The Beastie Boys were wrapping up a day of music at the Tibetan Freedom Concert at Alpine Valley Music Theater in rural Wisconsin. A June day that had begun in a relentless downpour, turning the hilly amphitheater into a mudslide for more than 32,000 concertgoers, ended in sunshine and celebration, with energetic sets by Rage Against the Machine, Eddie Vedder, Run-DMC and, finally, the Beasties.
Onstage, Adam Yauch – the Beastie who put Tibet on the map for many rap and rock fans – tried to put the day in perspective. “We hope you enjoyed the music,” he said. “But let’s not forget what this concert is about when you get home.”
A member of the audience quickly offered his own perspective on the alcohol-free event: “Have some beer, Yauch!”
Such basic differences have strained the relationship between music and activism for two decades. But for at least one day during each of the last four years, the two impulses have merged – thanks to the Beasties and the Milarepa Fund, an organization co-founded by Yauch to draw attention to Tibet’s struggle for freedom against China. This year’s festival was the most ambitious, with four concerts held on the same day in Alpine Valley, Tokyo, Amsterdam and Sydney. But the big question afterward was, Who noticed?
The 1998 festival, in Washington, D.C., with R.E.M. and the Dave Matthews Band, drew a capacity crowd of 120,000 people over two days and raised more than $1 million. A post-concert demonstration on the U.S. Capitol lawn was attended by 15,000. In comparison, this year’s four concerts drew 50,000 and raised a mere $150,000.
Milarepa’s Josh Schrei says the concerts are designed not to raise money, but awareness. “Our job,” he says, “is to make it easy for people to learn about Tibet and to take action. I think we’ve established a core of people who are now doing that.”
But the media weren’t as helpful this time in spreading the word. “It got a lot less attention this year,” said one TV executive. “Why? You do a concert on a political issue like Tibet in Washington with top-name acts, and then you hold it the next year in a rural location with fewer big-name acts – you might as well point a gun at your nuts and pull the trigger.”
Yet the Alpine Valley show continued to make new converts. “I came to see Rage and the Beastie Boys, but I found out this is a good cause,” said Jim Fitzgerald, 18, of Madison, Wisconsin, who forked over thirty-five dollars for a Milarepa membership. More significantly, 15,000 concertgoers signed a petition protesting the World Bank’s plan to loan China $160 million to relocate poor Chinese farmers to an area that Tibetans have historical ties to. Though China says the transfer is designed to alleviate poverty, environmentalists are concerned that it will damage fragile land, and human-rights advocates fear further dilution of the area’s Tibetan population.
Though the World Bank voted June 24th in favor of the project, it attached a few conditions, in response to what one watchdog group described as an unprecedented protest campaign by groups including Milarepa.
There is little doubt that more young people at least know about Tibet’s plight because of Milarepa’s efforts; now the Fund faces the task of re-energizing support in the face of declining attendance and fund-raising figures.
Yauch, for one, isn’t giving up. “Right now, doing the concerts is the most helpful thing we can do to help Tibet,” he says. “Sometimes it feels like you’re pushing a rock up a hill, but I think the end is always in sight. Think about apartheid or the Berlin Wall – situations that looked like they might never change, and then all of a sudden they did.”
This story is from the August 5th, 1999 issue of Rolling Stone.