In the 1970s and 80s, a group of musicians got together with Amnesty International and began putting on a series of concerts with the purpose of highlighting human rights violations throughout the world. Last night, for the first time since 1988, Amnesty brought human rights home by hosting a giant, star-studded concert at the Barclay’s Center in New York in support of Russian activists, Pussy Riot.
At the press conference prior to the show, Steven W. Hawkins, the Executive Director of Amnesty International, said that the purpose of this concert was two-fold: to raise awareness about human rights issues such as torture, the death penalty, and the suffering of political prisoners, as well as pass the torch to a new generation of artists and musicians, so that they might bring people together, the way U2, Bruce Springsteen and Sting did in the 1980s.
Photo: Pussy Riot members Nadya Tolokonnikova and Masha Alyokhina at the press conference before the concert (Getty).
Members of Pussy Riot, the Russian group that was arrested two years ago for performing a song that criticized president Vladimir Putin, were the special guests of the evening. At the press conference, they urged the importance of using the power of music to do good.
“A musician must bear social responsibility,” they said. “Music must sing not only about sunshine and love. We must also sing about politics, and we must sing about people who don’t have a voice.”
Standing up for those without a voice was the theme of the evening, and it has also been Amnesty’s mission all along. Amnesty International is the largest grassroots human rights organization in the world, with over 3 million supports in 150 countries. In the 50 years since they’ve been around, they’ve helped to free political prisoners, end the death penalty in several countries, and spread awareness about human rights violations such as torture, and discrimination. They’ve been pivotal not only in supporting activists, but in changing the way regular people can get involved in activist movements.
Photo: Bruce Springsteen (center), Tracy Chapman, Sting and others at the “Human Rights Now” concert in 1988 (Getty).
In 1988, the group put on the “Human Rights Now” tour, which, according to its site, “commemorated the 40th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Performers included Bruce Springsteen, Tracy Chapman and Sting. The tour visited 19 cities in 15 countries in Africa, the Americas, Asia and Europe and was viewed by millions when broadcast on Human Rights Day. As a direct result, Amnesty International membership rose in many countries.”
Last night’s show at Barclay’s was a continuation of the idea that concerts have the power to bring people together, spread awareness, and show support to those in need. Performers included The Cold War Kids, The Flaming Lips, Blondie, Tegan and Sara, Lauryn Hill, Imagine Dragons and more.
Photo: Imagine Dragons at Amnesty International Concert at Barclays Center (Liz Parsons).
Before every performance, a video was shown that depicted a human rights issue, such as the death penalty, or torture. The inspiring clips were meant to show how average people can make a huge difference, and possibly even change the world.
Photo: Tegan and Sara performing at Amnesty Concert at Barclays Center (Getty).
Madonna, a long time supporter of human rights, particularly LGBTQ issues, took the stage to introduce the women from Pussy Riot. She spoke about being in Russia at the same time the women were sentenced, receiving death threats and being told that her concert “promoted gay propaganda.”
Photo: Madonna at the Amnesty International Concert At Barclays Center (Liz Parsons).
“I was accused of promoting homosexuality, which is something I sometimes do,” joked Madonna. “And I was sued for a million dollars, and 87 members of my audience were arrested. … I’ve always considered myself a freedom fighter, and I’ve definitely paid for speaking my mind, but that’s OK. I am so lucky to live in a country where I can speak my mind. I don’t take this freedom for granted, and neither should you.”
Photo: Madonna introducing Members of Pussy Riot at Amnesty International Concert at Barclays Center (Getty).
When Nadya Tolokonnikova and Masha Alyokhina, two members of Pussy Riot, took the stage, they thanked everyone in attendance, as well as Amnesty International, for supporting them and helping free them from jail. But more importantly, they thanked the people who remembered them, thought about them and sent them letters.
“Those letters kept us alive,” they said. “When we were behind bars, we had no voice, and you gave us a voice. Now it is our duty to give a voice to those who are still in the dark. We must stand by these people and support them.”
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