What happens when you invite 19,000 ravers to crowd around a giant inflatable toilet and think about poor sanitation in developing countries?
We’re about to find out, thanks to Hugh Evans, the 31-year-old philanthropist behind Thursday’s “Thank You Festival” at Merriweather Post Pavilion, a benefit event that aims to mobilize millennials to help end extreme poverty. The festival will feature top electronic dance music DJs, including Tiësto, Above & Beyond and local talent Alvin Risk. It will also feature a slew of humanitarians, politicos and installations such as the 15-foot toilet.
But will an oversized latrine make EDM festival-goers focus on the 2.5 billion people around the world who don’t have safe sanitation facilities? Or will the concert attendees pose for a giant-toilet selfie and continue twirling their glow sticks?
Evans, the global philanthropy phenom who co-founded international aid organizations the Oaktree Foundation and the Global Poverty Project, says he knows that the EDM crowd might seem an unlikely target for recruitment to a global movement. The genre’s fans are closely associated with use of a party drug called Molly, the street name for MDMA, and numerous other EDM festivals in recent years have ended with reports of arrests and drug overdoses. But Evans is convinced that EDM icons such as Tiësto can inspire their fans to care about serious issues.
“If you look at who listens to EDM, it’s young people. It’s largely millennials. And our whole objective is to engage millennials in the fight to end extreme poverty,” says Evans, talking over lunch during a recent trip to the District. “If you want to be speaking to millennials, you’ve got to be speaking to [the artists] millennials are listening to. . . . I think that the people behind the music care deeply about these issues, and the question is: How do you create the right platform for them to express that?”
The charmingly affable Australian launched his philanthropic career as a 12-year-old, when he became a top fundraiser for the Christian aid group World Vision. He founded the Oaktree Foundation as a university student in Australia and skyrocketed to a national stage after he was named the 2004 Young Australian of the Year. That title helped him rally support for the 2006 Make Poverty History concert in Melbourne. The event coincided with the G20 meeting of world economic leaders and prompted Australian leaders to double the country’s commitment to foreign aid.
“That was a decisive moment,” he says. “I saw the power of music at that event.”
Evans brought his ambitions to the United States about four years ago, after moving to New York. There, he secured the Great Lawn in Central Park for the 2012 Global Citizen Festival — an event headlined by Neil Young and Crazy Horse, the Foo Fighters, and the Black Keys and timed to correspond with the annual session of the U.N. General Assembly.
“As 193 world leaders gathered . . . we had billboards all across the city, and we were able to get charities on stage to commit $1.3 billion in new programs to support the world’s poorest people,” Evans says proudly. “That was year one.”
The festival again drew a capacity crowd of 60,000 in its second year, along with a lineup of stars including John Mayer, Alicia Keys, Stevie Wonder and Elvis Costello.
But these aren’t typical charity benefit concerts, and gaining entry to the show isn’t as simple as springing for a pricier-than-usual ticket. Evans calls the ticketing process “gamification”: audience members earn their place by taking measurable “actions” through the Global Citizen online platform.
Some of these “actions” — volunteering, for example, or writing to an elected official — involve more actual action than others, like watching an educational video, signing a petition or sharing a link on a Facebook page. And although these steps lead to material reward, Evans insists that the ultimate outcome of the exercise is not just a concert-goer, but a new “global citizen.” (Tickets are available for purchase, too.)
“With concerts like Live Aid or Live Earth, people would pay $120 for a ticket, and that would be their investment in the cause,” Evans says. “What used to happen is, on the night [of the concert], people would share these goals — let’s get the G8 leaders to make a massive commitment around debt relief — which is fantastic, there’s nothing wrong with that, but wouldn’t it be awesome if you could use the whole period in the lead-up to the concert to [convey] that message?”
This year, Evans decided it was time to bring his brand of music-driven philanthropy to Washington, with the goal to encourage the United States to recommit its foreign aid for child survival efforts and double its $20 million in annual funding for the Global Partnership for Education.
It’s similar to the concept behind the Global Citizen Festival in New York, but EDM marks new territory, beyond the realm of do-gooder rock icons.
EDM fans are accustomed to an immersive experience in which DJs spin music continuously, silhouetted against hypnotically swirling video screens, in an environment where the only lofty concept is “PLUR” — “Peace, Love, Unity, Respect,” the mantra of rave culture. But the Thank You Festival will alter some of those familiar aesthetics to make room for its policy-driven appeals, Evans says. There will be calls to action by the DJs, by Evans and by top U.S. foreign aid officials.
In an e-mailed statement, Tiësto said the festival “has the unique potential to produce real change” and added that Facebook and Twitter comments from his fans showed that they were excited to participate in a show with a positive social message.
“I know that my fans are thoughtful, generous and caring and this festival is a great opportunity to show Washington D.C. what our community is really about,” he said.
The festival, Evans says, is really just the beginning.
“Young people are going to be going to EDM concerts anyway,” he says. “Why not go to an EDM concert where they can change the world as part of the process?”