Using Music to Inspire a Generation to Save the World

The Global Citizen Festival used Beyoncé and Pearl Jam to move a young audience to get involved in the climate movement.
Coldplay plays at the Global Citizen Festival in New York's Central Park

New activist fans cheer Chris Martin and Coldplay at the Global Citizen Festival in New York's Central Park. Credit: Colin Maher for InsideClimate News

With 60,000 people crowded into Central Park Saturday for an evening of music and activism, messages about the need to fight poverty, inequality and climate change filled the air  between sets by Coldplay, Ed Sheeran, Beyoncé and Pearl Jam.

The festival attracted a panoply of celebrities and world leaders: from Stephen Colbert, Big Bird, Bill Nye and Leonardo DiCaprio to Malala Yousafzai, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon, Vice President Joe Biden and First Lady Michelle Obama.

Tickets to the event, known as the Global Citizen Festival, were free, but could only be obtained by engaging in activism. Those who wanted to attend were directed to call lawmakers, post messages on social media aimed at  world leaders, sign petitions and participate in other environmental and humanitarian events.

As Pearl Jam lead singer Eddie Vedder told the crowd during the last set of the night: "Never before have we played to an audience 100 percent full of activists. What a ... day this is."

Green groups have struggled for decades to enlist young people to not just care about environmental issues, but also to actively participate in the movement for change, by attending rallies and engaging their political leaders.

Turns out, Beyoncé and the other headlining bands were a pretty good bribe. The Global Citizen Festival is now in its fourth year and boasted a star-studded cast.

New Yorker Marie Ternes, 26, said she wasn't much of an activist before now and that "the music was the bait." Sarah Ranaldson and Matt Ascani, both 20 and students from the University of New Hampshire, hadn't done much either.

"I saw that Coldplay was playing and that piqued my interest," Ranaldson said. "The messages about gender inequality have really resonated with me. I'll definitely consider doing more activism from here on out."

Emily Kelvas, 23, and Francesca Sills, 24, traveled from the Hudson Valley region of New York for the festival. Both have attended before, but said the activism required to get tickets this year was more intense than in previous years.

Younger generations have gotten involved in a few aspects of the modern climate movement. The divestment movement, calling for endowments and pension funds to pull their money from fossil fuel company stocks, got its start at colleges across the country, for example. The People's Climate March in New York City last September included tens of thousands of students and young adults marching for climate action.

But most climate action events, especially smaller, community ones, are populated by Baby Boomers—not their kids.

Jenny Marienau, manager of 350.org's U.S. divestment campaign, said she has heard a lot of frustration from grassroots groups about why more young people aren't coming to meetings and events.

"Young people, above all else, want to understand how the actions they take now lead to the change they want to see," Marienau said. "Youth aren't just out there to feel good about themselves or for fun. They're hungry for change, and they need to be treated less as warm bodies and more as co-conspirators."

Bob Wilson, a historian at Syracuse University who studies the modern environmental movement, said activism has been consumer-based for decades. If you are concerned about climate change, you buy a different car or you recycle, he said. The Global Citizen Festival is a similar model, but "it is good that it requires people to express some deeper sort of commitment beyond just buying a ticket."

Wilson noted the success of the divestment movement and the fight against the Keystone XL pipeline in getting youth involved in activism. "But in terms of how to get students to push for political change, to sway Congress, I don't think anyone has cracked that yet," he said.

The Global Citizen Festival this year focused largely on the United Nations' Sustainable Development Goals adopted Friday, which will address poverty, hunger, inequality and climate change. The goals' logo stayed on the main screen for most of the concert. Celebrities and political leaders focused their messages on the UN's new agenda.

Michelle Obama announced a White House-led effort to get the world's 62 million uneducated girls into school, called the #62milliongirls campaign. World Bank group president Dr Jim Yong Kim and Big Bird talked about the public health benefits of portable toilets. A number of leaders spoke about the Syrian refugee crisis. DiCaprio said the UN's Sustainable Development Goals are critical to ensure that shelter, food, education and medical care "are seen no longer as privileges, but as inalienable rights. But all this work would be in vain if we don't address climate change."

"Powerful fossil fuel interests are fighting to monetize what is still underground," he told the crowd. "Please get involved. The fight for the planet and against poverty are inherently linked."

Coldplay played their set to images of the planet scrolling in the background. Ed Sheeran took the stage solo, his voice cutting clear across Central Park's packed Great Lawn. Beyoncé focused on female empowerment, performing Run the World, Diva and Survivor interspersed with quotes from Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and poet Maya Angelou. Pearl Jam closed the show with a 50-minute set that included Mind Your Manners, Do the Evolution, Better Man, a cover of Bob Marley's Redemption Song with Beyoncé and Rockin' in the Free World.

After six hours of standing, not to mention countless hours waiting to get in and go through security to enter the festival, the crowd looked exhausted by the time Pearl Jam played its last song just after 10 p.m. But most stuck it out until the very end, listening patiently to calls for action to hear their favorite musicians. How many of the attendees will continue their streak of activism, however, remains to be seen.

"We need young people to win on climate, and in some ways it's their fight more than anyone's," Marienau of 350.org said. "It sounds trite, but the concentrated voice of young activists has real power, because they are the voice of the future. Students and youth have led social movements throughout history, and this generation of youth is growing in political power."

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