Legendary singer-songwriter Jackson Browne has a long history of environmental and humanitarian activism — co-founding Musicians United for Safe Energy in 1979, leading the antinuclear movement of the 1970s and ’80s, and playing countless benefit concerts during his five-decade career. One of the more recent charities with which he’s become involved is Artists for Peace and Justice, founded by filmmaker Paul Haggis, which serves the poorest communities in Haiti. As Browne prepares to play APJ’s second annual Songs From the Cinema fundraiser this Oscars weekend, he explains why it’s still crucial to support Haiti, years after the country’s devastating earthquake.
“What happens with a disaster like the Haitian earthquake of 2010 is that, eventually, the cameras go to the next disaster, and it’s off the screen,” Browne says. “Because APJ has continued to work there, and they’re there after eight years … yearly, 2,800 of the poorest kids in the Western Hemisphere go to this high school for free, and they get a First World education. It’s not just a school. It’s the best school in Haiti. So it’s an ongoing philanthropic effort.”
As for the current political climate in the U.S., Browne muses, “Now you have — what was the word that somebody said? — ‘outrage fatigue.’ There’s outrage fatigue. This is a very difficult time for all of us, but you have to persevere. In the case of this particular event, our focus is to not forget that. We have, besides being a climate denier, you have a president who would call Haiti, El Salvador, and the African nations ‘s***hole’ countries. … Are we really at a place where that kind of idiocy is somehow ensconced in the highest offices, and the highest parts of government?
“We have to sustain our support of Haiti and the work that we’ve done. I mean, it’s more important than ever to continue the work that’s already begun. I think many people don’t even know about it. I’d like people to know about what’s been done in Haiti [by APJ], because it’s a great success story. It’s transferring that country from the bottom up. It doesn’t trickle down like make sure that they’re, you know, you help the economy by helping the rich entrepreneurs. No, it’s really like taking the truly, truly squalid housing, and poorest of the poor, and exchange it for housing with clean water and plumbing. … It’s really a very, very 360-degree effort at transforming society in Haiti. Very moving to see it.”
Browne was so inspired a few years ago after attending an APJ charity event that he completed what later became the title track to his most recent album, 2014’s Standing in the Breach — “a song of mine not only about Haiti, but about social justice in the broad sense, the degree to which you are moved to try to make the world a better place.” A key lyric in the song: “So many live in poverty while others live as kings/ Though some may find peace in the acceptance of all that living brings/ I will never understand however they’ve prepared/ How one life may be struck down and another life be spared.”
Browne further recalls how that APJ event encouraged him to put his money where his mouth is. “I didn’t have any money at the time; I had just bought a house. I was barely able to buy the house, and I had an agreement with my accountant not to buy anything for about a year: He said, ‘You can move into this house, but you can’t buy any furniture. Don’t buy anything! No rugs. No couches. Just go in there. You can move into this house with what you have.’ Anyway, I found myself pledging a high amount of money to this [Haitian] school, because I thought, ‘I have a house. You know, I have a house. And I’ll make it work.’ … That’s the thing, is we get out of touch in our lives, with all of our ambitions and things we’re trying to accomplish. We get out of touch with how much need there is in a place like Haiti.”
Browne continues to be inspired by Haiti’s culture. (“I think it’s the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, but the thing is, it’s also very rich with artists. … There are more artists per capita in the Haitian population than in any other country in the world. … It’s really a very vibrant, rich country.”) And he says Songs From the Cinema, which takes place in Los Angeles on March 3 and will feature performances by Browne, Adam Sandler, Rufus Wainwright, and others celebrating music from film, will have “a very deep political current underneath all the songs. … Well, not all of them. You couldn’t say there’s a political current under ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow’ [which will be sung by 13-year-old actress Simone Baker] … but it’s very much about the capacity to dream. It’s about the capacity to imagine, and to pursue your dreams — and for these children in this school, it’s very poignant.”
Other highlights will be all-star performances of Mary J. Blige’s Oscar-nominated Mudbound song, “Mighty River,” Common and John Legend’s Oscar-winning “Glory” from Selma, Ennio Morricone’s For a Few Dollars More theme, and the end credits to Robert Altman’s Kansas City, along with Wainwright’s “jaw-droppingly good” rendition of “Alfie” and Browne’s interpretation of the Nico version of his own classic “These Days” (which appeared on the Royal Tenenbaums soundtrack). “It’s a very thrilling ride for me to hear these songs come to life,” Browne gushes.
As for other causes that matter to Browne, he will continue to ensure that single-use plastics are never used at any of his events, including Songs From the Cinema (“The United States produces much of the waste; we have climate deniers in the White House, in the EPA”) and will keep crusading against nuclear power. “They’re about to shut [the] Diablo Canyon [power plant] 30 years after we blockaded that plant, and have fought it all the way,” says Browne, who along with Bonnie Raitt and Graham Nash was at the forefront of the Diablo Canyon protests, even getting arrested at one demonstration in 1981. “But they’re finally going to shut it down. And yet, even with the disasters like Fukushima, there’s an industry that believes that this is a viable thing, and that the dangers to us all are acceptable dangers. And it’s just the same hogwash. It’s the same incredibly mindlessness-seeking, profit-puking, mindless thinking that pervades capitalism. These are just the cost of doing business — all those lives, well, that’s the cost of doing business.
“So we fight it, you fight it, on every front. At the same time, you can’t be everywhere, but you can incorporate those ideals into your life, and especially try to be aware of our effect on the rest of the world.”
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