Amnesty International and Ex-Pussy Riot Members Bring Human Rights Home

by | February 10, 2014 at 12:55 PM | Celebrity, Music

Maria Alyokhina and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, formerly of Pussy Riot (Photo: Neilson Barnard/Getty)

XFINITY.com editor Casey Condon gives a behind-the-scenes look at the Amnesty International Concert held at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center on February 5. 

Last Wednesday, Amnesty International held their first concert in 16 years to drum up support for their many human rights causes with a special focus on the current political situation in Russia. The event boasted an impressive roster of both musicians and celebrities, including Madonna, Susan Sarandon, Yoko Ono, Cake, Tegan & Sara and Imagine Dragons. The guests of honor for the evening were two former members of the Russian band Pussy Riot, who made headlines last year for their controversial imprisonment and subsequent release from jail in their home country.

The event began around 7:00 p.m., when crowds from all walks of life started pouring into Brooklyn’s Barclays Center to enjoy an eclectic mix of music and show their support. When I arrived at the concert, Colbie Caillat had already lit up the stage with her bubbly personality. She belted out a few fan favorites, including the emotional tune “Realize,” and followed by expressing her appreciation to Amnesty International. Immediately after Caillat’s set, Imagine Dragons lead singer Dan Reynolds took the stage to talk about being a part of the new generation of artists who aid Amnesty and play for social change, and then introduced The Fray. With an antique piano on stage, the band played “You Found Me” and ended with their breakout single, “How to Save a Life.”

As the concert transitioned to the next act, I took an opportunity to pop into the Calvin Klein VIP area where I found some of the artists and their crews had come out of the dressing rooms to play “knockout,” the gym class favorite basketball elimination game. I joined the game and was instantly “knocked out” of both rounds, but stuck around long enough to witness members of Imagine Dragons playing along with Lauryn Hill’s backup guitarists. As Tegan Quin (of Tegan & Sara fame) stopped by to spectate, it became clear to me that these artists were not here merely for a paycheck, but to fight for a good cause while enjoying the company of their fellow musicians.

When I returned to watch the show, Blondie was just finishing “Call Me,” and even after 40 years performing, they still put on an excellent show. The band was followed by an appearance from Susan Sarandon, who introduced Kerry Max Cook, a man aided by Amnesty International after he was wrongly put on Texas death row for rape and murder in 1977. His moving speech made the intentions of the event clear; this was not just a concert, but a rally for social change. The tone of the show quickly moved from serious to charmingly nonchalant as ’90s favorite Cake took the stage and played a short set, including “Short Skirt, Long Jacket.”

After Cake was finished, it was time for the highlight of the show – the former members of Pussy Riot. Before introducing the recently jailed musicians, Madonna took the stage for a few minutes to speak. After a humorous anecdote about the band’s moniker being used amongst her 8-year-old children, Madonna talked about her personal experience with anti-gay discrimination in Russia. Russian officials flagged her concerts as gay propaganda, she was threatened with imprisonment and many of the concert attendees were jailed. She spoke about how Pussy Riot was an inspiration during this time and she let the two band members take the stage.

Yoko Ono and The Flaming Lips perform (Photo: Neilson Barnard/Getty)

Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Maria Alyokhina, along with their translator, thanked Madonna and went right into telling their story of activism and imprisonment in Russian jails for singing anti-Vladimir Putin songs. They took the opportunity to call everyone in the audience to action and fight for freedom for the people of Russia. Although they were freed, Nadezhda and Maria stressed that there were still many who were being beaten and put behind bars in Russia for being themselves and speaking out against injustices. The pair then read a number of statements from imprisoned activists who were currently on trial. Hearing the words of these victims was one of the most impactful parts of the night and gave the cause a more personal feel. And just one day before the start of the controversial Sochi Olympics, their words and chants of “Russia will be free” couldn’t have been more relevant.

After their speech, the guests of honor went back to their seats and Imagine Dragons took the stage, thanking the former Pussy Riot members and playing a few fan favorites. The band concluded with an extended rendition of “Radioactive” that had everyone in the audience on their feet. After the Dragons’ set, Lauryn Hill, who was recently released from jail in our own country, hit the stage and performed some of her more recent songs. “Doo-Wop (That Thing)” was unfortunately absent, but Hill’s other material still engaged the crowd. Among other performers were Sir Bob Geldof, who dedicated his songs to the recently deceased Pete Seeger and sister act Tegan & Sara, who belted out their newest single “Closer.” For the finale, The Flaming Lips joined Yoko Ono in a spectacle of metallic streamers as members of both Amnesty International and CBGB Productions took a final bow.

In all, the sheer number and variety of musicians and speakers at this very special event provided a little something for everyone. If the goal of the Amnesty International Concert was to “bring human rights home,” they succeeded in getting that message out to everyone in the audience in many of different ways.

 

The opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Comcast.