It’s Been a Long Time Coming

Asked by one reporter what a bunch of musicians were really going to be able to do for Tibet, both Thom Yorke and Sean Lennon went on the counterattack.

Kay Dougherty
1 November 1998

Saturday morning, June 14, the third annual Tibetan Freedom Concert in Washington, DC got off to a feisty start. The media was out in full force, with reporters jammed into the press tent and photographers pushing and shoving for a good shot. Asked by one reporter what a bunch of musicians were really going to be able to do for Tibet, both Thom Yorke and Sean Lennon went on the counterattack.

Sean Lennon stated flatly that he “resented” the question and insisted that he and the other artists were consciously using their celebrity as a vehicle to increase awareness about Tibet. Thom Yorke, of the band Radiohead, said, “There are a lot of really stupid reasons to become a rock star; this is one of the good ones.” He incorporated East Timor and other repressive political situations around the world into his discussion of Tibet, and ended by telling the press that they had “the responsibility to tell the truth.” Recently released Chinese political prisoner Wei Jingsheng and Tibetan Rhodes Scholar Tashi Rabgey spoke about the denial of human rights in China and Tibet respectively.

On the mainstage later that day, hip hop cornerstone KRS-One, self-proclaimed “blastmaster,” spoke emphatically to the crowd of how he had attended a public talk by the Dalai Lama just a few weeks earlier and thus felt compelled to convey the importance of keeping a warm heart and being compassionate towards all human beings and not being “anti-Chinese.” Shockingly, the first day of the concert came abruptly to a halt when a bolt of lightning struck the seats in RFK Stadium, injuring twelve people. The music stopped, people were asked to move away from the large television monitor screens, and the Weather Service was called to see if it would be safe to continue. It was determined that the lightning and rain would continue into the evening and it would not be safe to proceed with the performances. The capacity crowd of 60 thousand left the arena cold, wet and confused, some upset and demanding a refund.

Thunderstorms and lightning gave way to a warm and sunny day for Sunday’s concert. Canceled performances by bands such as REM were rescheduled for Sunday. Becky Schwartz, concert volunteer and Wesleyan University student, was enthralled by REM’s performance: “Thom Yorke’s performance of Patti Smith’s singing part in the REM song “E-Bow the Letter” was a moment of transcendent musical brilliance.” Less articulate attendees settled for adjectives like “cool” and “awesome.”

Show-stopping performances of the day included Wyclef Jean and Radiohead. Hip hop’s four-star generals, A Tribe Called Quest, captivated the crowd for the third year in a row. As expected, the Beastie Boys followed by Pearl Jam had everyone in RFK Stadium on their feet. The Red Hot Chili Peppers took to the stage using Pearl Jam’s equipment for a surprise set that had fans rushing back in from the exits.

The concert ended on a positive and energetic note, and the rally that followed was better than any of us could have hoped for. Monday, June 15, was a day of firsts for many of the people who found themselves on the west steps of the Capitol building in Washington, DC.

On this bright summer day, hundreds of young men and women–inspired by the weekend’s Tibetan Freedom Concert–were attending their very first political rally.

For many Tibetan refugees in the audience, it was the first time they would have an opportunity to meet with congressional representatives and talk officially about their oppression by the Chinese.

For some of the Republican and Democratic congressional representatives, it would be the first time they had come together to speak out in support of Tibet’s continued quest for self-determination.

But for activist and rock music mogul David Crosby, the mix of music, protest and politics was nothing new. On this morning, he looked something of the wise old grandfather as he rested on a large speaker to the right side of the platform looking out over the crowd, many of whom weren’t even born when Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young were at their peak of success.

“Excuse me, sir,” a young woman security guard said, tapping him on the shoulder. “Could you clear this area. I have an artist coming through here that needs to get on stage.” He turned to her with a mischievous smile and stated flatly, “I’m an artist, too!” The young woman was embarrassed, but still didn’t know to whom she was speaking. She turned and asked some older men around her if they knew him; they chuckled and explained his identity. Indeed the cause of Tibet seems to belong to a whole new generation of protesters.

Although Crosby was there to gather information for his new book, Stand and be Counted, which chronicles the history of music and political activism over the last forty years, someone asked him if he would be kind enough to perform. He walked over to Sean Lennon, son of John Lennon, and asked if he would join him for a song.

“It would be an honor,” Lennon replied, and within an hour they took the stage.

Smiling at the crowd, Crosby said, “I wasn’t supposed to be here on stage today. I came for the same reason you did-to be counted, to stand up for what you believe in. I am very proud to be here today exactly as you are. Somebody asked me if I would sing one song-I thought I might have one.” The twenty thousand plus crowd was filled with inspiration as they played “Long Time Coming,” and after the song was over Sean Lennon, a three-year veteran of the Tibetan Freedom Concerts, took the podium and spoke passionately about the importance of preserving the culture of Tibet.

I spoke with David Crosby a few days after the rally, and he commented on the “bittersweet feeling” of playing with Sean, his fascination with Adam Yauch’s commitment to the cause of Tibet, and his own feelings about Tibet. “I am not constructed so that I can just stand idly by and do nothing,” he said.

When I asked him how it felt watching this new generation of activists, he replied, “I was really very, very proud of everybody who was there, and as I was watching the young people there I knew that nobody needed an instruction book-it just came naturally to everybody.”

Indeed the National Day of Action rally for Tibet came off without a hitch. It was a day of impassioned music by artists such as REM and Thom Yorke, and powerful speeches from congressional representatives, human rights activists and members of the Tibetan government in exile, including the head of the Tibetan Parliament, Samdong Rinpoche.

The event culminated in a deeply personal and heartfelt speech by Richard Gere. He began by saying that the view of the enormous crowd gave him a chill, because he knew that Tibetans inside Tibet would hear about this event and gather so much strength and hope knowing that people all over the world cared deeply about their human rights.

Gere eloquently moved the issue of Tibet beyond the realm of economics, geography, diplomacy and politics and into the realm of non-violence and compassion for all of the universe. He invited everyone present to join him with His Holiness the Dalai Lama at the Potala Palace in Lhasa on the first day of the new millennium for the beginning of a whole new world.

The day was closed by the Venerable Soygal Rinpoche and Tibetan monks and nuns with prayers to generate bodhicitta, but emotions were still high after the event. People lingered about the field and the steps around the capitol. Hundreds continued chanting “Free Tibet”; a large group of people carrying Tibetan flags and banners formed and began to move towards the White House, where reportedly several arrests for civil disobedience occurred.

The rally was the essence of what the Milarepa Fund, in conjunction with other Tibetan support groups, has been working for over the past three years-building awareness and translating that awareness into action for the people of Tibet. All the rockstardom, glamour and good times at the Tibet Freedom Concerts ultimately made this National Day of Action for Tibet possible.

While the rally of 20,000 might seem small by comparison to the 128,000 tickets sold for the concert itself, it was in fact a major victory for the Tibet movement, which has seen unprecedented expansion in the last five years.

The International Campaign for Tibet (ICT) and Students for a Free Tibet (SFT), co-sponsors of the concert and rally, have both experienced a dizzying growth in membership and support. SFT will be going into its fourth year with close to 400 college and high school chapters in North America, and another 25 chapters in eleven countries around the world. Working together, ICT and SFT offered education about Tibet to concert-goers and gathered 7,000 postcards addressed to Chinese president Jiang Zemin expressing concern over the welfare of political prisoners such as the Panchen Lama and Chadrel Rinpoche. SFT also had information and postcards expressing concern about clothing manufacture Levi Strauss’ decision to resume operations in China, despite China’s abysmal treatment of its labor force.

As Clinton’s comments to Jiang Zemin proved the following week, the people do indeed have the power. Freedom for Tibet seems more possible than ever before, but as David Crosby reflected, “In regards to freedom for Tibet, I feel that debating whether it is a hopeless battle or not is really not the point. The point is that a truly evil empire is acting in a way that is blatantly wrong. They are crushing Tibet in no less a fashion than Hitler crushed Europe. Regardless of whether we are artists, activists or just the guy next door, we are all citizens and we all have a responsibility to take a stand against injustice.”

Taking a stand for Tibet . . . it’s been a long time coming. Looks like the wait is finally over.

Kay Dougherty

Kay Dougherty is national coordinator of Students for a Free Tibet.