It began no differently from any other music festival.
On a scorching Saturday afternoon, thousands of revelers gathered on the Great Lawn of New York’s Central Park to hear a star-studded lineup of musical talent that included No Doubt, fun., Tiësto, Alicia Keys, Carrie Underwood, Jay Z, and unannounced surprise guests. “We’re coming for you, Beyoncé!” yelled a giggling — and prescient — group of teenage girls, clad in bohemian festival stylings such as crop tops and flowery headbands, as they waited in the nearly two-hour-long line that snaked through the park from 72nd Street down to Columbus Circle.
Yet the festival was no Lollapalooza Lite (there was no alcohol, for starters). The third annual Global Citizen Festival is an initiative of the Global Poverty Project, whose mission is to end extreme poverty by 2030. Instead of selling tickets or holding a lottery for wristbands, organizers required attendees to visit the Global Citizen website and participate in charitable actions, which included signing petitions, sharing selfies, watching videos, and doing volunteer work. This entered them in a drawing for one of nearly 50,000 tickets.
Between musical acts, celebrities such as Hugh Jackman, Zachary Quinto, and Jessica Alba, as well as world leaders including Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, showed up to say a few informational and motivational words. President Obama, appearing via video, told the audience that they are “now part of the global fight to end extreme poverty, and this is a fight we can win.”
While many members of the young-skewing crowd were just there for a free concert, the constant barrage of video messages and speeches guaranteed that the issues remained at the forefront. “It’s great to use music in a way that will actually benefit general education on serious issues,” said one concertgoer, Mary Lynn Seery, an immigration attorney in her mid-20s in a black silk peplum top. She said she thought it was smart to enlist celebrities to get the message out. “I feel like our generation in general is pretty unaware. I feel like I’m one of the oldest ones here. So just to see even the minimal exposure that people are getting here, and having the celebrities talk about interesting and important causes, it’s really great. It shows a good thing about our generation.”
Interspersed among the diehard Gwen Stefani and Jay Z fans were a smattering of attendees who had been involved in the Global Citizen movement in more far-reaching ways. Writer Gina Zammit attended last year’s festival after completing the “Live Below the Line” challenge, spending less than $1.50 a day on food for five days. “I was doing it with a friend and we tried to buy ramen, and I was like, ‘Oh great—four for a dollar!’ And she’s like, ‘That’s our entire budget for the week!’ ” Brandishing her $8 sandwich, Zammit laughed, “That was my entire weekly budget. We’re so spoiled here. So its interesting to see how other people live.” (Of course, even veteran Global Citizens have ulterior motives. “I’m hoping Beyoncé comes out,” Zammit confessed.)
Chef and New York Cares volunteer Andrew Yancovitz came to the first festival back in 2011 but was particularly compelled by this year’s focus on sanitation. “I took a class at Hunter College called ‘The Toilet,’ about restrooms, and when I saw that [open defecation] was a big part of the message this year, I knew we had to come,” he said. While he acknowledged that clicktivism was a risk, he felt that simply forcing people to pay attention to the issues was a good start. “I think a lot of people probably just click through [the videos on the website], but I think some of the people we’ve talked to since we’ve been here today—people certainly are bringing up the issues that they’re trying to discuss. A lot of people are like, ‘Oh, I didn’t even realize this was an issue.’ ” Added his companion, Diane Gest: “Even if just one thing they see on the site sticks in their head, I think it’s worth it.”
By both musical and humanitarian metrics, the night was a resounding success. The three main focuses of the festival were vaccines, education, and sanitation—in particular, the often overlooked issue of open defecation—and one by one, global dignitaries stepped out to put their money where their mouths were. Junaid Ahmad, senior director of the World Bank Group’s Water Global Practice, announced during the concert that the organization would commit $15 billion over the next five years to water solutions and safe sanitation, while Norwegian Prime Minister Erna Solberg pledged $250 million to supporting vaccines and immunizations across the world. “Our world needs more solar power and wind power,” said U.N. Secretary-General Ban as the evening wound to a close. “But I believe in an even stronger source of energy: People power!” he cried, while audience members held their hands aloft in a zero formation, signifying their commitment to be the generation that reaches zero poverty.
The night concluded, as hoped, with a Beyoncé cameo. The superstar joined husband Jay Z onstage to close out the concert with “Holy Grail” and “Forever Young.” And as the 50,000-strong audience swayed in rapt unison, the New York skyline twinkling in the background, it was hard not to feel inspired by the sea of human energy harnessed in Central Park that night.
Of course, the added Beyoncé power didn’t hurt.