International

Pussy Riot joins American rock stars on Brooklyn stage

Musicians take part in Amnesty International concert aimed at inspiring a new generation of activists

Members of Pussy Riot, Maria Alekhina, left, and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, at Amnesty International's "Bringing Human Rights Home" concert on Wednesday.
Evan Agostini/Invision/AP

NEW YORK — Two members of the Russian punk band Pussy Riot joined with American rock and pop stars Wednesday evening to speak out against global injustices at a Brooklyn concert designed to inspire a new generation of activists.

"It's time for the rest of the world to be as brave as Pussy Riot," Madonna said at the concert, organized by the human rights advocacy group Amnesty International, "to stand up against people like (Russian President Vladimir) Putin, other leaders and organizations that do not respect human rights and perpetuate oppression, discrimination and injustice of any kind."

Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, 24, and Maria Alekhina, 25, didn't perform any of their songs, but, wearing T-shirts emblazoned with large crosses, they recited phrases in Russian from the closing statements of arrested activists who clashed with riot police during a pro-democracy demonstration on May 6, 2012. Their voices reached a crescendo as they headed toward their conclusion, repeating "Russia will be free" three times in English, eliciting cheers from the crowd at Barclays Center.

"We will not forgive; we will not forget what the regime is doing to our fellow citizens, so we demand a Russia that's free, a Russia without Putin," Tolokonnikova said. "When we were behind bars, you gave us the voice that was taken away from us, but now that we're here, it is our duty to give voice to those who are still behind bars."

From being jailed for performing a "punk prayer," a protest song against Putin, on the altar of a Moscow cathedral to yelling anti-Putin slogans alongside Madonna on a stage in Brooklyn, Pussy Riot's activism has come a long way. The women have turned their attention to the rights of political prisoners around the world. Alekhina said Pussy Riot has "turned into an international movement" and that now "anyone can be Pussy Riot" and put on a mask and stage a performance.

"When we first started Pussy Riot, we thought a musician must bear social responsibility. Music must not be only about sunshine and love," Tolokonnikova said at a news conference before the concert. "We must also sing about politics, about people behind bars, about people who don't have a voice.

"Punk music is so accessible to everyone. We didn't know how to play, like so many people, but we wanted to get our message across as loudly as possible so everybody could hear us."

Long tradition

Wednesday's concert was held in the tradition of 1980s Amnesty concerts at which stars such as U2 and Lou Reed participated. Ann Burroughs, a former political prisoner of the apartheid regime in South Africa and an Amnesty board member, said this year's edition was meant to welcome a new generation of musician-activists to their stage.

"My generation was inspired by Bob (Geldof) and his fellow musicians; what we're going to have tonight is a whole new generation of entertainers," she said.

Geldof, who performed for Amnesty in the 1980s, put the concert in an even longer line of social-justice music events, telling reporters before the performance that "we're doing our little bit for Pete (Seeger) tonight, (in) that same generosity of spirit," referring to the activist folk singer who died last month.

Other artists who joined the cause included Lauryn Hill, Imagine Dragons, Blondie, Cold War Kids, Cake, Teegan and Sara, Yoko Ono and the Flaming Lips.

At an evening laced with promotional videos on giant screens featuring the plight of child soldiers, protesters in Egypt and a personal plea by Susan Sarandon against the death penalty in the U.S., Amnesty International tried to raise awareness about human rights issues around the world.

But whether it was successful in inspiring a new generation of social advocates was up for debate. Meret Lanzlinger, 45, from Brooklyn, who attended Amnesty concerts in the 1980s, said the music lineup wasn't of "the same caliber" as it used to be, and wondered whether social media had made youth less active in the streets. "It's not the same era," she said.

Taryn Ginsberg, 24, and Jane Babolcsay, 18, said the evening had been "informative," but supporting Pussy Riot wasn't the only reason they had come. "I'm glad the proceedings are going to Amnesty International," Ginsberg said, but she admitted the music had much to do with her attendance.

But Kesia Ramos, 36, said she'd been reading about Pussy Riot since the very beginning and admired the women who were jailed for fighting for their beliefs. "I definitely would like to learn how to become more involved," she said. "They are an inspiration."

Find Al Jazeera America on your TV

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter