300 gigs, one day: Amnesty International is enlisting your favourite musicians to stop the refugee crisis

Amnesty International and Sofar Sounds are putting on more than 300 gigs across the world in aid of the refugee crisis. With a host of major talent already confirmed and many more artists to be announced, September 20th is set to be a landmark in the year's musical calendar and the day we start talking about refugee crisis again. We spoke to two of the organisers behind the project to find out how music can help those in need.

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The refugee crisis has become Europe’s most mundane tragedy. Somewhere amid the constant elections, the Trump vs. Macron competitive handshakes and the pointless political pissing contests (read Brexit negotiations), the European community has lost interest in the twenty-two million people that have crossed the borders of their home countries in search of a safer home. Where once images of the Jungle camp in Calais or the lines of poverty struck families at the Macedonian border filled our screens, now the refugee crisis only gets mentioned if it’s a particularly slow news day.

The reasons for Europe’s apathy could be vastly debated. Whether it’s the result of a right-wing press so determined to stop refugees making a home in Europe they’ll advocate genocide or the seeming impossibility of settling so many people in a continent where the working class and already existing immigrant populations are in terminal financial decline, Europe just doesn’t care anymore. Or at least its respective governments don’t. Like climate change, the refugee crisis has become existentially dull, a problem so vast that the sum of those individuals who do genuinely care about it fails to equate to any meaningful change in national or international policy.

It’s for precisely this reason that Amnesty International have launched its new I Welcome campaign. Aimed at bypassing apathetic governments, the campaign appeals directly to local communities and sympathetic individuals, hoping to inspire them to create a welcoming environment for refugees and showing that no matter how daunting the crisis may seem, there is something they can do to help.

The latest part of the campaign, Give A Home, launched on World Refugee Day. A series of gigs hosted in collaboration with Sofar Sounds, Give A Home aims to raise both awareness and money by putting on over 300 intimate shows in people’s homes. On September 20th the likes of Hot Chip, The National, Jessie Ware, Ed Sheeran, Oh Wonder and POLIÇA will take to living rooms across the world to perform for fans lucky enough to win tickets through Amnesty’s raffle. They’ll be joined by speakers from Amnesty, refugee artists and poets and local campaigners, all of whom will hope to raise awareness about the problems facing refugees today.

It’s a huge undertaking, with shows in more than sixty countries and teams across the world working to put it all together. No surprise then that’s it’s been a long time coming. “In 2004 I came up with the idea of major artists doing gigs in small places,” Stephen Budd, the executive producer of Give A Home for Sofar Sounds tells me. “The idea [was] you’d buy a lottery ticket to be one of the 150/200 people there. I was the director of the Barfly group at the time and I put the series of twenty shows together for Warchild.” In 2012, Budd revived the project with the help of Sofar, hosting shows with Lianne La Havas and Bastille. “There was zero cost involved, the audience loved it and they made significant amounts of money out of the lottery ticket. So when Rafe at Sofar heard about the I Welcome campaign Amnesty was putting together…there was a natural match.”

“From Amnesty’s perspective we’re the biggest human rights organisation in the world [and] the international perspective of what you’ve just heard appealed very much to us,” agrees Tom Davies, Amnesty’s campaign manager for I Welcome in the UK.  “We’re campaigning to have a more welcoming environment for those who have made that journey and have reached safety,” he continues. “That twenty-two million figure is high, it’s massive, but it’s actually only 0.3% of the global population right now, so it’s a manageable problem that the world faces. The international community is pretty shocking in the way it’s responded, burying its head in the sand and trying to keep people at arm’s length. What we’re saying is that on the one hand the international community can and should do more and on the other, now that they’ve reached safety we don’t want [refugees] to suffer again.”

The concerts themselves are an inherent part of creating that environment. The shows are a tailored to their specific location with artists playing in their home towns and in cities with existing fanbases as well as refugee populations. “In every city from Reykjavik to Bogota something’s going to be happening,” Budd says. “So there’s a local talking point in every one of those cities. There’s people playing that you or I may not have heard of but are the biggest artist in Argentina…We need to speak to the individual teams in the individual cities to OK the artists we’re suggesting. It’s more about “Does this work for you in your city?” and they come up with their own suggestions and filter that back and we try and hook those people up too.”

All this is done to create as intimate and welcoming an atmosphere as possible. Stephen explains that “as part of the campaign we’re encouraging artists to tell us about their favourite song that reminds them of home” in order to create empathy for refugees and make the crisis relatable on a human level. “[It’s] about reminding people that we’re very lucky to have a roof over our head and getting people to a place where they can conceive of not having a roof over their head that’s safe.,” Stephen elaborates. “I think it’s very much part of the process, getting people to put themselves in the position of those people who are extremely less fortunate than themselves.”

As well as performances from well established acts, refugee bands and poets will be invited to perform at as many of the events as possible and refugees in the local community be offered free tickets. “We see music, and people coming together in that shared space, in a home, as a way of demonstrating welcome to people,” says Tom. “We’ll be looking, for example, at free tickets for refugees to attend those concerts, talking at those events, some refugee bands, really an opportunity for the music world to extend a welcome to refugees.” The gigs act not only as a fundraising tool or means of raising awareness but also serve to humanise the crisis, bringing together refugees and members of the local community. With many of the line-ups kept secret until the day of the performances, there’s also a fair amount of hype being generated around the shows, perfect for raising awareness of the campaign and the issues it aims to tackle.

Amnesty hope that the welcoming spirit at the gigs will live on in local communities long after September 20th and that people will be encouraged to step up and fill the gap left by governments when it comes to caring for refugees who have been resettled. Indeed, aiding refugees that are already settled in new countries is as much a part of the I Welcome campaign as encouraging governments to accept more refugees. The problems that refugees face once resettled are myriad, from difficulty finding a job to the increasing scarcity of publicly funded English language tuition, life in the UK for a newly arrived refugee can be alienating and isolating, a fact compounded by the constant negativity that surrounds discussion of their plight in both the press and in government. Both Amnesty and Sofar hope to combat this through the Give A Home concerts, “what we’re trying to achieve with these concerts is to show people that whatever the circumstances might be there are people who care, who want to welcome them, to befriend them and help them to create a more safe and stable life in the UK,” Tom concludes.

While the gigs themselves are still a few months away, things are already looking good for the Give A Home project. “This is a grand experiment and all the signals are that it’s going to succeed,” claims Budd. “If it does then I’m sure we’ll be working out the next steps straight afterwards. The refugee crisis isn’t going to go away, we can make a dent in it and hopefully the work that Amnesty is doing in the next 2 or 3 years is going to make significant shifts. It’s heavy lifting it’s not something that’s going to just disappear, so I imagine that If this is as successful as I think it’s going to be we’d look to do it on an annual basis or something.”

After our interview Tom tells me about a woman he met who knitted bed matts for refugees in Calais out of plastic bags donated by local shops. Its these kind of small acts of kindness that Give A Home and I Welcome aim to inspire more of. Individuals and local communities defying the apathy and neglect of government and reaching out directly to refugees. Just because the government of your country isn’t doing enough to aid refugees doesn’t mean that you’re powerless to help.

Give A Home takes place September 20th with over 300 concerts taking place across sixty different countries. Head to the Sofar website now for the full list of performers and to see who’s playing where you live. 

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