-favored-nation trade status -- to push for negotiations between the Chinese government, the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan government in exile.

The seeds of the Tibetan Freedom Concerts were sown when Yauch took a trip to Nepal in 1992. Yauch, who grew up attending no-nukes demonstrations and who went to 1985's Live Aid concert in Philadelphia, is best known as one-third of the Beastie Boys, the punkers turned rappers.

"I was pretty oblivious to what was going on in Tibet," he admits, but a growing interest in spiritual studies, Buddhism in particular, took him to Nepal. While hiking in the Himalayas, Yauch encountered a group of refugees who'd just traversed the treacherous, snow-capped Himalayan mountains. They were trying to get to India, home of the exiled Dalai Lama since the 1959 uprising in Tibet.

Deeply moved by their plight and attracted to the Tibetans' nonviolent approach to gaining their freedom, Yauch began a process that eventually culminated in the Tibetan Freedom Concerts. The Beastie Boys contributed $1 from every ticket sold on their 1994 tour to start up the Milarepa Fund, a nonprofit effort with the primary goal of raising public awareness of the plight of Tibetans and promotion of "universal compassion and nonviolence."

The fund sponsored information booths at various rock concerts, as well as a group of Tibetan monks who performed before 1 million alternative rock fans during the '94 Lollapalooza tour. The Beasties then sampled the monks on their triple-platinum "Ill Communications" album, later contributing royalties to Tibetan relief organizations.

But, says Yauch, to be more effective, Milarepa's blend of education, entertainment and activism needed a bigger stage, one that would hopefully provoke greater media attention. "We were hoping to create an atmosphere where Tibetans could speak for themselves from the stage and elsewhere," Yauch explains.

Held at the Polo Fields in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park, the first two-day event drew 100,000 people with a lineup that included Smashing Pumpkins, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Foo Fighters, A Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul, Beck, Pavement, Yoko Ono, Bjork and Sonic Youth. The concerts opened and closed with chants by the monks and featured short sets alternating on adjacent stages. Last year, the concerts were held in New York, to heighten their visibility; this year, the added element is the June 15 political action, which clearly benefits from the timing of Clinton's China trip.

But how many actual concertgoers could identify Tibet on a world map?

According to Erin Potts, "In the first three months after the first concert, even though school wasn't in session, Students for a Free Tibet went from 80 chapters to 300, which was a pretty measurable indicator of what had happened in San Francisco. We were dazzled."

Ticket sales from this year's concerts grossed more than $3 million, with more to come from merchandising sales at the event; the Milarepa Fund expects to receive $1 million of that amount. The two previous concerts, which drew a total of 150,000 people, raised $1.25 million for the fund.

Surrounded by the highest, most remote mountains in the world, Tibet once enjoyed a secluded freedom. Now, its geographical character almost ensures an isolated imprisonment. There are not even the shocking television images of starving children and environmental devastation that spurred 1971's Concert for Bangla Desh, the first all-star concert to raise money for international causes, or 1985's Live Aid telethon to combat African famine.

Yauch and Potts acknowledge that at first, many participants in what was dubbed Dalai Lamapalooza had only cursory knowledge of Tibetan history. Though concert participants were given information packets, there was no pressure to comment on the political situation or tailor music to the event beyond "making some noise for Tibet." Some acts did: At the first concert, guitarist John Spencer shouted, "Ladies and gentlemen, when we're talkin' about freein' Tibet, I think we're talkin' about loooooove!"

Q-Tip of A Tribe Called Quest, which has participated in all three concerts, says the group originally did so because of long-term friendships with the Beastie Boys. "I sort of knew [about Tibet], but I was not drenched in knowledge until Adam alerted me to it."

"People are not really in a political mind state," Q-Tip adds. "They're too complacent and content right now, but life is nothing but cycles and circles, so eventually it will come back to that. And the unification of the event is kinda dope."

"The first concert was certainly an awakening for me," says Sean Lennon, who performed with Ima, mother Yoko Ono's backing band. He'd studied Tibetan Buddhism in high school. "Back then, I didn't realize that I could have an effect on the world, and I don't think I had the opportunity. The Tibetan Freedom Concert and Milarepa Fund are really giving artists like me opportunities to be effective. And while I've been to a lot of cause-specific concerts, none of them were as focused on the issues. It's a concert where all the concertgoers walk away with better knowledge of what's going on in Tibet."

Sprinkled among next weekend's performances will be short speeches by Tibetan exiles such as Palden Gyatso, a monk who endured torture over a period of 33 years as a political prisoner. There will be information booths, petitions, a "temporary monastery," opening and closing blessings by Buddhist monks and nuns, media interviews and backstage news conferences, but mostly there will be music.

"We don't necessarily have to be preaching about politics in order to raise awareness," says Lennon. "I just want to have a good time and play a good show and that in itself will be a good promotion for the cause."

But there will be efforts to build on the emotion of the concerts and the rally: also on the 15th, a group of congressional staff volunteers will be training more than 300 young people on how to lobby their bosses.

"Our focus is on year-round grass-roots efforts because that's where change is going to happen," says Potts. "You can't throw a concert and think you're going to free Tibet."

Both Yauch and Potts say that next weekend's Tibetan Freedom Concert could be the last. That's partly because of a process that is common to cause-oriented events: the glittering event has overtaken the worthy cause, at least in the public eye. It's about pop music now, not Tibet, and most of the ticket buyers were attracted to the lineup, not the issue.

Whether the Tibetan Freedom Concert takes a break -- the other possibility is taking it international next time around -- it has clearly raised Tibet's profile among young people (MTV, for instance, has provided extensive coverage of the concerts).

Potts and Yauch chose to name their organization after Jetsun Milarepa, an 11th-century Tibetan saint who found enlightenment through music. "In Buddhism," says Yauch, "there's the idea that there is endless work to be done. We just keep working at it the best we can."

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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