The Human Rights Warrior

Jennifer Prestholdt

Jennifer Prestholdt
Minneapolis, Minnesota,
February 25
Human rights lawyer, wife, and mother of three. (Not necessarily in that order.) I write about my experiences in fighting for human rights and how I am trying to bring those lessons home to my kids. Join our journey at, Humanrightswarrior on facebook and @JPrestholdt on Twitter. All material on this blog is © Jennifer Prestholdt, 2011, 2012


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MAY 6, 2012 1:50AM

A Beastie Boy's Surprising Legacy

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I had a bad feeling when Adam Yauch was a no-show for the Beastie Boys' induction into the Rock n' Roll Hall o' Fame in April. So, while I was not surprised, I was saddened to learn of his death from cancer at the age of 47.

The Beastie Boys were not my favorite band growing up. (That would be The Police and the Beasties were not, after all, The Police.)  They had an impact on my generation (X), however, that is worth acknowledging. Only a few years older than me, the Beastie Boys burst onto the national scene when I was still in high school. As a suburban girl in a small Southern city, whose first album was REO Speedwagon's Hi Infidelity  and first concert was the J. Geils Band (with Hall & Oates!), I found the Beastie Boys to be something of a breath of fresh air.  For me, they symbolized New York and the urban, East Coast, post-racial America that I had yet to experience.

I did see the Beastie Boys once, when they toured with Madonna in 1985 on the Virgin Tour, but that was purely by accident since I was going for Madonna and didn't even know who was opening. Quite honestly, I couldn't really tell the Beastie Boys apart. They all had dark hair and, what with the VW gold chains and sunglasses and baseball caps and all, they weren't that distinguishable. They were named either "Mike" or "Adam", so take your pick.  Sure, they had nicknames - "MCA" was Adam Yauch and "Ad-Rock" was Adam Horovitz - but unlike Sting and The Police, it didn't really matter too much to me. 

 "Enough of this hip hop! Bring on the Material Girl!" is what I mostly remember thinking during their set.

License to Ill came out in 1986. I didn't own it on cassette or LP but plenty of people at my college must have, because (You Gotta) Fight for Your Right (to Party) was de rigueur for dorm room parties. It was part of the soundtrack of my early college social life, right along with UB40's Red, Red Wine and Bon Jovi's Livin' on a Prayer. I can still close my eyes and flashback through the entire MTV video, complete with the nerds saying, "We'll invite all our friends and have soda and pie!" and "I hope no bad people show up!" The exuberant "KICK IT!" has, in hindsight, never really left me.


 Never really what you could call a fan, I pretty much lost interest in the Beastie Boys after License to Ill.   Frankly, pulling stunts like having girls dancing around in cages at their concerts didn't help much.

I came back to the Beasties in the mid-1990s. But not really because of their music.

Much to my surprise, Beastie Boy Adam Yauch (MCA, a.k.a. Nathanial Hörnblowér) had become a human rights activist.  He started a non-profit called the Milarepa Fund in 1994 to support Tibetan independence from China.  Royalties from the Beastie Boys' 1994 songs Shambala and Bodhisattva Vow (from the Ill Communication album) were dedicated to the Milarepa Fund and the fight for freedom for Tibet. They sponsored an information tent on Tibetan human rights at Lollapalooza and performed concerts to raise money for the cause.  In 1996, Yauch organized the Tibetan Freedom Concert.  The largest benefit concert in the US since 1985's Live Aid, it attracted 100,000 people and raise more than $800,000.  Additional Tibetan Freedom Concerts were held on four continents in 1999.

It turns out that the Beastie Boys had principles and they were not afraid to use them.  Shortly after the bombings at US Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, Adam Yauch used his time at the microphone at the 1998 MTV Music Awards ceremony to talk about stereotyping Muslims as terrorists. "It's kind of a rare opportunity that we get to speak to this many people at once," he said. "So, if you guys will forgive me I just want to speak my mind for a while."   He went on - prophetically, it seems now - to speak about the U.S. government's military aggression in the Middle East and the growing climate of racism towards Muslims and Arabic people. "The United States has to start respecting people from the Middle East in order to find a solution to the problem that's been building up over many years.

Another issue that the Beastie Boys took on directly was the rights of women.  They've been wrapping against domestic violence (“Why you got to treat your girl like that?”) at least since Paul’s Boutique. When it was announced that Adam Yauch had died, my friends on Twitter lit up the night with lyrics like “I’m gonna say a little something that’s long overdue/The disrespect of women has got to be through/ To all our mothers and our sisters and our wives and friends/ I want to offer my love and respect to the end” (from Sure Shot).    Song For The Man was written after Adam Horovitz observed the overt sexism - and blatant harassment of a woman - by a couple of guys on a train. If more men spoke out like the Beasties, the world would be a better place.

At the 1999 MTV Video Music Awards, when the Beastie Boys won the award for Best Hip Hop Video for Intergalactic, Adam Horovitz spoke about the problem of sexual assaults and rapes at Woodstock 99.  He made the pitch for bands and concert venues to provide more security to better protect women.

The Beastie Boys continued their political activism into the 2000s. After the September 11, 2001 attacks, for example, they organized and headlined the New Yorkers Against Violence Concert in October 2001. The concert proceeds went to the New York Women's Foundation Disaster Relief Fund and the New York Association for New Americans.


Adam Yauch with his daughter at Amnesty International's 5th Annual Media Spotlight Awards in New York in 2002

  Adam Yauch with his daughter at an Amnesty International Event

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I've been thinking about the life of Adam Yauch, which was far too short, and have come to realize that the Beastie Boys not only helped define the formative experiences of my generation but they are also representative of many of the traits of Generation X. Wikipedia has this to say about us: "When compared with previous generations, Generation X represents a more heterogeneous generation, exhibiting great variety of diversity in such aspects as race, class, religion, ethnicity, and sexual orientation." The Beasties, in freely crossing music boundaries between punk and hip hop and alternative, certainly are illustrative of this heterogeneity and diversity.  

But I think that another of our generational traits is the ability to change. (I love this quote from Wikipedia:  "Change is more the rule for the people of Generation X than the exception.[citation needed]")   The Beastie Boys were no different from many of us who were, in our youth, racist, sexist, and/or homophobic dorks. America was just a less tolerant place when we were growing up in the 70s and 80s. Not that that is an excuse for the many of us who stayed silent and went along with the crowd rather than speaking up for what was right.   


Like the Beasties, however, most of us Gen Xers have grown up and figured out that our actions - and our inactions - have consequences.  As Adam Yauch once pointed out, "Every one of us affects the world constantly through our actions."  To realize this and not take advantage of the chance to change would be a mistake. Like Adam Yauch and the Beasties, we should use every opportunity to take action for good. 

Most of the Gen Xers I know will, like the Beastie Boys, freely acknowledge our past immaturity, our arrogance and stupidity, and accept it without embarassment.  Most of us embrace change as the only way forward, even though it sometimes means also accepting criticism.  Adam Horovitz has a great quote that pretty much sums up this point:

"... (Y)ou might say that the Beastie Boy 'Fight For Your Right to Party' guy is a hypocrite. Well, maybe; but in this f***ed up world all you can hope for is change, and I'd rather be a hypocrite to you than a zombie forever."

That's a pretty good lesson for anyone, regardless of what generation you come from.

The other thing that I think that Adam Yauch and the Beasties symbolize for my generation is the ability to age with nimble good humor and some modicum of coolness.  To acknowledge we are aging, to joke about it, but to still be self-confident enough to hang with the young 'uns - this, I see as a generational shift. (By the way, there is nothing in the definition of Generation X on Wikipedia that mentions this trait.)  Maybe this is just another aspect of our ability to change, but the first minute or so of this video of the Beasties playing POW and Shambala live will give you an idea of what I'm talking about:


I'm sorry that Adam Yauch, a.k.a.MCA, a.k.a. Nathaniel Hornblower, won't be continuing this Gen X journey with the rest of us. I hope he knows that he left a legacy here on Earth that is bigger than his music. And wherever his soul resides now, I hope that Adam Yauch is still kickin' it.



Copyright Jennifer Prestholdt, 2012


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I wasn't a fan.

I didn't know about any of his human rights activities--maybe that's cool. He seems like he was a guy doing the right thing without making a media circus of it like some other celebrities do.

RIP Adam Yauch
Jennifer, I never listened to the Beasties, but my husband did. I am a baby boomer "tween", or so I have been told, a few years too old for an "X", but it sounds like Adam Yauch did a lot for not only his generation, but people of all ages. I had no idea he was an activist for stopping violence against women. I'll have to start listening to them now. Thank you for this well-written, informative post.
I've haven't been a big fan of any group or singer since Annie Lennox and the Eurythmics but any guy who says " this fucked up world all you can hope for is change, and I'd rather be a hypocrite to you than a zombie forever," is definitely worth listening to.
Thanks so much for your comments, friends! Honestly, I never would have predicted back in the 1980s that the Beastie Boys would ever be activists on issues I care deeply about. So even though I am not the biggest fan of their music, I am a fan of them as individuals. So much of the eulogizing has been about their impact on music that I felt compelled to say more. Jmac is right about that quote from Adam Horovitz. How can you not respect a band that believes that?
Thank you, Jennifer for posting this. I learned much today about some good human beings. The above statement by Yauch is profound, should be a model, and in my opinion, true. R
Who would have guessed it of the Beasties, right? Everyone's parents were afraid of us listening to them yet they turn out to be the good guys. Thanks for your comment, Sam.
I never really listened to the Beastie Boys, and only remember miscellaneous details via the zeitgeist. I had no idea about Adam Yauch's human rights work. Thanks for sharing.
A good lesson in second chances, I think. Thanks for your comment, Pauline!
Thanks for this very different, and meaningful, 1980s music history lesson.

And thank you so much for liking my might have been piece. I guess I'll see what happens, won't I?
I'm with Erica, stuck between the boomers and Y with no generation of my own... but the Beasties were still mainstream fare. Like all musicians, you can see that the money that is made funds favorite political causes. My favorites (Bono and Sting) have made such a difference!! Thank you for this!!
This was a beautiful and brilliant tribute. Thank you. And RIP Adam Yauch.
Thanks, OS ladies (Mary, BP and Alysa) for reading and for your kind comments! But with today's news about Maurice Sendak, it is turning out to be a really bad week for our Gen X icons.
Great post. I loved the Beastie Boys, but, the same as you, not as much as the Police. Like all the other readers I didn't know about their activism. You really have to admire them for using their sway to do something important and useful--very glad to have read this piece.
Hey, thanks MWG! I don't think they made a big deal about it, but I think they enjoyed being able to contribute. After I wrote this, I heard from an old friend whose wife worked for the Portland Bicycle Alliance that at one point when they came through town they made a big unsolicited donation. I would think that being able to do that kind of thing would be a big benefit of being rich and famous.