Because I don’t live in Myanmar, nor have I been here before, it had been difficult to have any perspective as to how much of a big deal the MTV EXIT Live In Myanmar concert would be. And because it was the first of it’s kind for this country, there was almost no way of being truly prepared.
Human trafficking is a global issue and it is estimated that more than 20 million people around the world are currently the victims of trafficking. Half of these men, women, and children are from Asia.
The issue has been especially bad here in Myanmar, and up until just a few years ago, the government wouldn’t even admit that trafficking was a problem, therefore anyone who wanted to do something about it was forced to do so quietly, making it incredibly challenging to engage people and educate communities on the issue. This is also a country where less than a decade ago, people were hiding books under floorboards as any extended education was frowned upon by a paranoid leadership.
You can imagine then, with little to no education, one could easily be fooled or forced into an exploitative situation, i.e. enslaved at sea on a fishing boat, locked in food or clothing factories, violently forced to work long hours with little food and water; some of them drugged and sold to private homes to serve as wives in forced marriages, or sold into slavery as a sex worker. This is what today’s human-trafficking and exploitation problem looks like. It’s very real and it affects us all.
I accepted the invitation to participate in the MTV Exit concert here in Myanmar because I knew it would attract thousands and have the potential to reach millions more through radio, newspaper, and television broadcast, shining an even brighter light on the issue. A concert of this capacity, an open-air concert in front of the revered Schwedagon Pagoda, had never happened before, making it an opportunity for many to participate in something brave and new, celebrating the changes happening in their country.
I knew some of my songs had found their way to Myanmar but was still surprised by the invitation. I created for my life and my music the possibility of being an activist, lending my voice to great causes, and this is what the universe delivered, ready or not.
Moments before taking the stage I ran into Kevin Bales, an economist and hero of mine, whose TED talk introduced modern-day slavery to the social network. I consider Kevin one of the leaders of the ongoing anti-slavery and sustainable-freedom movement and it was seeing him backstage, a long way from California, that I began to experience the important significance of the event. This is a global crisis, and our concert was continuing to bring it into light. Kevin was wearing a black “slavery sucks” t-shirt and he insisted I wear it during my set. It was already damp and odorous with his sweat from the day’s scorching heat, but I didn’t flinch when he gave it to me. I was honored. He literally took the shirt off his back for me.
Then I walked onstage to polite applause.
Followed by what sounded like an ocean turning to glass.
This may or may not be entirely true and I’m not sure how it will all translate on TV. I could’ve just not heard anything, experiencing an aural black out due to heightened senses and a racing mind.
Buddhists, of which Myanmar’s population is 80%, practice mindfulness, which is described as an attentive awareness of the reality of things, especially of the present moment. It is an antidote to delusion and is considered a power.
My racing mind however, rendered me powerless as I immediately began scanning my brain for things I could do differently; new approaches towards connecting with the sea of curious first time concert-goers. I became a ‘try-hard.’ A Try-Hard is a coffee shop term I use for a musician who shows up trying hard to be seen and heard, rather than being relaxed in the sharing of their songs. This took me out of the moment, which then led me to missing cues I’d relied on all year. I was having a hard time with my fingers and ears at that point, and lost the ability to grasp the sacredness of the space and the exclusivity of the event. I was there to perform and I had slipped below my A-game. I felt I was living inside my own shred series, live, without the need of an overdub. An inner battle between understanding my self worth and a lack of it commenced.
Here were 50 thousand attentive people, observing, raising their hands in the air, shouting freedom! They did everything I invited them to do; dance, play and participate. But I continued to fear the language barrier and let my lack of concentration steal my thunder. I hadn’t learned yet that Burmese consider it in an honor to have foreigners in their country. Feeling lackluster, I questioned if my show and I were the right fit for the gig. This is never a good thought to have while you’re performing.
One of my less positive thoughts sang, kill me now, but only for a shameful second. Should lightning strike me dead, I didn’t want this show to be my last. I was better than this.
What steered me away from sheer panic or flipping into default mode was the homework I’d done on human trafficking, along with the smiles I’d meet as a scanned the crowd of happy concert-goers. This concert wasn’t about me. It was a radical awareness rally disguised as a rock concert. I was there to help create a draw, to be sugar in helping medicine go down. And I was grateful to be of service. And it was gratitude, once again, that got me to the next level.
The entire experience was unique; perhaps the most unique concert I’ll ever play. I saw a hundred thousand hands in the air and heard 50 thousand strong chant the word Freedom! And though all this was happening, I still stood nervously inside my skin and inside my songs. I wouldn’t fully relax until after the concert was over.
By then, I felt a little embarrassment speaking to the press, feeling as if my songs were not the powerful, pinnacle everyone was hoping for. Still, I never turned my attention away from the real issue. I was there as a messenger, helping to spread peace, prevention tools, and protection from the horrors of human trafficking.
My head, heavy with thought, dropped tired to avoid the bright lights of the press wall. I stared at my hands, the same hands I’ve had with me all my life. I remembered picking up a guitar for the first time when I was 17. And I remembered telling myself at 18 that I would pursue music as a career until I’m 40, and if I didn’t succeed, at least I would have played guitar for 22 years and by then, contract or no, I’d probably rock. And as I looked down past my hands, allowing my gaze to drift further down the slope of the shaky wooden platform we were all standing on; myself, the lights and cameras, all of us a few hundred yards away from the ancient golden stupa, my feeling of any lack of self worth finally dissipated. When I looked up, towards the magnificent light of the distant pagoda, I had returned to calm.
I felt in that moment anyone can rise to fame and fill an arena. Few get to go on tour and entertain audiences with their unique sound, catchy lyrics or beautiful voice. And even fewer get the opportunity to be one of the first to sing with tens of thousands in a movement to bring an end to human trafficking. I got to do that here in Myanmar. And it was awesome. And I am ready now.