There was a moment during this past weekend’s Global Citizen Festival when I looked back over the crowd stretched out across Central Park – 60 000 or so people – and I felt my jaw drop, in the very real and literal sense. It’s not the first time – it happened before, in 2014 when No Doubt joined Sting to sing Message in a Bottle and in 2012 when John Legend played Imagine on his piano. It’s a moment, spurred by a song, that contains a kernel of the Global Citizen Festival’s significance.
This moment came during Yusuf Cat Stevens (he now goes by all the names!) singing Father & Son with Eddie Vedder. Stevens hadn’t played on a NY stage in 40 years but that meant little to me as someone who’s never had the pleasure of seeing him live in any place. He only played 3 songs – Wild World, Father and, fittingly, Peace Train, but it was what he said as an intro to Father, that gave me goosebumps in reflection.
“Like that song says, there’s too much distance between people these days…Unrest around the world is caused by people who feel their identity has been traumatized and trampled on, so they lash out,” he said. “Movements like this can remind us that the globe is big enough for everyone to share.”
It’s been 5 years since the first Global Citizen Festival took place in Central Park, with the likes of Foo Fighters, Neil Young and John Legend performing. Since then a bevy of names – from Stevie Wonder to Coldplay and Jay Z and Beyonce (separately and together) – have all taken to the stage to complement the message behind the movement. With Chris Martin as the music curator, and a host of celebrities and world leaders at his side, CEO of the Global Poverty Project Hugh Evans has managed to create a must-watch event on the calendar every year.
More than that, it’s a must-do in the sense of taking part in one of the activities needed to be done to earn tickets – all centred on helping to end extreme poverty by 2030 – and also talking about some of the biggest issues facing the world right now. Right now that includes refugees and gender inequality, and to speak to those, there was a guest appearance of gleeful waving from six-year-old Alex who wrote a letter to Obama about little Omran Daqneesh that went viral, and a memorial video to Pakistani social media star Qandeel Baloch, who died at the hands of her brother in an honour killing.
The music is the reason we are there, to be sure. Sets from Demi Lovato, soaked in female confidence, Metallica, who sent rockwaves through Central Park, and a potent punch from Kendrick Lamar that included the anthemic and urgent Alright made sure of that. Rihanna’s headlining performance, with tracks from Anti, Unapologetic and Good Girl Gone Bad, sizzled
Music is the reason we’re there, but it goes beyond and further. It’s a gathering of people, of actual bodies in the same place, at the same time, giving their energy to something good, rather than just sitting as individuals behind computers and phones. And it’s a wonderful, like I said, jaw-dropping thing.