Saturday, June 03, 2006

Summer Caravan II: The UN Sings to Save Lives

Last night at the United Nations I was lucky enough to be a witness to one of those New York City moments where power and prestige shake hands with the possibility of change. At Dag Hammerstein yesterday, I attending a converging of celebrities – not the usual United Nations suspects – for an extravaganza in support of the fight against HIV and AIDS.

I was surprised to find such a heartfelt and extraordinarily well-organized outpouring support, such an expression of solidarity fir the lives lost and the victories won over the last twenty-five years. I sat close to the front row, beside UN workers and diplomats and friends. I had come to see Wyclef rock the house, to sing along with Anjelique Kidjoe to “Chez Mama Africa,” to be in the presence of celebrity activists like Naomi Watts and Whoopi Goldberg and Kofi Annan.

By the end of the night, there was a feeling that we young fans and entertainers were all bound together with the leaders in the room. It was as if we were breaking bread together, taking in one overwhelming banquet of mixed emotions. It felt as if this shared emotion was the only thing that could feed the battle against a relentless disease and the ignorance around which affect so many lives.

In a particularly poignant moment, Richard Gere, after recalling the struggles of the gay community here in New York City, asked the crowd how many had known someone who had died of or was living with AIDS or HIV. Almost everyone in the room raised their hands.

I don’t know why I was surprised to witness such emotion. Maybe I was just a late arriver to the party, another unaffected person who had failed to listen to the stories of the millions of mothers, fathers and children that we have lost over the years. Note: that is twenty-five million lost - one million for each of the twenty-five years since the HIV infection was diagnosed. We have closed our eyes to the fact that the work of women's rights advocates in sex camps in Asia, relief workers in Africa, and anti-AIDS activists on the streets of Harlem or D.C. is a losing battle, not because of a lack of dedication but because of chronic underfunding for the work that they do.

To confront the reality, the speakers agreed, we have to throw away the idea that as "responsible" citizens and decision makers we must put away the pieces of their private lives when addressing the problems of the world. The audience seemed to agree, and when we raised their hands in answer to Richard Gere’s question, I could detect in the intense silence a sense of conviction and righteous indignation. Later, we lifted our hands again to raise the battery lit votives that studded the rows throughout the hall.

Now our hands were waving back and forth, and Wyclef sang:

If America is the United States of America
Than why can’t Africa be the United States of Africa?...
This is rebel music
This is refugee music...

It sounded damn good to hear Wyclef's bassist pump the bass up to the chorus and hear Wyclef with his raspy, guttery voice spit his take no prisoners lyrics, right there in the hallowed General Assembly hall.

The music was soothing, yet the feeling of righteous indignation survived through the night. A group of at least 50 protesters (they moved seamlessly and I could not count them)staged a walk out, shouting the words “CONDOMS” “WOMEN” and “VULNERABLE GROUPS” before storming out of the hall. The Declaration passed the next day by the General Assembly contained those same words. The strength of the language in the document, according to the New York Times report today, surprised some of the activists themselves. But the power of their conviction no longer surprised me.


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