A music festival can be great escapism. It can be used as a weekend getaway from everything going on in your life. It can also be an opportunity for discovery. With so many artists on one bill, you’re bound to come out having heard at least a few bands you weren’t familiar with before. Maybe even a new favorite. It can also be a source of inspiration, as was the case with my experience at this past weekend’s Global Citizen Festival in New York City. What sets this festival apart from the others is its call to action. In seven hours, fans were privy to performances from Coldplay, Ed Sheeran, Common, Ariana Grande, Beyonce and Pearl Jam, but even as the main attractions, they were almost an aside to the day. Between sets, with no downtime, we were treated to in-person speeches from Stephen Colbert (who hosted), Hugh Jackman, Michelle Obama, Joe Biden, Bill Gates, Bono, Leonardo DiCaprio, Salma Hayek, Kerry Washington, Sting, Ban Ki-Moon, Bill Nye, Richard Bronson, the heads of Google, Wikipedia and AOL, prime ministers and presidents, and maybe the most celebrated of the event, Malala Yousafzai, who has made it her mission to empower women and girls around the world, especially in the Middle East, with education after her own countrymen tried to silence her by shooting her in the head.
Set in Central Park, the tickets were free under the condition that you did something good for the world. Most attendees had sent petitions to the heads of countries like Zimbabwe, who will be removing the right for women to get an education, or sent in videos of themselves doing progressive things for the environment, or even something as simple as using their social profiles to spread the word about extreme world hunger, which the organization is trying to end by 2030. By gathering all of the world’s most powerful people, and empowering fans, they’re actually making a difference in getting water and sanitation improved in Third World countries, empowering underprivileged girls and women, and taking on the food crisis, effectively doing more than most any other organization. All through the power of music.
And let’s not discredit that power. The performances were outstanding, even if I didn’t care for the musician. Being in that kind of environment can go a long way in making bland music exciting, or at least tolerable. Yes, Sunidhi Chauhan’s first number made me realize that music can be generic in any language, but I was able to put my cynical side away for the evening. I mean, I can’t stand the Coldplay song “Every Teardrop Is A Waterfall,” but boy if I wasn’t shouting along. And Ed Sheeran, who I look at as a late holdover from the late 90s/early 2000s vanilla/cliché singer-songwriter era, had my complete attention while he stomped around his loop pedals. And everyone collaborated, too. The one that got the most attention came when Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder brought Beyonce back out for an incredible performance of Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song.” Who would have thought those two voices would blend so well together?
It’s not like it’s the first time music and activism have been paired, not by far. But it was honestly one of the first times I felt like it would carry over past that night, and that’s the most important point. I’ve been to plenty of shows where the artist would make a plea to Be The Change, but by Monday, we were all back to our routines. This is change is motion. This is change that’s happening, and it’s going to happen even more with our help. Sign those petitions, shout out loud, and do something, because every teardrop IS a waterfall, dammit. Or better yet, I’ll quote Pearl Jam’s “Undone”: “Change don’t come at once. It’s a wave building until it breaks.” We can help that wave break. I’m even doing my part by writing this article. Awareness is always the first step. So find whatever song you need to inspire you, kick out the jams, and help fix some of these problems. There are even some great local folks doing great things that you can be part of. (I recommend Forecastle Foundation). Because we’re all global citizens. We just need a little reminder every now and then.
Kyle Meredith is the music director of WFPK and host of the nationally syndicated “The Weekly Feed.” Hunting bears was never his strong point.