‘A Hero for Me’: Peter Gabriel on His Long Friendship With Jimmy Carter
Peter Gabriel first learned about former U.S. President Jimmy Carter in Rolling Stone. He doesn’t remember the exact date, but a 1975 article about Georgia’s Allman Brothers Band and their support for Carter’s presidential campaign is likely what caught his eye.
“I’ve always been interested in American politics, and I was fascinated to read that the Allman Brothers had played a critical role in getting some early funding for this ‘peanut farmer with principles,’” Gabriel reminisces on a recent Zoom call from his Real World Studios in Southwest England. “And I was curious from then on.”
The photo accompanying that Rolling Stone story showed a grinning candidate Carter, surrounded by a dozen microphones in Washington, D.C., on Aug. 14, 1975, as he announced his qualification for federal matching funds. The next day in London, 25-year-old Gabriel also made an announcement: In a public letter, he left the progressive rock band Genesis to care for his baby daughter, “absorb a wide variety of experiences,” and not be “tied to the old hierarchy.”
From there, similar personal missions took both men from their family farms to untold corners of the Earth: Carter became POTUS; cavorted with rock stars; co-founded the Carter Center with his wife, Rosalynn; won the Nobel Peace Prize; and visited more than 145 countries. Gabriel wrote megahits, put global music on the map with the WOMAD festival, innovated a citizen video project called Witness, became a Nobel Man of Peace, and was inducted twice into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.
Neither Gabriel nor Carter imagined the other would appear on his dance card. Then the two met.
In the summer of 2006, Gabriel and Virgin Records founder Richard Branson cajoled the then 81-year-old former president from his one-story ranch house in Plains, Georgia, to a bungalow on Necker Island. “He was absolutely on the short list from the word go,” Gabriel says of Carter’s inclusion in the formation of the Elders, a council of former heads of state that he and Branson assembled with the blessing of Nelson Mandela to broker peace and solutions to countries in crisis.
“Archbishop [Desmond Tutu] and I went along with about 30 or 40 other people to talk about the early plans of possibilities for the group,” Carter said in a 2012 interview. “We disagreed with a lot of it.”
“We had this one meeting on the beach, I remember, with [Carter] under the shade of the palm trees there,” Gabriel tells Rolling Stone of the 2006 Caribbean retreat. “And he said, ‘I don’t think this is gonna work.’ You know, a similar sort of approach to Mandela, [thinking it was] a bunch of has-beens trying to influence the current affairs. It seemed like a flaky idea to [Carter].
“Rather than just criticize the plan, Carter joined forces with Arch [Tutu] to make it better,” Richard Branson says in an email. “I remember trying to get their conversation on tape so we would not miss a word. So we strung a microphone in the tree, and when we got the recording back, all we could hear were birds singing. Arch chuckled and said it must have been divine intervention.”
While Gabriel says he and Branson used different approaches to teach Tutu how to swim in one of the island’s infinity pools, they were unified in convincing Carter that a group of leaders with independence and agency could act as traveling elders to a “global village” and demonstrate the power of conflict resolution in a world quickly losing its trust in institutions.
Gabriel laughs at the suggestion that Carter’s hesitation in the first couple of days of the meeting was because he thought he might be subjected to swimming lessons. Perhaps Carter, like his fellow leaders in their golden years, was simply looking for “strength in numbers,” Gabriel says. “To find that companionship of like-minded souls, I think, is what brought him around.” Branson said in a 2010 interview that “[Carter] was “completely captivated by the idea [of the Elders]” after retooling the concept. “He realized that they can do things that maybe the United Nations can’t.”
“The cliché of ‘the voice for the voiceless’ is partly what drew [all] the elders in,” Gabriel says. “Jimmy has always gone for the underdog, like with the incredible work he’s done with forgotten diseases that were never going to be commercial enough for the big drug companies.”
Branson says some of his “most treasured memories” include travels to Brazil and Egypt with Carter and the impact the former president — whom he calls “a moral giant” — made on the people he encountered. Gabriel says the original members of the group including Carter, Mandela, Tutu, Kofi Annan, former first lady of South Africa and Mozambique Graça Machel, and former president of Ireland Mary Robinson convened regularly and Carter “chipped in very occasionally” during discussions.
“As I got to know Jimmy Carter, he became a hero for me,” Gabriel says. “I’ve rarely met someone as devoted to service as he is and as principled as he is.”
The group launched in Johannesburg on Nelson Mandela’s 89th birthday in 2007, with Carter becoming an elder emeritus in 2016 and continuing his work at the Carter Center until he began hospice care at home in Georgia earlier this year at age 98.
Yet, even before Gabriel and Carter met through the Elders project, their connection could be traced to a pivotal event that took place during Carter’s time in the White House. Five weeks after Carter was sworn in as president of the United States on Jan. 20, 1977, Gabriel released his eponymous debut solo album. At the time, few of Gabriel’s songs could be considered political. That changed on Sept. 12, 1977, when Stephen Biko, a jailed South African anti-apartheid activist, died after a fatal beating by security forces in Pretoria.
The activist’s death led Gabriel to create his “calling card” for human rights, and he began writing the 1979 protest song “Biko.” It was used in advocating for Nelson Mandela’s 1990 release from prison; Gabriel sang it a cappella at the Elders’ launch in 2007; and in 2021 he joined an all-star version by Playing for Change.
Meanwhile, Biko’s death greatly affected President Carter. On Nov. 4, 1977, the U.N. voted for a mandatory arms embargo against South Africa. Back in Carter’s home state, Atlanta became a hotbed for discussions around economic divestments as anti-apartheid protests grew. Carter befriended Mandela in Ethiopia in 1990 and believed South Africa’s fight against racism, like America’s, was critical and would not be solved overnight.
Gabriel says Carter expanded the meaning of “apartheid” with his 2007 book about solutions for peace in the Middle East called Palestine: Peace, Not Apartheid. In 2009 and 2010, Carter and the Elders traveled to the region to meet with civil representatives during the Israeli-Palestinian talks. “That is one of the issues I feel very strongly about,” Gabriel says. “[Carter] was never afraid to speak out and use the word ‘apartheid,’ which is often what gets people into a lot of trouble. I admired his bravery on that issue and many others.”
Gabriel also admires Carter for his strong views on religion, although they are opposite his own. The two bonded over church music, particularly hymns. “We had a conversation once about church music,” Gabriel says. “Obviously, Carter’s [Christian] faith is a huge part of his life, and, you know, I’m not religious at all. But … church music has been and still is an influence on what I do with my music.”
Although schedules kept Gabriel and Carter from sharing a musical stage, Carter has regularly joined Willie Nelson to sing “Amazing Grace,” quoted Bob Dylan lyrics, and, like Martin Luther King Jr. in the 1960s, counted the late gospel singer Mahalia Jackson among his favorites. Carter embraced Charles Mingus at a 1978 White House jazz party where he also performed “Salt Peanuts” with Dizzy Gillespie, moments that endeared him to Black voters.
While their childhoods were decades and continents apart, Gabriel’s taste for African rhythms and Carter’s exposure to gospel music gave them a natural affinity for people from other cultures and shaped their progressive views on race. “[Carter] had grown up as much in Black culture as in white, in a lot of ways,” Gabriel says. “And so I think he didn’t have that sort of natural discomfort that many white folk have.”
In 1982, Gabriel assembled the World of Music and Dance (WOMAD) festival with musicians from Nigeria, Jamaica, India, and China. But it was the success of his collaboration with Senegalese singer Youssou N’Dour on “In Your Eyes” from his 1986 album, So, that propelled Gabriel further into the spotlight in the fight against racism and the need for a global citizenry in the human rights movement.
Music and concerts became increasingly intertwined with charitable causes and human rights issues in the 1970s and 1980s, and both Gabriel and Carter share a deep admiration for the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
In December 1978, Carter commemorated the 30th anniversary of the Declaration by quoting its architect, Eleanor Roosevelt, and calling for Americans to rededicate themselves to “a common standard of achievement for all peoples of all nations.” In later years at the Carter Center, he asked staff to reference their pocket-size copies of the Declaration, likening it to reading his bible and considering the document a blueprint for peacemaking without the involvement of religion.
Gabriel’s 1986 jaunt on Amnesty International’s Conspiracy of Hope Tour brought him to Atlanta’s King Center; two years later the Human Rights Now concerts served as a celebration of the 40th anniversary of the Declaration of Human Rights.
Gabriel says he and then-Amnesty head Jack Healey enlisted “Sledgehammer” video director Stephen R. Johnson to bring the 30 Articles of the Declaration to life in a 20-minute animated film voiced by Debra Winger and Jeff Bridges, with music by Mark Mothersbaugh, Laurie Anderson, and David Byrne, among others. “I believed in the Declaration’s importance and how it needed to be better known,” Gabriel says. “Because many of the countries that had been signatories regularly failed to live up to what they’d signed.”
Carter has remained dedicated to expanding human rights throughout his career and public life. Gabriel says Carter “raised the game for ex-presidents” with his years of humanitarian work, building homes for Habitat for Humanity, his physical and mental stamina and “razor-sharp intelligence.” “To have been lucky enough to hang out with him a bit is a real privilege,” he adds.
Gabriel is happy to have honored the Carters in his opening remarks at one of Carter’s last events before the Covid-19 pandemic: In 2018, he appeared via video at the Carter Center’s Human Rights Defenders Forum, an event that brought together dozens of activists from 25 countries.
“This is where your work is respected and celebrated,” Gabriel told the audience near the end of his heartfelt speech. “This is a real human rights family, and the mother and father who created this particular family … have been an inspiration to me for many years … Jimmy and Rosalynn … thank you so much for everything you’ve done, and for bringing a truly bright light to a darkening world.”
When Gabriel finished, Carter flashed a smile as big as the one in the campaign photograph that appeared in the pages of Rolling Stone nearly half a century prior.
“As you can see,” Carter said proudly, “Peter Gabriel is a very good friend of mine.”
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