As the Lampedusa Concerts For Refugees tour rolls into Chicago Thursday at the Vic Theatre (featuring Robert Plant, Steve Earle, Emmylou Harris and more), I spoke with Gail Griffith (Director, Global Education Initiative at Jesuit Refugee Service) about the folk tradition of social activism, the unique level of involvement of the artists taking part in this concert series and the level of difficulty involved in changing the conversation when it comes to the refugee crisis only a month before the Presidential election...
Over the course of the last year, as one of the most contentious election seasons ever has entered full swing, the refugee crisis has been co-opted for political use. The focus on what was once a humanitarian issue has shifted as scare tactics, misinformation and strong, often poorly informed, opinions on both sides cloud the issue entirely.
So it’s no coincidence that the Lampedusa Concerts For Refugees series of benefits has begun to tour the United States only a month before the Presidential election.
A method of outreach created by the Jesuit Refugee Service, the Lampedusa concerts seek to go beyond merely raising money for a cause. The events combine the social activism that has come to characterize the folk music tradition with the primary traditional form of Jesuit outreach: education.
Education is a key goal for the Jesuit Refugee Service in their work with refugees just as educating concertgoers is crucial to the success of the Lampedusa concert series. It’s not about religion – Jesuits don’t proselytize – but it is about changing the conversation by presenting accurate information, responding proactively to an ongoing issue and, very simply, treating our fellow humans a little bit better.
As Director, Global Education Initiative at Jesuit Refugee Service, Gail Griffith has worked closely with a number of artists performing at the Lampedusa benefits to create a unique concert experience where music is the focus of each event.
Unlike some instances when a celebrity simply lends their name to a cause, artist involvement with the Lampedusa series goes much further. Emmylou Harris has traveled to Ethiopia and seen the crisis for herself while Patty Griffin has visited Nogales, Mexico, along the Mexican border, to experience how the controversial issue impacts America firsthand.
An Italian island that has recently become the primary entry point to Europe for many migrants, the idea of the island of Lampedusa functions as both an idea and a symbol during a series of American concerts Griffith hopes to see become an annual touring entity. The Lampedusa concerts have grown out of Griffith’s prior benefit experience alongside Harris as a major part of the Concerts For a Landmine Free World.
I spoke over the phone with Gail Griffith about the importance of viewing the refugee crisis as a humanitarian issue rather than a political one, the depth and history of her work with Emmylou Harris and whether music still has the power to change the world. That interview follows in its entirety below.
Q. Can you kind of describe for me a bit the work that the Jesuit Refugee Service does?
Gail Griffith: We’ve been around for thirty-five years, going on thirty-six years actually. It was founded originally by a Jesuit by the name of Pedro Arupee who was concerned about the enormous flow of refugees after the Vietnam war – the Indochina refugee situation. It really prompted him to think about how we address that crisis and he started Jesuit Refugee Service almost thirty-six years ago this coming November.
Since then, with the flood of refugees from different areas of the world, the organization has grown and changed and morphed. We now operate in over forty-five countries providing emergency relief, psychosocial benefits and education.
Jesuits have always put a premium on education and Jesuits are known for education. For their four centuries of existence they’re known for quality education. So what we’ve emphasized here is the notion that if you are able to provide someone with an education, it’s the one thing that can’t be taken away from them as they’re displaced and moved and hoping to get a toehold in another place.
So education is at the forefront of what we do and it is part of our Jesuit mission. It’s part of our Jesuit tradition.
Q. Let’s talk about the concerts. Is the timing of the concerts in America coincidental as we close in on the 2016 Presidential election with a candidate who’s using an anti-refugee stance as a large element of his campaign?
GG: No. Deliberate is what we should say!
We planned this so that it would be a conversation that would resonate up against the election. We had no idea that the conversation would become so vitriol. We couldn’t have imagined a candidate who would be so forcefully anti-immigrant and have articulated those thoughts in such a really unfathomably ugly way. So we are pleased that we are able to bring this concert to different audiences and to get into secular communities.
We don’t proselytize. The Jesuits have never proselytized. In fact, it’s interesting to note that a little over sixty percent of the client base that we serve is Muslim (obviously because of the huge number of refugees coming out of Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan). And that also speaks to our staff: it’s more than half Muslim because that’s where we are in those regions.
That said, the timing of these concerts, up against the election, gives us the opportunity to reinforce the notion that we are a nation of immigrants. This is who we are. We need to remember that. Tolerance and acceptance are the hallmarks of our American values. So that’s really what we want to convey during these concerts.
We’re really excited to be in Chicago. Chicago’s a wonderful immigrant town. So it makes a lot of sense that we would play Chicago.
You don’t want to hit people over the head with a cause when you’re going out on the road with music. People don’t come to hear anyone harangue about an issue: they come because of the quality of the music.
Q. When you said “tolerance and acceptance,” you hit on something that I wanted to get to. I heard Patty Griffin in an interview make what I think is an important distinction there – and that’s the idea that the refugee crisis should be a humanitarian issue and not a political one. Obviously, the fact that it’s become a political issue has led to there being a lot of misinformation out there about it so how hard has it been for you guys to kind of help people make that distinction in this political climate?
GG: I think that’s a really hard thing for people to understand. If they’re fearful about their livelihoods or fearful about the economy, the first thing you do is you erect barriers. I’m sympathetic to the notion that this is a hard conversation to have. People are hurting – we recognize that. It’s a country of great passion, both negative and positive. When we talk about this as a humanitarian issue, [we] try to convey that, “Look, we’re all in this boat together. If we think about solutions that are helpful to all of us, to be welcoming, that is the tide that lifts all these boats.”
So I do think it’s a very difficult conversation to have but I’m hoping that by bringing music – using this cultural medium – it gets people to a different place. Music is joyful! It provides you an opportunity to think about this, maybe, in a different way.
Q. What really struck me about this tour and this cause is that the artists involved aren’t just giving of their time and skill, they’re very intimately involved in the cause itself. I’ve read several interviews with Emmylou Harris talking about her recent trip to Ethiopia and I know Patty Griffin actually traveled to the US/Mexico border to see firsthand just what’s involved there. I think sometimes people see a celebrity slap their name on something and assume it stops there. Can you speak a bit to the level of involvement these artists have with this cause? Because it’s different…
GG: It is different. We’ve just begun. We launched this campaign a little under a year ago. We brought Emmylou on board in the spring and Patty too. We’ve built this crescendo with not a lot of time. I think it speaks to everybody’s felt need to do something about this.
I think that what Emmy had said in a number of the interviews you may have read is that, “We watch this unfolding and we don’t know what to do. We want to take action but we don’t know where to intersect with this.” So by giving these artists a medium, a vehicle, where they can indeed get involved and do something, that’s a pretty easy sell. They’ve all been people with a tremendous commitment and they are out there looking at this thinking, “Jeez, there is no bigger humanitarian crisis on the planet.” It’s not just a crisis now, it’s a catastrophe. They’re wondering, “What on earth can I do?”
For them, I think, they show up and they sing and that is of enormous value to us. They often downplay their role in this. But Emmy’s trip to Ethiopia, I think it was life-changing for her in some respects. It certainly brought her full bore into the cause.
Patty, similarly, when she was at the Mexican border, when we were in Nogales, Mexico, I think it was heart wrenching for her. She has taken on this issue as sort of a domestic focus on the refugee issue at large: the notion that these people coming up from Central America trying to find better lives are fleeing violence and domestic abuse and rape and just the horrific activities that the gangs have spawned. I think that she’s used this as a refugee issue that is ours. It is our U.S. refugee problem. And we’re not addressing it as such. We’re looking at it as an immigration issue when in fact it’s no different from the refugee crisis we see unfolding in Europe.
So both of these women have now visited sites where you have that experience of being engaged in a real community of refugees. And I think that the other artists, we will get them to see similarly. But they just instinctively knew what they were signing up for. These are goodhearted people.
Q. Your relationship with Emmylou goes back a long way. How did you first meet?
GG: (Laughs) We met in a bar. She was playing at this place called Clyde’s in the back room. I was in college – summer school, trying to get out of college as fast as I could, amassing credits – and she was playing with a band and not getting much traction in those days. She says I was one of a handful of people that would show up.
But I heard her play, and I had played in high school and college, and the minute I saw her I thought, “Oh my god, that’s the real deal.” Every girl I knew put down their guitar at that moment like, “Oh jeez, it’s all over. She’s so good.” And we stayed in touch for many, many years. We’re very close friends.
She was involved in the campaign to end landmines which I was attached to. She was just magnificent in her ability to bring other musicians to the cause. She has that natural grace and charisma where she asks people and they will do almost anything for her. And that’s been such a gift to us because, similarly, much like the landmine campaign, she can reach out to people that we wouldn’t have access to and persuade them that this is a good cause and that they should be involved too.
Q. You mentioned the landmine concerts and I know that Emmylou and Steve Earle and Patty were a part of that in the 90s too. What was it like getting more involved in the music end of activism for you and what did you learn on that tour that you’ve applied to the Lampedusa concerts?
GG: It’s very much the same. You don’t want to hit people over the head with a cause when you’re going out on the road with music. People don’t come to hear anyone harangue about an issue: they come because of the quality of the music.
Music, for me, has been sort of a lifelong passion and I know what I want to hear in a concert. I want to be moved. As I’m listening to the music and thinking, “Well, this is heartfelt,” I can store the message. But I know that you don’t get bodies in seats on the back of a card, you get people to come because they believe in these musicians. They are passionate about these musicians. And I think that that’s applicable in both sets of shows.
We learned that with landmines, you really… nobody cared about that issue. It was not something that you dealt with in the U.S. People were not aware of it. And I think that, in each show, there was magic.
The musicians, the intimacy, the way that we format these shows, so that it’s truly a singer songwriter in the round - that they are engaged with one another, there are these magical harmonies that happen spontaneously, or a guitar riff that somebody picks up on somebody else’s song – just that community of watching musicians interact with one another in a very casual way provides the audience with a sense of intimacy and it’s just magical. It’s something that you wouldn’t have experienced in a more formal, traditional concert setting.
I’m hoping that we can continue this format. I want to do another tour next year. I’d like to do it in the southwest and on the west coast. There seems to be a lot of appetite for that. So this is Lampedusa part one.
I can’t imagine living in a world where music was devoid of power. Music is such a strong voice.
Q. There are artists on this tour that, in theory, kind of attract opposite ends of the age spectrum. How important in organizing this tour was it for you to try and appeal to the younger demographic?
GG: I would say that there’s a hardcore group of younger audience members who have all of this Americana music who will know Steve Earle, who will know Emmy – they certainly know Robert Plant. For those who wouldn’t find those artists particularly appealing - like in Chicago, we will have Ruby Amanfu, this amazing Ghanaian artist who’s played with Jack White and has got some background vocals on Beyoncé’s Lemonade album. That’s quite an extraordinary addition.
The Milk Carton Kids are on the entire tour. That’s sort of a wake-up call to the younger generation that, yeah, you’ve got this interesting mix of sort of older, venerated Americana artists and then you’ve got this newer, alt-folk duo in the Milk Carton Kids.
So we hope to be able to capture a wide swath of demography there.
Q. You’ve been in your position for just about a year. What kind of a change have you seen so far (because it’s obviously an uphill battle)? Are we at least making some progress in changing the conversation a bit?
GG: I would like to say yes, that we’re making some progress. The issue is certainly front and center on people’s minds. Are we changing people’s minds? I don’t know.
We talked about this earlier, the vitriol that has come out of the campaigns - I didn’t know that existed. I’m really stunned and a little disappointed that that’s who we are in fact. Obviously, Donald Trump has poked something that hurts and stirred up a lot of people’s anxiety in a way that’s unfortunate.
So, have we changed minds? I’m not so sure that we’re there yet… But we certainly are having the conversation.
Q. You’re featuring a number of artists on this tour who’ve grown out of the folk tradition. And a cornerstone of the folk tradition has been its social activism – from Woody Guthrie to Steve Earle these are artists who haven’t been afraid to speak up and say something even if it’s unpopular. And I feel like we see less of that in music now. Can music still change the world?
GG: Yes. Yes! I think it can. I can’t imagine living in a world where music was devoid of power. Music is such a strong voice.
Sometimes it’s the only voice.
- Jim Ryan ( @RadioJimRyan )
(Details on Thursday's Lampedusa benefit concert at The Vic below)
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Lampedusa Concert For Refugees - ** Robert Plant, Emmylou Harris, Steve Earle, Buddy Miller, The Milk Carton Kids, Ruby Amanfu
Thursday, October 13, 2016
Doors open at 7PM
Show starts at 8PM
18 and over
* $55 and $65
Click HERE to purchase tickets
* All proceeds support Jesuit Refugee Service’s Global Education Initiative, designed to provide educational opportunities for refugees living in camps and in urban settings worldwide.
** Due to health issues, Patty Griffin will be unable to perform at Thursday's concert.