despite what the media tells us about the rampant cynicism, apathy and
slacker work ethic of so-called Generation X, there are some
twentysomethings out there who have managed to avoid those self-fulfilling
stereotypes and keep their idealism intact.
I, unfortunately, am not one of them.
So when I went to meet the organizer behind the biggest alternative
music benefit concert of the year (and possibly of the decade), I
expected to find a hippie throwback dressed in too much turquoise jewelry
and a tie-dyed potato sack who was going to tell me about the "epiphany"
she had while traveling in Asia looking for cool stuff to sell at Dead
Instead, I met 23-year-old Erin Potts, the poised and articulate co-founder of the Milarepa Fund, a San Francisco-based organization
"dedicated to the promotion of universal compassion through music."
Potts, along with co-founder Adam Yauch of the Beastie Boys and a staff of
six others, has brought together some of the biggest names in alternative
and hip-hop music to perform a two-day Tibetan Freedom Concert in San
Francisco's Golden Gate Park on June 15 and 16 in an effort to raise
awareness of the political and human rights abuses by the Chinese
government in Tibet.
Sitting on the rooftop of Milarepa's North Beach headquarters sporting a
black jacket, blue jeans, pole-climbers and a tiny silver stud nose-ring,
Potts looked like she could have just stepped off the set of MTV's "The
Real World," with one crucial difference -- a sense of purpose. As she
described in detail the history of Tibet and its struggle with China, and
Milarepa's plans to help fund other Tibetan support organizations
worldwide, it became clear that Potts has as much substance as she does
"It just kind of came together," Potts explained, seeming a little
surprised herself at what has evolved from a conversation she had with
Yauch several years ago in Nepal. "We've been trying to get it together for
a couple of years, and finally around January we said, 'Let's just go for
it.' It's kind of weird how things have been going so smoothly."
Yauch was so inspired by the Tibetan people and their religious culture
that he wrote two songs on the last Beastie Boys album,
"Ill Communication." He recruited Potts to help him donate royalties to Tibetan advocacy
groups and sponsor future benefits.
"We asked a lot of people, and then all of a sudden, we realized that
this was turning into one of the biggest alternative/hip-hop shows ever put
together," said Potts. "I think a lot of them were excited by Adam's
enthusiasm for the cause, but didn't know much about it."
To be sure, of the more than 20 groups on the bill (bands like the Beasties, The
Smashing Pumpkins, De La Soul, the Foo Fighters, Pavement, Cibo Matto, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Fugees, Bjork, and Sonic Youth), few are recognized for their ardent activism. (A notable exception: Yoko Ono, mother of the "Think Globally, Act Locally" philosophy, who will perform with her son Sean Lennon and his band IMA.) But many artists were eager to get involved once they learned of the abuses that have taken place in Tibet since China invaded the country in 1949.
Potts' hope is that people attending the concert will have the same
inclinations. But as anyone who has ever been to a festival concert knows, people are there mostly for the music, and "reaching a higher consciousness" generally has pharmaceutical connotations. Even if people do stop to listen to the "message" being espoused by the benefit organizers, it's usually when they're standing in line for the bathroom and have nothing better to do.
Laughing at that image, Potts admitted that a rock concert can be a pretty weird environment, especially for the spiritually evolved. "I acted as a guide for eight Tibetan monks who opened and closed every show of the 1994 Lollapalooza tour. I mean, it's a hard enough place for me to deal, but these monks were like 'Body piercing?' But I learned a lot about incorporating education into that kind of environment. People who have two eyes are going to learn something at this concert."
Moved by her enthusiam, I tried to suppress the memory of Live Aid, where for one weekend in 1985, it seemed possible that we really might eradicate world hunger. Instead, we were left with the images of a depressed and disillusioned Bob Geldof, truckloads of undeliverable food, and a flurry of attention-seeking artists who continue to contribute some really bad music to various benefit albums (after all, there's no better balm for massaging the tortured egos of artists than singing a few rounds of "We Are the World" and then calling it a day).
What if the same thing happens here? Just as much of the Live Aid crowd misinterpreted "We are the World" to mean "We --we Americans, we Westerners, we who camped out for these tickets -- we are the World" and left that concert with bellies full of beer and sated consciences, it's possible that people will leave the Tibetan Freedom Concert having learned little more than a groovy new way to meditate.
Potts countered my skepticism once again. "The Dalai Lama wants the Tibetan culture to be preserved because it has so much to give to humanity at large. If you look at it that way, it's not a bad thing that Westerners are taking from the culture. It's unfortunate that more Westerners aren't giving back to the Tibetan people, but I don't see it as a huge problem."
Still, it remains to be seen whether Tibet will turn out to be just another cause du jour. But having spent eight years studying, organizing and working towards a free Tibet, it is clear that Potts' dedication transcends trendiness, even as she uses that trendiness as a means to an end.
"People who have the attention of the media, like Richard Gere and others, have been able to promote the Tibetan cause. And they have done wonders for it. That's the way people are going to know about it. I think the reason why Westerners are interested in Tibet and in Tibetan Buddhism is because there are ideas that are part of our religious and cultural heritage that we've forgotten, or that we don't celebrate as much. So that when we look at Tibetan society and we see the non-violence, the total respect for all life, we recognize that these are lessons that we've forgotten."
Woodstock veteran Richie Havens, who was using music as a consciousness-raising tool long before many of his fellow performers in the Tibetan Freedom Concert lineup were even born, sees these shows as part of a new wave of youth activism.
"I was born into the fact that music can make a difference. And not just to educate, but to advance ideas," said Havens by phone from New York. "We were the ones who invented rock and roll. That was music written in defense of my whole generation. It's the forum of a generation. What we're hearing from the younger ones now is what is going on in their world."
"When you look at any movement, whether it's the anti-apartheid
movement, or the environmental movement, or the civil rights or anti-war movements, young people have always been at the center... They've always been the ones to effect change," she said. "It's the young people, when they get involved in a cause, that make the cause winnable. Realizing that, as well as being able to use the tools of our culture, like music, and the Internet, we can really get a mass movement of young people involved. And when people speak loud enough, that's when Tibet
will be freed."
But what about those raucous people who'll be standing sweaty and shirtless at the concert, with fists raised yelling "Yeah! Free Those Fuckers!" as they swill Bud Light from their less righteous clutches? Does "universal compassion" extend to them as well?
"Well...Buddha said..." she paused to look at me, by this time
anticipating my doubt. For a second I thought her eyes might glaze over and she would start speaking in some unrecognizable tongue. But instead she laughed and, with only the slightest hint of irony, warned me, "I'm going to quote the Buddha now: 'You have to be a goldsmith. You have to look at the piece of gold, inspect it, find the flaws, cut them out and keep what is good, and what is valuable to you.' And he said, 'This is what you have to do with my words.' I think that's true -- we have to really examine hard, and we have to take what we can use of it."