On December 2nd I woke up in London, the last stop on a short, successful tour of Europe. Reviewing the pages from my journal that morning reveal notes about how to improve my show. I then boarded a plane and flew back to San Diego, stamping my passport closed on another exciting chapter. My life sounds easy and breezy. And it is.
Dec 2nd was also the day that Shine, a 21 year young man escaped imprisonment from a fishing vessel where he was held prisoner and forced to work for 3 months. I sat with Shine at a monastery in Yangon, Myanmar yesterday as he told me his story.
While visiting a Buddhist temple, he and his best friend met a young girl who asked if they’d help her find her missing mobile phone. As the boys got to know the girl that afternoon, she invited them to consider traveling to Bangkok where her uncle could get them good jobs. Charmed by the girl, it sounded like a good idea. (This is generally the case for victims of trafficking. If the offer sounds too good to be true, it probably is.)
Shine and his friend went to a nearby border town and joined an illegal migration from Myanmar into Thailand.
An illegal migration takes 8 days, walking through overgrown forests at night, remaining quiet, with little to eat or drink. People migrate like this all the time hoping for light at the end of the journey. More often then not the groups are misled and don’t end up where they were promised. This was the case for Shine. Instead of bustling Bangkok, he arrived at a remote dock, where he realized he’d been had.
The boat captains began dividing up the men. Shine insisted he and his friend stick together. They were denied. So they put up a fight. Shine was struck over the head. When he regained consciousness, he was already at sea, without his companion.
The boat returned to the dock once a month but each time all the trafficked men on board were locked up, unable to go ashore.
After three months of grueling, unpaid labor, the boat was accidentally left unlocked for a moment at one of the moorings. Shine made a run for it and seeing another boat being raided, he was able to run directly to authorities who immediately conducted a raid on his boat, freeing 8 other men. His friend however, is still missing. Some boats would be gone from the dock for up to 6 months, he said. And it’s possible his friend was forced onto one of these boats.
Since Shine’s return to Myanmar he’s worked diligently with UN officials and local authorities to find his friend and to prosecute their traffickers. One of the traffickers agreed by phone to release the missing boy and return him by Dec 13th. But as of this post on Dec 17th, there is still no sign of him.
I couldn’t help but think of my best friends back home and how easy our lives have been growing up in the United States. For whatever reason we were born into better circumstances, with freedoms and opportunities, and yet we still complain about slow internet or traffic jams or having to work extra hours during the holidays. I wished in those moments after speaking with Shine that I could call my friends and my parents and thank them and tell them how much I appreciate and love them. I always had a hot meal on Thanksgiving. And I was given all of my childhood (and much of my adulthood) to be a kid, free to dream. I didn’t ask for this life. It just was. Therefore it should be the strength of those of us born into better circumstances that lend a hand in lifting others up.
Cases like Shine’s are rampant in Southeast Asia. People are born into awful situations everyday, and many more are being coerced into exploitative situations as we speak. I believe everyone deserves a chance to pursue their dream. More and more survivors of exploitation are coming forward exposing their traffickers and the trade routes, and improvements are being made. But to truly eradicate this problem, it’s going to take a global effort, for example making sure there isn’t slavery in the products we buy.
Similar to Shine’s story, a mother and her 11 year old son had also just returned home to Myanmar after they too were fooled into thinking they would have a nice job and a better life working at a snack food factory in Thailand. They too migrated via the illegal route across 8 dark nights of jungle terrain, witnessing young girls being raped, and children being injured on the narrow path. The group of 100 ran out of food and water on the 6th day, making everyone weak and irritable, but any noise or complaint warranted a beating from their guides.
Upon arrival into Thailand, the mother and son were forced into an overcrowded van and taken to a shrimp peeling factory where they were forced to work from 3am to late in the evening everyday for 4 months; the young boy standing on a crate to reach the tables, on his feet all day, everyday. At night the boy would check the gate of the factory to see whether or not it was locked. Thankfully, a gate was left open one night and the mother and child escaped into the darkness, phoning a friend with a mobile phone the boy had stolen inside the factory for use in this very escape. He had kept the battery off of the phone to save its power and to prevent the phone from ringing. They connected with authorities who conducted a raid, but by then the factory had been tipped off and deported it’s illegal workers before it could be accused of harboring slaves. There had been as many as 700 people working in the factory at one time.
The most shocking thing I heard of all the survivor stories came from the mouth of the mother. Had she and her 11 year old son been captured during their escape, she was going to demand they both be killed; starting with her son, so she could see before she fell that his suffering had ended. The thought of being tortured any longer in those conditions was too much to bear.
Other than her tears you would never know that such a horrible thing had happened. The mother had gained back the weight she lost in the ordeal, and the boy was anxious to get to school and be a kid again. He was smiling during much of our visit together. They are ordinary people like you and I, who just want to live happy lives.
In Myanmar, there isn’t yet a television in every home. But the country is coming into it’s own quickly and media giants like MTV and CNN are there on the front lines educating audiences. Until then, the majority of the work to educate citizens is still done at the grass roots level, peer to peer. Groups like AFXB, an interactive theater group, travel the country performing in monasteries and schools, teaching kids of all ages about HIV prevention and human trafficking. At the political level, the government has recognized trafficking as a huge problem and recently signed into action The Anti-Trafficking in Persons Law, criminalizing sex and labor trafficking.
NGO’s such as WalkFree.Org are pushing big businesses even harder to prove they don’t have slavery in their supply chain. See on their website how they’ve recently sited Nintendo, a popular Christmas time toy maker, for using conflict minerals; those mined with slave labor and violence in the Congo in Africa. Game over.
I worked alongside a passionate woman from the United Nations who was happy the issue is finally in the public eye because the problem is currently the largest it’s ever been.
If you’re like me and you believe we can end this in our lifetime, join the fight to end exploitation and human trafficking by learning more and taking action @ WalkFree.Org.
Thanks for reading. And thank you for making a difference that makes a difference. – Jason
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.
The first I ever learned of Myanmar was on the hand of a Myanma Man who worked in the produce section of my grocery store. He was a happy guy that seemed impressed with my regular travels. When I asked where he was from, he demonstrated on his hand, the same kind of demo a person from Michigan might give when describing the location of their hometown. If your wrist is Thailand, and your thumb is Bangladesh, then the fatty heel of the palm is essentially Myanmar, known to many by its former name, Burma. The rest of your hand pretty much belongs to China.
Myanmar has been in the news a lot recently, especially since the 2010 release of democracy advocate Aung San Suu Kyi, one of the world’s most prominent political prisoners, showcasing the military’s move toward openness and domestic reform. Decade long sanctions against Myanmar have essentially cut-off the country from the developing world. A read of the sad second paragraph on Wikipedia about Burma sums it up.
My visit to Myanmar won’t be for government business however. Nor will it be a business venture. I’m not there to promote an album or sell ringtones to a burgeoning market. Nor am I there as an activist or even a tourist. As a guest and performer of MTV Exit, Live From Myanmar, my role is simple: Engage, Educate, & Empower the youth in an effort to End Exploitation and Human Trafficking. In a country whose windows were recently opened to download new information, I am going there to serve as a pop-up window; an ambassador of awareness; to share music and information that could potentially save lives.
Yesterday I discovered more than 50,000 tickets have been claimed for the free concert in People’s Square where the stage will be positioned near Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon. While I am confident our music will provide some familiarity, I assume a good portion of the tickets have been reserved by the curious. MTV Exit, Live In Myanmar will be the first open air concert in the history of the new country to feature an international artist. Am I nervous? Absolutely. But it takes a little fear to understand how strong you are and what you’re capable of.
MTV Exit is a long-running program in Asia. The 10 year old foundation has hosted more than 30 concerts across the region, with television specials, documentaries and regular broadcasts educating a new generation of viewers on the issues of trafficking and sexual exploitation. Audiences far and wide are aware of MTV’s presence. And with a line up of Myanmar’s top acts, the event is sure to make a noise. It excites me to know a concert addressing the realities and horrors of human trafficking has garnered this much attention and I am honored to be invited to sing as well as stand as an ally in the fight to end modern day slavery. I know my grocer will be proud.
Check out http://mtvexit.org/liveinmyanmar/ and take action to help me spread the message and save lives. And check back to this blog soon for more updates and observations. And thanks for reading! – Jason
I have a long running tradition for bringing in a New Year. I can’t remember where I heard it, but I was a much younger man when someone told me to set a clear intention at 12 o’clock. For instance, if you wish to travel in the new year, have your bags packed ready to go when the ball drops. If you wish to write songs or be a musician, have a jam that ushers in the new digit. If you wanna be an artist, then for Seacrest’s sake, throw some paint around. If you do your part, the universe will do Its. At the flip of ‘98 to ‘99, I was traveling across country with a friend of mine. We were somewhere in Oklahoma zooming west. That year I drove across the country 5 more times. Coincidence?
Last year my household and I created F***Yeah 2012. With legend suggesting the world would end as we know it, we wanted to create a year of firsts, filled with radical doings, and all around awesomeness. We brought the year in with a bang, having a F’Yeah party theme. We spray painted the words Fuck Yeah on the side of the house and welcomed the community to join us for a firey night of spray paint, roller skating, costumes and tomfoolery. A spray painted unicorn still drips on the wall of the living room reminding us of our pledge to be awesome. In the succeeding months I traveled to Antarctica and grew my hair out, neither of which I’d ever done before. I upgraded my Vespa to a motorcycle. We produced our first ever full scale world tour, bravely changing up the band, giving my decade long sidekick Toca Rivera a break from touring, welcoming Mona Tavakoli to the ensemble. We rallied and re-elected Obama and continued to speak out for Gay Rights, and within one year saw a HUGE shift in national public opinion. Fuck Yeah 2012!
Those decisions and creations weren’t easy, but remembering the theme, a year of being awesome, without compromising one’s integrity, I knew I had to soldier on and trust everything would work out. And it has. Last month my friends and family gathered in the tolerant city of Amsterdam for Thanksgiving, which in my opinion is the only place to spend Thanksgiving on a year dubbed F*** Yeah 2012.
And the year still isn’t done! On Monday, Dec 10th we play our first ever headline show at Madison Square Garden with Fitz & The Tantrums and other special guests, and then fly to Myanmar to be the first international act to play an open air concert there, bringing attention and hopefully an end to exploitation and human trafficking. F*** Yeah 2012!
And now I invite you to consider a theme for 2013; something that will surpass your resolutions and stick with you for the entirety of the year, uplifting and inspiring you to be the person you always dreamed you’d be. I invite you to think big, play full out, and try on: Livin’ the Dream 2013!
Here’s two of my favorite performances from this past year. The first was shot by I Heart Radio back in February when I still hadn’t found the right hat or style for my voluminous hair. Mona and I were matching our wardrobe everyday to show our unity as a new duo, The Duo Decibel System. The other, a Sade cover, was recorded in Paris. At the time these were filmed we were being met with much resistance and criticism, both from fans and industry alike. People seemed confused by my change of appearance and musical approach, but Mona and I believed in what we would accomplish together. We knew the music was true and served a higher purpose than our need to simply be accepted. We didn’t compromise our integrity in the process and were able to end each day with a proud nod. F*** Yeah.
I have to be honest. I wasn’t expecting the election results to come so early and I didn’t want to worry my election day away checking emails, Google results and Instagram. So I turned my phone off and worked in the yard figuring whatever will be, will be. The yard work consisted of constructing a set of stairs into the side of a hill giving us safer access to our ripening lemon tree which stands short, a new kid in an aging avocado grove. Physical labor is still in my blood. All men above me in lineage were working types and I use it to my advantage now as exercise and zen, a way to lively-up-myself to conjure fresh lyrics, a tip from Bob Marley, learned in the latest documentary about him.
Later that evening I took a break from writing my new romances and powered my phone on. I’d heard that my roommate had a flat tire and I wanted to see not so much if he was okay, but whatever pic may be posted of him changing the tire. I hadn’t anticipated the election being concluded so soon, assuming it would be a tighter, longer race, hence my enthusiasm for the vote this year. Needless to say, and perhaps tactless to say, I was so shocked by the early reports, to turn a phrase, I about shit myself.
And so to commemorate the end of this election season, I rest my political commentary on this blog with a post about a time I actually did shit myself.
In our house, if it’s yellow, we let it mellow. And if it’s brown, we flush it down. We haven’t gotten into compostable toilets yet, but predict they’re in a not too distant future. But this isn’t an entry about being green. It’s about childhood, when I didn’t know what being green was; only that being green wasn’t easy according to my Muppet Idol.
For a short while in my strange youth, I used to be bothered with going to the bathroom. I didn’t want to stop whatever I was doing; breaking concentration, inspiration or motivation with temporary relocation. And so I would hold it until it was painful.
One summer I was playing in the waves at VA beach. Or maybe it was Nags Head. Or Myrtle. I can’t remember the geography. I just remember the east coast beaches being wide and when you’re near the water, it’s a long way back to the motel, and suffice to say at my young age, I couldn’t be trusted to go it alone and I didn’t want to bother an adult. So I suppressed my urge.
At one point I’m a little above knee deep in the whitewash trying to act casual when a large wave appeared and flipped me over. At this point I got the full realization of having the shit scared out of me.
Rather than put my tail between my legs, I put my trust in bio-remediation and released the contents of my shorts into the retreating flush of the Atlantic Ocean forgetting that waves ebb and flow. Almost as quickly as it went, it came back again, washing up on the beach seconds later. With handfuls of sand I buried what I could, all to the sand crabs dismay. I felt shitty about it. Literally and figuratively.
After that incident I began planning my time a little wiser. These days I enjoy my quiet time in the bathroom, as most men do. In fact, it’s the most common place you’ll find me tweeting, following my Instagram feed, or updating this blog.