Adam Yauch is under no illusions about the role he and the rest of the Beastie Boys will play at the third Tibetan Freedom Concert this weekend. "Our job is to be the bait," he says. "To help bring people in and get the thing going."
The Beasties are not the only pop stars putting themselves up as bait. Among the acts scheduled to perform at this two-day benefit concert in RFK Stadium are R.E.M., Pearl Jam, the Dave Matthews Band, Beck, Blues Traveller, Tracy Chapman, Sean Lennon, Wyclef Jean, the Wallflowers, Radio- head and Live -- easily the summer concert season's most star-studded line-up.
No wonder all 110,000 tickets were snapped up the day they went on sale.
For the musicians involved, the issue of Tibetan Freedom seems to be more than just a fashionable cause. Not only are all the acts donating their time for the concert, many -- including R.E.M., Beck and Radio- head -- are not on tour and had to make special arrangements to play in Washington.
It is the first time in 15 years that Kraft- werk has played the United States and the first time R.E.M. will perform in public since the departure of drummer Bill Berry.
Tibet is under the control of the People's Republic of China and, since the 1950s, the government in Beijing has been systematically and brutally dismantling Tibetan culture -- particularly its centuries-old tradition of Lamaist Buddhism. The Dalai Lama, Tibet's spiritual leader, has lived in exile since 1959.
This oppression rubs a lot of rockers the wrong way. "When you have a group of people who, as a rule, preach nonviolence, and [whose] whole mission in life is to achieve serenity, then it's kind of hard not to support them," says R.E.M. bassist Mike Mills.
Spreading the word
Bringing all this together is the Milarepa Fund. Founded in 1995 by Yauch and Erin Potts, the San Francisco-based human rights group has devoted itself to spreading the word about the plight of Tibet.
"Our goal is to promote compassion and nonviolence, and we do so through the Tibetan struggle," says Potts. "We see it as an example of nonviolence, because they have used mostly nonviolent means to try and regain their freedom for the last 40 years. We see that as an example that's very important in this day and age."
Most of Milarepa's activities are informational, with funds raised by the annual Freedom Concerts going to educational and outreach programs. In addition, the group has released a benefit album and a film, both taken from last year's Tibetan Freedom Concert in New York. So far, these projects have brought in $1.25 million for the group.
"We educate through the tools of youth culture, because we're all pretty young in the office," says Potts, 25.
Tibet and Buddhism have become enormously hip of late. Not only are there high-profile celebrity Buddhists, such as Richard Gere and Tina Turner, but Hollywood has gotten into the act in the past year, releasing Tibet-oriented films including Martin Scorsese's "Kundun" and the Brad Pitt project "Seven Years in Tibet."
But the musicians and activists involved in the Freedom Concert are fairly sanguine about the role celebrity is playing in Tibetan activism.
"We're not going to shove [our message] down their throats," says Potts. "We're going to give them a good concert, have an environment where they can have good, clean, safe fun and where they can also learn something.
"So whatever their motivation is in coming to the concert -- whether they care about Tibet or human rights, or their favorite band is on the bill -- it doesn't matter. Because in the end they are going to learn something and hopefully take action for Tibet."
Besides speakers from Tibet, the concert will feature information tents, banners and roving Tibetan monks and nuns.
"It's an opportunity for me to promote the cause of Tibet and to use my celebrity position for some kind of positive end," says Sean Lennon, whose parents, John Lennon and Yoko Ono, were also noted celebrity activists.
Adds Potts: "The artists are very committed to the cause. Year-round, they're making themselves available to do various different actions on behalf of the Tibetan people, which is really encouraging. They're not just there for the party, although it's a very fun day for everybody."
"The Dalai Lama is a very sympathetic individual," says Mills. "He doesn't mind working the pop music angle to advance his cause. What he's after is awareness and to put pressure on the Chinese government. The best way to get awareness is through mass media, and rock and roll is about as mass-media as it gets."
Youth movements work
That rock and roll is largely aimed at youth is all for the better, argues Lennon. "Historically, student movements have been successful in changing the politics of the world," he says, citing student movements against apartheid and the war in Vietnam.
"Countries like America have a lot of influence on the global community, and I think that protesting in America will have a ripple effect throughout the world," he says. "The more that kids find out about it, the more students find out about it, the more they will protest. And the more they protest, the more the governments will have to listen and do something about it."
That includes the U.S. government.
"The reason for us bringing the concert to Washington was very specifically to force President Clinton and Congress to take action for Tibet," says Potts. In addition to the concert, there will also be a rally Monday -- which Milarepa has dubbed a National Day of Action for Tibet -- on the Capital Lawn.
Coincidentally, the concert and rally will take place just before President Clinton leaves for a state visit to China. The Milarepa activists hope that the mass audience at the concert, plus the 25,000 expected to attend the rally on Monday, will push Tibet higher on the president's agenda.
"We want him to really make a push to secure negotiations between the Chinese government and the Dalai Lama," says Josh Schrei, direct action coordinator for Milarepa.
Schrei points out that the Clinton administration did mention negotiation with the Dalai Lama when Chinese president Jiang Zemin visited Washington in November.
"But we want to make a really strong push for negotiations, because we feel that it is within President Clinton's power to make these negotiations happen. We have so much leverage with China that we're just afraid to use."
"We support a dialogue between the Chinese government and the Dalai Lama," said a State Department official, who declined to say whether the president would pressure the Chinese on the issue during his visit. The official also stated, "The president seeks to preserve the unique cultural, linguistic and religious heritage of Tibet."
However, the official declined to support Milarepa's goal of a free and autonomous Tibet. "The U.S. position is basically that we recognize Tibet as part of China. The U.S. has never recognized an independent Tibet, nor has any other western nation."
Potts, though, deeply believes her organization can change that. "I think that the day will come very soon when we'll be able to put on the Tibet Is Free concert," she says. "In a couple years, we're going to be able to look back and be very proud of our involvement at the concert, because we will have saved Tibet."
Tibetan Freedom Concert
When: Saturday and Sunday; music begins at noon each day
Where: RFK Stadium, Washington
Tickets: Sold out
The rally: noon-2: 30 p.m. Monday
Where: Capital Lawn, Washington
Music for peace
Here is the tentative running order for the Tibetan Freedom Concert:
The Dave Matthews Band
Herbie Hancock & the Headhunters
A Tribe Called Quest
The Beastie Boys
Pub Date: 6/11/98