The Beastie Connection

How Adam Yauch and Erin Potts conceived the all-star Tibetan Freedom Concert

When Erin Potts recently brought her friend and colleague hip-hopper Adam Yauch to a quiet cafe a few blocks from the bustle of Fisherman's Wharf, the teen-ager tending the espresso and day-old muffins behind the counter was star-struck. "She seriously had to sit down for half an hour," Potts laughs. Yauch's notoriety as a founding member of the platinum-selling Beastie Boys has a direct impact on the success of his joint venture with Potts: the Milarepa Fund, a nonprofit organization located in an evergreen building facing the Taylor Street cable-car turnaround.

Named for an enlightened black magician from 11th-century Tibet who taught compassion through music, Milarepa was established three years ago in an effort to raise awareness about the struggle between Tibet and the Chinese government. It's been a low-key concern, but the coming weeks should change that. On June 15 and 16 Milarepa will host its first major event, the Tibetan Freedom Concert, at the Polo Fields in Golden Gate Park. The show will feature such heavyweight recording artists as the Smashing Pumpkins, the Beasties, the Foo Fighters, the Fugees, Beck, Sonic Youth, A Tribe Called Quest, and Yoko Ono with IMA.

As Milarepa's director, Potts has been working furiously since the unwieldy benefit was announced. Her youthful staff has been doubled, from "3 1/2" to 8, and their clubhouselike loft space whirs with faxes, phone calls, and flickering Web pages. Favoring an ankle she recently twisted outside a Foo Fighters show, Potts hobbles the few blocks to the local coffee shop to discuss the objectives behind Milarepa's forthcoming event.

A 23-year-old Connecticut native, Potts was pursuing Tibetan studies in Katmandu when she met Yauch in 1993. "Katmandu is such a small town," she says. "Word just spread -- as soon as he landed, everybody knew that a Beastie Boy was in town."

The country the pair were studying is a remote region of Southeast Asia situated along the Himalayas to the north of Nepal and India. Introduced to Buddhism around 1000 A.D., the once-warlike people have been peaceful since. In 1950, neighboring China invaded; after years of tension, a massive protest in 1959 provoked a violent reaction from the Chinese and put the Dalai Lama, Tibet's spiritual and political figurehead, into exile. In the ensuing years, reports of Chinese human rights abuses have persisted; by some counts, over 1 million Tibetans have lost their lives.

Though Yauch was already interested in Buddhist teachings, "I don't think he knew that much about what was going on there politically," Potts says. On that trip, though, "he was trekking, and he ran into some Tibetan refugees just over the border [in Nepal]. They were still running; he was definitely affected by that experience."

Potts too was shocked by events she witnessed. One demonstration she attended in Tibet turned ugly when the Chinese police began shooting tear gas: "Instead of shooting above the crowd," Potts says, "they were shooting [the canisters] into the crowd. One person who came by me had his face blown off. It was pretty intense."

Potts returned to the United States to hatch a plan with Yauch to create their fund-raising enterprise. She agreed to take over its daily operation here in San Francisco. Shortly thereafter, in May 1994, the Beasties staged benefits in Manhattan and Washington, D.C. Since then, Milarepa has worked mostly behind the scenes, staffing information booths on Lollapalooza and Beastie Boys tours.

The lanky Potts is well aware that some observers consider her musician friends to be unlikely messengers for Tibetan freedom. "We've had a little difficulty in trying to convince Americans that a hip-hop group like the Beastie Boys should be doing this kind of work," Potts admits. But Yauch's embrace of Buddhism resulted in a public declaration of sorts on 1994's Ill Communication. "I dream and I hope and I won't forget," he rapped on "The Update," "someday I'm gonna visit on a free Tibet." Elsewhere, he contributed songs titled "Shambala" and "Bodhisattva Vow." A percentage of royalties for those songs has been earmarked for Milarepa's coffers. "We had done a couple songs that sampled Tibetan monks, and also an Aboriginal instrument called the didgeridoo," says Yauch, just back from Italy, where he interviewed the Dalai Lama for Rolling Stone. "We decided it would make sense to give the publishing money to something that represented those cultures. Those sounds come more from cultures than individuals." Potts says the fund has realized $60,000 to $70,000 and reaped another $250,000 from a $1 surcharge applied to each ticket sold for the Beastie Boys' 1995 tour.

Though well-publicized celebrity flirtations with Buddhism by such Hollywood notables as Richard Gere and Harrison Ford have been ridiculed, Yauch says he'll accept the skepticism if it means reaching a few more people with information. When the Namgyal Monks accompanied the Beasties on the 1994 Lollapalooza tour, some Buddhist scholars grumbled that the setting was inappropriate. Yauch disagreed. "If we can touch those kids, it'll be worth the effort," he argued recently in Tricycle: The Buddhist Review. "Maybe through the years we've gotten better at figuring you just do what feels right," Yauch says now. "People say whatever they're going to say."

Potts and Yauch have spoken with the Dalai Lama, meeting with him in Germany and again in India. The Dalai Lama, Potts reports, welcomes their support, though "he doesn't know hip hop from classic rock. As far as feeling awkward or excited that a hip-hop group is helping further his cause, it doesn't matter to him. He's psyched."

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