As a universal language that transcends cultural barriers, music is a medium where people and artists alike can have their voices heard in a manner that words alone cannot. Music has often been used to foreground pressing political and societal issues, including the promotion and protection of human rights. These 15 artists have used their musical talent and platform to share awareness of human rights issues across the world and bring a voice to marginalized members of society.
Pete Townshend is an English musician, songwriter and vocalist of “the Who” rock band, one of the most influential rock ensembles during the 1960s and 1970s. Alongside his career in the rock music industry, Townshend has a long history of charity and philanthropic work for human rights issues, advocating for greater drug rehabilitation and activism for children’s rights. In 1979, Townshend was the first musician to perform for Amnesty International’s Human Rights Concerts and inspired other renowned rock musicians to support the human rights cause. Townshend is quoted saying, “Amnesty does things that I can’t do in my work. It deals with the specifics of injustice… It makes them public. It was 1979 that I appeared at ‘The Secret Policeman’s Ball’… It was amazing subsequently to see what ‘The Secret Policeman’s Ball’ triggered. Quite big names got involved in supporting Amnesty. And it became apparent that big names in music and Amnesty melded very well. It’s good to see that what I did kicked that off…”
Performing under the stage name, “Sting”, Gordon Sumner is a Grammy-Award winning guitarist, vocalist and songwriter who is renowned for his work as both a solo musician and an ensemble musician with the rock band “the Police” between 1977 – 1984. Sting is heavily involved in human rights activism, having written songs inspired by his concern for world hunger and oppressive political regimes, and has also extended his activism beyond music by writing an open letter for the decriminalization of drug possession in the United Kingdom in 2011. He has also signed several petitions against the death penalty in Belarus and has cancelled concerts in response to human rights issues in several countries. Sting’s humanitarian activism has been recognized by Amnesty International and he has performed for the NGO’s Human Rights Concerts on several occasions.
Described as the world’s best known philanthropic performers and most politically effective celebrity of all time by the National Journal, Bono (Paul Hewson) has worked extensively as a rock musician in the band U2, a philanthropist and human rights activist. Focusing much of his efforts into advocating the fight against AIDS and extreme poverty in Africa, Bono has lobbied governmental entities to adopt human rights-based policies under his positions as the co-founder of ONE, a global movement campaigning to end extreme poverty. More recently, Bono raised awareness of vaccination against COVID-19 and vaccine inequality around the world and in April 2022, Bono recorded an acoustic rendition of “Walk On” by his band, U2, for the Global Citizen’s Stand Up for Ukraine livestream, urging global leaders to support Ukrainian refugees. Bono was also invited by Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy to perform in a metro station in Kyiv, showing his solidarity to Ukraine under invasion from Russia.
Rising to fame as the lead singer of the rock band Genesis, Peter Gabriel has been an active rock musician, singer and producer whose music has been awarded nine MTV awards, Brit Awards and Grammy Awards throughout his musical career. Aside from his musical accomplishments, Gabriel is the co-founder of WITNESS, a human rights non-profit organization that supports local organizations document human rights issues and advocacy. In recognition of his humanitarian work, Gabriel was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize in 2006 and was named as one of the most influential people in the world in 2008 by Time Magazine.
Awarded “The Ambassador of Conscience Award” by Amnesty International in 2016, Angélique Kidjo is a Beninese singer-songwriter renowned for her creative music videos and unique musical style that integrates Afropop, Congolese rumba, jazz and Latin music genres. Within her 30-year musical career, Kidjo has been a prominent advocate for the expression of freedom, the education of girls in Africa and has expressed concerns regarding female genital mutilation and has worked as a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador since 2002. Alongside her major ambassador roles, Kidjo is the founder of The Batonga Foundation, a non-profit organization that empowers women in Benin and upskills these women for socio-economic mobility.
Described as one of the most exciting and accomplished classical musicians in the world, classical pianist Lang Lang has not only revolutionized the classical music industry but has also used his music as a way to advocate for human rights globally. Appointed as a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador and a Messenger of Peace, Lang Lang primarily advocates for children’s rights and access to education through concerts that raise funds for UNICEF and other humanitarian crises.
As an Indigenous Canadian singer-song writer and composer, Buffy Sainte-Marie’s music primarily revolves around the issues faced by the Indigenous peoples of Canada and the United States. Buffy began her advocacy efforts for the protection of Indigenous artists, performers and their intellectual property by establishing the Nihewan Foundation for Native American Education in 1966 and has moved on to founding The Creative Native Project, an initiative which seeks to empower Indigenous youth in the performing arts. More recently, Buffy was awarded the Allan Slaight Humanitarian Spirit Award and was invited to the Canadian Music Week in 2020.
Hailed as one of the most talented violinists in the 21st century, Maxim Vengerov was the first classical musician to be appointed as a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador in 1997. Alongside his musical accomplishments, Vengerov has focused much of his advocacy on the promotion of children’s education and rights and has visited countries such as Turkey, Uganda and Bosnia and Herzegovina representing UNICEF. Vengerov has also performed at #EndViolence events in Bucharest, Romania for UNICEF Romania.
Bruce Springsteen is an American singer-song writer, known as one of the original founders of the heartland rock genre, which combines elements of mainstream rock music with narratives of the American working class. Throughout his musical career, Springsteen has been a long advocate for LGBT rights, the empowerment of women and democracy, using his international platform to raise awareness of social issues. Springsteen was first invited to perform for Amnesty International in 1988 and has since continued his advocacy of human rights through his music.
As the leader of the Russian feminist punk band Pussy Riot, Nadya Tolokonnikova uses her musical platform to spread awareness of human rights issues through her music. As a passionate feminist, Tolokonnikova delved into themes of sexism and rape culture in her newest EP, Panic Attack, and has agreed to donate a portion of the proceeds from her EP to a shelter for domestic violence in Russia. Tolokonnikova herself was recognized by a political prisoner by the Union of Solidarity with Political Prisoners and Amnesty International described her as a “prisoner of conscience” due to the “severity of the response of Russian authorities.”
Piera Van de Wiel
Piera Van de Wiel is a British singer and composer who uses her music as a platform for her human rights advocacy. During the COVID-19 pandemic, Van de Wiel released a single, “Used”, to raise awareness of the increase in domestic violence and abuse against women during the pandemic with the support of the United Nations Spotlight Initiative. Alongside her musical pursuits, Van de Wiel is the founder of the non-profit organization, Stronger With Music, a movement that works towards achieving the UN Sustainable Development Goals.
Evan Greer is a trans/genderqueer artist based in Boston who composes acoustic songs that advocate technological security, LGBTQ rights and movements for justice and liberation. Alongside their musical accomplishments, Greer is the founder of a non-profit organization called Fight for the Future, which aims to secure digital rights and banning unethical technological practices.
German-British composer and pianist Max Richter is one of the most prominent composers of the 21st century, boasting over a billion streams of his music and a million album sales throughout his 25-year musical career. Richter has previously responded to the Iraq War, the 2005 London terrorist attacks and the Kosovo War through his music and his most recent album, “Voices” takes inspiration from the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights. All ten of the tracks (except for the final song) incorporate text from the 1948 UNDHR document and Richter himself has stated that the album is a response to the human rights abuses around the world and the need for social justice and equality of humans around the world.
Composer of award-winning films such as The Dark Night, The Lion King and The Rock, Hollywood composer Hans Zimmer has established himself as one of the most eminent film composers in history. Zimmer was invited to compose an anthem to celebrate Amnesty International’s 50th anniversary, titled “One More Voice for Freedom” in commemoration for International Human Rights Day. Zimmer himself is quoted saying “it was a privilege to create this piece of music for a cause which is so close to our hearts” and that it is my “hope that the anthem will inspire people to support Amnesty’s vision of a world where fundamental rights are protected for everyone. We should all join Amnesty in standing up for justice, freedom and human rights”.
Dubbed as the “Queen of R&B”, American singer-song writer Alicia Keys has intertwined her passion for music with human rights activism through her extensive philanthropic work in her musical career. Keys is the co-founder of the non-profit organization, Keep a Child Alive, that provides treatment and social support to children and families affected by HIV in Africa and India. As part of her work in Keep a Child Alive, Keys host an annual fundraising gala called the Black Ball, where she invites major musical artists to perform at the event to raise funds for HIV and AIDS activism.
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