Throughout history, courageous and visionary people have sought to reflect what is universal about humanity. We call these people artists, whether they grasp a paintbrush or a microphone, publish photographs or books, because they create something that electrifies us. They are “gatekeepers of truth”, in the words of Paul Robeson, and truth is a burden to bear.
Take Saudi Arabian blogger, Raif Badawi, who received a sentence of 1,000 lashes and 10 years in prison for daring to spark social and political debate. Or artist Ai Weiwei, whose work exposing the limitations of expression imposed by the Chinese government has earned him beatings, stints in prison without charge, constant surveillance and restriction from leaving the country.
For actor and singer Robeson, his criticism of racial injustice earned him a blacklist at concert venues, recording labels and film studios. McCarthyist paranoia cost him his passport and the ability to work abroad.
That artists are often the first to be targeted in this manner says volumes about the transformative power of art.
Throughout history, the powerful have banned books, destroyed works, silenced voices and labeled creative expression as ‘subversive’ for its ability to move hearts when a power structure can only control bodies. And so, just as the artist herself depicts universal truths about humanity, her freedom depicts something important about freedom in our societies.
The role of the artist today is no different. Art for Amnesty brings together artists, musicians, writers, filmmakers and all types of creatives who help us navigate the complex human rights challenges we face today.
At “Gatekeepers of Truth”, an event named in honor of Robeson’s statement, artists shared works that grappled with a wide range of issues: mass incarceration, urban neglect, deportation, government surveillance, gender violence, just to name a few. By bringing them together under one roof, Art for Amnesty showcased what unites these diverse works: the struggle to uplift and defend human dignity.
Art for Amnesty is relaunching in the United States, decades after the program made a huge impact on a young Generation X.
In the 1980s, Art for Amnesty staged two all-star tours that spread awareness about human rights atrocities across the globe, featuring once-in-a-lifetime performances by U2, Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, Peter Gabriel, Sting, the Police, Joan Baez, Bryan Adams and many others. The first–a six-show US tour–made Amnesty a name among young Americans and inspired Sting to reunite the Police, who hadn’t performed anywhere since they broke up in early 1984.
The domestic tour being a smashing success, Art for Amnesty organized Human Rights Now!, an international tour celebrating with the 40th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Human Rights Now! took stars like Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, Sting, Peter Gabriel, Tracy Chapman and Youssou N’Dour to five continents and 15 countries–including many which rarely saw these types of shows, like Hungary, Costa Rica, India, Greece, Zimbabwe and Argentina.
Today, Art for Amnesty aims to reach a new generation with not only music, but art, film, fashion, and other creative endeavors. In the US and across the world, we face great challenges to human rights, to freedom of conscience and expression, but young people today have a strong desire to be a part of the kind of solution they want to see in the world.
Artists can help us envision that world, where the struggle to protect human dignity is a winning one. Art for Amnesty connects the gatekeepers, who have the power to show us the way ahead and call to action those that dare listen with an open heart.