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Tibetan Freedom Concerts

New York’s Beastie Boys spread a message of nonviolence and freedom through their fourth annual benefit concert to Free Tibet.

Who would have guessed back in 1986 that three cocky New York punks screaming about cheap sex and drinking Brass Monkey would one day be the spokesmen for the promotion of compassionate non-violence?

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As unlikely as it may seem, that is exactly what the Beastie Boys have become. In conjunction with the Milarepa Fund, a San Francisco-based non-profit organization dedicated to the promotion of universal compassion and nonviolence, the three reigning kings of white hip-hop have made the Tibetans’ non-violent attempt to take back their country a cause of international prominence. Thanks in part to the annual Tibetan Freedom Concerts – and participating artists like Tracy Chapman, Rage Against the Machine and Alanis Morissette it is now quite chic to support the effort to free the Tibetan people from 50 years of Chinese occupation.

“When your struggle is a non-violent one you often don’t make it onto the front page of the newspaper,” says Erin Potts, Milarepa Fund executive director and co-founder. “When your cause is a violent one you always make it on the front page. The Tibetans have chosen to make a non-violent stance in their attempts to get their country back so they have to find another way to do that. And one thing celebrities are really good at is drawing media attention.”

Potts points out that the media is quick to cover violent uprisings occurring around the globe, but the Buddhist inspired non-violent means of protest employed by the Tibetan people have really only come to the public’s attention since the Beastie Boys began their public campaign less than years ago. Part of Milarepa’s goal is to educate the world’s youth about the value of non-violent protest.

“It’s unfortunate,” Potts says. “People question why Columbine High School could happen. They don’t realize that nobody in our society embraces non-violence. We’re always embracing violence. If you want to get on the front page, just pick up a gun.”

The Beastie Boys cofounded the 1994 launch of the Milarepa Fund, an organization named after 11th century Tibetan Saint Jetsun Milarepa. In conjunction with about 100 other non-profit organizations, Milarepa’s goal is to promote compassionate non-violence through education, fund raising and direct action. Their most recent action was thwarted late last month when the World Bank decided to go through with its plan to finance the population transfer of 58,000 Chinese Han and Hui people into a Tibetan and Mongol autonomous region despite Milarepa-related protests.

Milarepa and the Beastie Boys started the Freedom Concerts in 1996 to get their cause onto the front page. They have brought together huge names from the worlds of rock, hip-hop and folk to advocate the freedom of Tibet. Past concerts have been held over two days in one location, like last summer’s two Washington D.C. concerts intended to influence President Clinton before his visit to China. This year, however, four concerts were held simultaneously on June 13 in Alpine Valley, Wisconsin; Amsterdam; Sydney; and Tokyo.

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The concerts showcased an impressive bill that included the likes of Pearl Jam‘s Eddie Vedder, REM, Rage Against the Machine, Tracy Chapman, the new (old) Blondie and of course, the Beastie Boys. Potts says that in addition to their work at the concerts, some of the celebrities also help by signing petitions and writing letters to the President.

“Alanis Morissette, Thom Yorke, Ben Harper, Eddie Vedder, all the REM guys, they’re just all really good people,” Potts says. “I think this whole celebrity thing makes us overlook the fact that they’re good people, and then we get surprised when they go out and they do something that’s good. It gives me hope that we can survive all this craziness with people like that out there.”

Many critics say the concerts do little to further the Tibetan cause. Just last February the US State Department reported that it found “no improvement” in China’s human rights policies, and “serious persecution” in Tibet. But Potts says the concerts have a definite impact. Aside from the money they help generate — Milarepa has donated over $800,000 to various non-profit organizations — they also have added strength to the grassroots movement by increasing membership in the active organizations.

“The first year, in particular, there was quite a spike,” Potts says. “Before that concert there were only 80 chapters of an organization we work with called Students for a Free Tibet. Two months after the concert, before school even started, there were over 300. That kind of growth is unbelievable, for non-profit. You don’t grow that fast. You just don’t do it.”

We probably are still a ways off from the day where China gives the Tibetan people their freedom. It seems as if the international community is more worried about its trade policies with the upcoming superpower China than it is about the Tibetan movement. But as long as there are organizations like the Milarepa Fund and artists like the new and improved Beastie Boys, this issue is not going away. And if you need proof that Chinese officials are feeling the pressure, just ask one.

“The premier of China was recently here in the US,” Potts says, “And he said, ‘Wherever I go, two people follow me, the press and Tibet protesters.'”

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