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Freedom, Justice and a Little Rap and Reggae

By Alana Wartofsky and Mark Jenkins
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, June 15, 1998


    Mosh Pit Barrett Blake-Mole, right, gets a welcome splash of bottled water during the hottest part of the day in the mosh pit. (By Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)
"This is more like it," said Radiohead frontman Thom Yorke as he surveyed the crowd at the Tibetan Freedom Concert yesterday afternoon. "This is a good day."

Both the weather and the vibes at RFK Stadium yesterday offered a strong contrast to the first day of the two-day concert. Saturday's show was halted around 4 p.m. after lightning struck the crowd, injuring several people, one of them critically.

"Today the energy is so much nicer; the sun's shining and it's not humid. It feels a lot better," said Courtenay Bouvier, 26, who came down from Manchester, Conn., for the event.

There was some grumbling when Saturday's show was stopped, but yesterday's concert soon rekindled the idealistic spirit with which the previous day's schedule began. The event opened with a news conference featuring a dazzling array of pop stars, dissidents and activists for Tibetan freedom. They were there to talk about human rights in Tibet, and it was a serious affair -- beamed to giant TV screens inside the stadium.

At the end of a long table sat Palden Gyatso, a Tibetan monk who had spent 33 years in prison for having the temerity to ask the Chinese what right they had to be in his homeland.

"If you wonder what it was like to be in Chinese prisons for 33 years," he said through an interpreter, "there were various types of torture. We would be stripped naked and have boiling water poured on us."

Wei Jingsheng, the famous Chinese dissident who was finally released from prison and exiled last November after China's leader visited Washington, spoke as well. He likened Chinese torture to Nazi torture and said: "Nobody can be silent in the face of such atrocity."

Despite the concert's serious theme, a festive air filled the stadium, as Tibetans in long silk chupas and volunteers in yellow T-shirts roamed about asking concertgoers to sign letters urging President Clinton to raise the issue of freedom for Tibet on his upcoming trip to China. Scores of concertgoers had their pictures taken with Gyatso, who wore maroon robes and brown loafers. The monk beamed as his interpreter snapped photos of him with kids in tie-dye T-shirts.

"I came here pretty naive about what was going on in Tibet. I came for the bands," said Dave Linn, 26, a local deejay. Then he listened to Gyatso's speech. "His words were very moving. He spoke about being in the concentration camps and torture. He spoke about a book that he wrote that I want to read now. And now I'm planning to go to the rally on Monday to round out this whole experience."

"My impression from the young people I've met here is that Tibet is really important to them," said Adam Yauch, the Beastie Boy who helped found the Milarepa Fund after meeting Tibetan exiles on his treks through Nepal.

"People come for the music, but you hook them in while they're here, and it does a tremendous amount to generate awareness," said Brenda Prinzing, 20, a junior at George Washington University who is treasurer of the school's chapter of Students for a Free Tibet.

She was manning an information table on the grounds outside the stadium, which were filled with exhibits from nonprofit groups involved in the free-Tibet struggle and all sorts of vendors cashing in on a thirst for Tibetan culture.

Concertgoers could buy T-shirts, jewelry and -- at a stall called Recycling the Buddha -- used clothes refurbished with "Free Tibet" logos. A vendor hawking Tibetan music offered collections of the best of festival performers Chaksam-pa and Nawang Khechog, and a stall selling hemp shirts and hats promised that its products included "no Chinese hemp."

Chris Edley, 14, had traveled all the way from Lexington, Mass., to work as a volunteer at the event. While there, he picked up a skateboard that says "I'm dreaming of a free Tibet." "It's pretty cool," said Chris, who is a Buddhist.

At one side of the shopping area, a bustling food court offered an alternative to the hot dogs, french fries and funnel cakes for sale inside the stadium. The most popular stand was an Australian "roadkill cafe" specializing in non-Buddhist cuisine. Lines were shorter at the Himalayan Grill, which offered small plates of Tibetan noodles.

In an impromptu temple in a large tent in the center of the shopping area, a touring group of exiled Tibetan monks from the Drepung-Loseling Monastery in Dharamsala prayed. Seated facing one other on a stage decorated with lilies and exquisite tapestries, they chanted continuously into headset microphones, which turned their chants into a rumble that could be heard for blocks. Yesterday their prayers were dedicated to the concertgoers who had been struck by lightning the day before.

"We're not necessarily trying to interest anyone in Buddhism -- that's their path to choose, if they choose," said Rob Waldeck, 30, an aspiring museum curator who lives in the District and practices his faith at the Shambala Meditation Center of Washington. "Our religion doesn't believe in proselytizing."

On the subject of Tibetan independence, however, groups such as Live and Radiohead were comfortable proselytizing. Some observers have criticized the Milarepa Fund's approach as strident and simplistic, but that didn't stop Live from leading the audience in chants of "free Tibet now." The musicians whose star power had made the event an instant sell out were adamant about the effectiveness of the concert.

"A lot of people say, 'How do you think you can change the world just by playing music?' " Sean Lennon said during the Saturday morning news conference. "I think that's a terribly cynical point of view. We're running a movement of freedom and justice for the Tibetan people, and advertising that movement is very important. And people should understand that."

"When you get 66,000 people standing in front of a huge Tibetan flag, I think that they're probably going to get the message to some degree," Yorke told reporters later that day. "People aren't actually that stupid."

Staff writer Vernon Loeb contributed to this report.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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