Global Citizen’s CEO Thinks Music Is a Key Part of Wiping Out Extreme Poverty

Hugh Evans and the anthem for activism

Money can't buy a ticket to one of the hottest concerts of the year, and that's just how Hugh Evans likes it. The CEO of education and advocacy group Global Citizen wants people to mobilize to fight extreme poverty in the world, and when they do—via lobbying Congress, signing petitions, tweeting decision makers—they'll win a chance to see chart-topping acts for free in New York's Central Park. Global Citizens, as members are called, have taken millions of individual actions in this battle since 2012, starting what Evans calls a "sustainable movement, not a flash in the pan."

The Global Citizen Festival, timed to coincide with the UN General Assembly meeting in September, drew 60,000 people last year for Pearl Jam, Beyoncé, Coldplay, Sting and other headliners. It's the flagship event in the nonprofit's effort to stamp out extreme poverty, defined as living on less than $1.50 a day, by 2030. (Artists for the fifth anniversary concert this fall will be announced July 12.) For the Clio Music Awards this year, Evans (whose high-wattage fans include Bono and Michelle Obama) will serve as a juror and will receive an Honorary Clio Music Award at the Clio ceremony Sept. 28 in New York. (Clio and Adweek share a parent company.)

Evans spoke to Adweek about soundtracks for social movements, brands as change agents and relentless positivism.

Adweek: What kind of work will you look for as a Clio Music juror?
Hugh Evans: I'll evaluate on the creativity of the idea and how it tries to tackle problems and connect with the audience. Things that are on the cutting edge of digital communication really excite me. I want to be challenged in my own thinking about what's excellent—I want to find those ideas that make me go, "Wow!"

Why do you think music and activism pair so well together?
Activism is from the heart, and it needs an anthem. And music has always been this amazing unifier. That's why Beyoncé and Eddie Vedder got together to sing "Redemption Song" (at last year's Central Park concert), and we're releasing it this Christmas to help drive people to take action to end extreme poverty. And that's why I'm so excited about our project called Metamorphoses, with Mumford & Sons, The National, Kanye West, Ellie Goulding and others, which will be the world's first truly crowdsourced album. (The collaborative 12-track collection will launch in the fall.)

Why do you choose not to go the Live Aid, Farm Aid traditional concerts-for-fundraising route?
Based on any conservative estimate, ending extreme poverty is a $256 billion a year challenge, if you tried to reduce it to purely monetary terms, which you can't. No black-tie gala dinners are going to end this problem by themselves. We take a structural approach and ask, "What are the systems that keep people poor?" And we get involved there, looking at things like unfair trade practices, lack of education, children's health issues. We believe that our voice is greater when it's amplified, and if tens of thousands of us call on heads of state and governments to invest in ending global poverty, it's enormously powerful. It's far greater than what we could raise if we ran a charity gala forever.

What's your reaction when people call you insanely optimistic?
I'm under no illusion that we don't have a long way to go—I've been a long distance runner all my life. I'm seeing all these incremental changes, and the optimism is justified because the world is getting better. Already in my lifetime, extreme poverty around the world has gone from 52 percent to 10 percent (according to the World Bank). There's the prospect of ending it all together, so it's not just a fanciful notion. And some of the greatest minds, like Bill and Melinda Gates, are applying themselves to this challenge.

What role can brands play in solving global problems?
They can have a direct impact on issues through their own philanthropy and put their core businesses to good use, such as a drug manufacturer subsidizing medicine that prevents disease in children. Or they can get behind the mission itself, using their reach and scale, their marketing and media to build a true movement. We work with brands like Gucci, Comcast, Citi, HP, Caterpillar, H&M, iHeartMedia to make as much noise as possible and achieve the broader vision.

This story first appeared in the May 23, 2016 issue of Adweek magazine.
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