Peter Gabriel: Can I Get a Witness?

Music Features Peter Gabriel

Since words were first set to music, there have always been protest songs. But there may be none more pointed or influential than Peter Gabriel’s “Biko.” Although other artists had already lamented martyred, nonviolent anti-apartheid activist Stephen Biko, it was Gabriel’s haunting anthem that taught the early MTV generation about the racial ills of South Africa. The song was also responsible for some of the biggest names in popular music using their medium for a greater good. While other artists left their activism to lyrics alone, Gabriel—along with Bono, Bruce Springsteen and Sting—began promoting awareness of Amnesty International on tour.

“It wasn’t a conscious choice,” says Gabriel about finding himself at the center of the worldwide fight for human rights. “Bono called and told me that U2 had learned about apartheid and Africa from the ‘Biko’ song. He insisted I join Amnesty’s USA Conspiracy of Hope tour, and for the first time I found myself face-to-face with people who’d been tortured or seen loved ones killed for defending human rights. Everyone involved in those tours was humbled and changed by participating.”

Gabriel has never been afraid to put his time and money where his mouth is. But there’s a fine line for a performer between raising awareness and pontificating.

“Your first job is to play the music,” he says. “Artists who have something to say about real issues can introduce ideas and information without having to preach. I resent when I’m being told what to do at a concert. A big part of our usefulness to any cause is in the publicity that can be generated and the attention that we can bring to issues. Although some people only have a casual interest in the issues, most of the musicians I know do their homework. It’s sometimes the public jostling of politicians that moves things along. In Africa now, there’s a growing feeling against the concept of aid, which implies the strong helping the weak, which some feel is disrespectful. Practical local support in such areas as micro-loans, commercial investment and, most especially, the spread of mobile phones with access to the Internet are transforming the developing world, accelerating what is already happening—‘As and when it is requested’ is a better way to go.’”

It’s the rapid deployment of technology in developing nations that spurred Gabriel into Act Two of his ongoing endeavor for social justice. By helping form Witness, a group that uses video and the Internet to spotlight human-rights violations, Gabriel has begun empowering victimized people with tools to demonstrate abuse, advocate debate and promote changes in policy. If a picture is worth a thousand words, a video can change an entire nation. “It was very shocking to talk to people who had suffered horrible experiences, and then to discover that their stories had effectively been denied, buried and forgotten. Whenever there was either good video and photographic evidence or filmed first-hand accounts it was much, much harder for those in power to hide what was going on. I proposed to the Reebok Human Rights Foundation the setting up of an organization that could give out video cameras. The third time I made the proposal, the Rodney King incident had just happened and everyone finally understood just how powerful a tool video could be. It attracts much more attention and often makes a deeper emotional connection with people. Time after time, good, written evidence has been ignored by the media or governments. When a Witness partner has produced a short and powerful video on the same issue, there is often immediate action.”

But Gabriel faces another challenge in raising awareness on a global scale. His observation that human rights are like the polar ice caps, “melting fast,” underlies the fact that, currently, the world’s conscience seems to be focused more on the environment than human rights. But Gabriel is hopeful for that pendulum to swing. “Fashion will float around as it always does,” he says. “People simply need to see results, which is why I’m really excited about the Hub that Witness is creating. It’s a sort of YouTube for Human Rights that will allow anyone to upload their stories so the world can see what is really going on and make fast and personal connections with people who can influence and change what’s happening.”

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