Braving overcast skies and stiff winds, 100,000 people descended on San Francisco's Golden Gate Park during the weekend of June 15 for the largest rock & roll benefit show since 1985's Live Aid. The Tibetan Freedom Concert featured 20 acts, including alternative-rock leading lights the Beastie Boys, Rage Against the Machine, Smashing Pumpkins, Red Hot Chili Peppers and Fugees, as well as such veterans as Yoko Ono, bluesman John Lee Hooker and Woodstock alum Richie Havens.
The benefit raised $800,000 for the Milarepa Fund, an organization founded by Adam Yauch of the Beastie Boys to focus attention on Tibet's struggles under Chinese domination. Tibet was invaded in 1950 by the Chinese government, which has since pursued a policy of cultural genocide and human-rights violations, destroying monasteries, resettling Chinese citizens in the region and brutalizing the Tibetans who remained there. In the 46 years since the invasion, an estimated 1 million Tibetans have been killed and hundreds of thousands imprisoned.
"If everyone focuses simultaneously on this one issue, then Tibet will quickly become free," said Yauch, who, while hiking in the Himalayas in 1992, became interested in the Tibetan plight after meeting and talking with some of the country's refugees. "This can become a springboard for change all over the world and exemplify nonviolent struggle and using compassion to stop hatred." Yauch added that the Free Tibet movement "is not pro-Tibetan, and it's not anti-Chinese – it's pro-justice."
The concerts, which were alcohol-free, came off without any major disturbances, although incongruities abounded. The monks and nuns in attendance were essentially guests of honor at an event that attracted alternative-rock fans mostly in their teens and early 20s. Each day, the shows were opened and closed with a chanted prayer by the Buddhist monks, who waved and smiled as they strolled between a tent set up as a makeshift monastery and the backstage area, where a slew of celebrities, including Tom Waits, Krist Novoselic, Goldie Hawn and Kurt Russell, mingled with the performers.
A surplus of onstage anomalies occurred as the bill mixed generations and genres with impunity. One moment the 76-year-old bluesman Hooker led a cranked-up band through his trademark electric boogie; the next, A Tribe Called Quest were rolling out the funk. After a rock-steady performance by the Skatalites gave the crowd a taste of the skipping ska beat the band helped create, Björk pranced barefoot through a musically ambitious set of breezy trip-hop. Biz Markie, De La Soul and Fugees all fought off the cold breeze with heated hip-hop beats. The audience was so keyed up by the time Fugees came on that even the group's lilting "Killing Me Softly" inspired crowd surfing.
It was Foo Fighters, however, who really got the mashers in high gear, with a raging set highlighted by their hit "I'll Stick Around." Bands that performed earlier in the day, such as Sonic Youth and the Japanese avant-pop group Cibo Matto, provided standout sets. Pavement played it loose with a cover-heavy performance that included "No More Kings," from the Schoolhouse Rocks! compilation, and the Velvet Underground's "What Goes On." And Beck injected some comic relief into the proceedings. About midway through the second day, the bushy-haired hip-hop folkie sent bursts of harmonica over the crowd as he goofed through an acoustic set, tinkering every now and then with his beatbox. Gazing out toward the monastery tent several hundred yards away and framed by 150-foot-tall trees, Beck inquired playfully, "Can you feel my rhythm here? Is it deep enough for all of the people way in the back?"
Enjoyable as some of those daytime acts were, it was the big guns that received the most fervent audience reception. A lumbering first-night appearance by Smashing Pumpkins was followed by the Beasties, who raged through a robust sampling of hip-hop and punk. The mosh pit was never more hazardous than on Day 2, when Rage Against the Machine powered through "Bullet in Your Head" and "Killing in the Name." Red Hot Chili Peppers then took it all home with a hit-heavy show that ended with the testosterone-fueled "Give It Away," an ironic lead-in for the monks' closing blessing.
Several speakers, among them Tibetan holy man Palden Gyatso and Robert Thurman, a professor of Buddhist studies at Columbia, appeared between the performances, calling for action and a boycott of Chinese-made products. The pierced and tattooed crowd was surprisingly attentive as Gyatso graphically described his 33 years of torture and degradation at the hands of the Chinese.
Gregg W. Perloff, president of Bill Graham Presents, which put on the shows, was impressed with the respect shown by the audience and performers alike: "Basically they said, 'Yeah, we're going to party all day long, but for a few moments, we're going to give these guys a chance to tell us what this is all about.' Here were people talking to 50,000 people a day for five, eight, 10 minutes!"
The fens weren't the only ones who got an education. De La Soul's Posdnuos, who confessed he knew little about Tibet prior to the weekend, appeared stunned as Gyatso spoke matter-of-factly of his imprisonment and abuse; Posdnuos promised to take the cause back to the rap community after the event was over. For Björk, the message was that "in a world where we're becoming more and more connected with things like, for example, the Internet and all these things, we need to recognize the specialities of small groups. They have a right to be what they are."
"It was an amazing event," Yauch said afterward, "but it was really just the beginning. I feel like we're just starting to get a little bit of attention from some corporations and elected officials. It's starting to make people think about our involvement in this, but it needs to be hammered home."
On the Monday morning after the concerts, Yauch and Erin Potts, the 24-year-old director of Milarepa, were arrested along with eight others for blocking traffic in front of the Chinese consulate in San Francisco. No charges were filed, however, and Potts was impressed with the well-rehearsed manner in which the city's police department handled the civil disobedience. "Basically they just put us in a paddy wagon and hauled us away," Potts said of the incident, which was attended by a crowd of 500, including Mike Watt, Porno for Pyros' Perry Farrell and Red Hot Chili Peppers' Flea. "One of the police officers actually gave us his business card and said. 'If you have another demonstration, request us. We love working with you.'"
"I just kept thinking, 'My god, we're doing this nonviolent protest and we're all right,'" added Yauch. "How lucky we are to be able to do that, and how important it is for Americans and Europeans and Japanese to use the freedom that we have to bring freedom to Tibet and China." (The following week, Yauch flew to Washington, D.C., to speak at a briefing sponsored by the Congressional Working Group on China and the Congressional Human Rights Caucus.)
Yauch, who along with his fellow Beasties created controversy with their bratty "(You Gotta) Fight for Your Right (to Party)" attitude, is today a student of Buddhism. When describing the appreciation the Tibetans bestowed upon him, the Beastie Boy became emotional. "When the monks went onstage and delivered that prayer after the first day, they walked up to me and started to shake my hand and stuff," Yauch recalled. "This one nun came up to me, and she had tears pouring down her face." He paused for a moment, and his eyes misted over. "I was so blown away by that."
This story is from the August 8th, 1996 issue of Rolling Stone.