25 March 2009
Press Conference

Department of Public Information • News and Media Division • New York

PRESS CONFERENCE ON INTERNATIONAL DAY OF REMEMBRANCE OF VICTIMS OF SLAVERY


Correspondents were briefed today at a Headquarters press conference on a series of events at the United Nations today in commemoration of the International Day of Remembrance of the Victims of Slavery and the Transatlantic Slave Trade that includes a concert in the General Assembly Hall, a documentary screening, a student video-conference, an exhibition and a drumming event.


Briefing the press, Kiyo Akasaka, Under-Secretary-General for Communications and Public Information, recalled that two years ago, the General Assembly had designated 25 March as the International Day of Remembrance of the Victims of Slavery and the Transatlantic Slave Trade -– “a horrific and dehumanizing period in our collective history”.  In response to that decision, the Department of Public Information (DPI) had initiated an effort to mobilize schools, civil society, the media and the general public to instil in future generations the causes, consequences and lessons of the transatlantic slave trade and to warn of the dangers of the present-day racism and prejudice.


“We are delighted that many artists and celebrities have accepted to add their names and voices to this event,” he continued.  Today’s concert had been organized around the theme “Breaking the Silence, Beating the Drum”.  All the artists would be performing pro bono.  The performers represented many countries, where the slave route either originated or ended -– from Africa to the Caribbean and the Americas.  Later this evening, an Emmy Award-winning musician, Peter Buffet, and pop star Akon would present a debut of a new song, “Blood into Gold”, which had been specially written for the commemoration.


Also speaking to the press were participants and organizers of today’s cultural evening and concert in the General Assembly Hall, including musicians and pop stars Akon, Gilberto Gil, Salif Keita, Emeline Michel, Peter Buffet and Nile Rogers, as well as a renowned producer Allan Buchman, who is also a founder and Artistic Director of a not-for-profit organization, Cultural Project.


Opening the discussion, Mr. Gil said that globalization emphasized the need to live together in today’s complex world, for which harmony, understanding, balance and peace were crucial.  He was thankful to the United Nations for proclaiming a day to commemorate the past and work hard for the future.  Representing Brazil and South America here was an honour and a pleasure for him.


Akon said that having grown up in Africa and moved to the United States, he had experienced both cultures and understood the difference in his history and his future.  It was heartening to see different generations, different cultures and different countries come together “to ignite a positive spark”.  Today’s event reminded people where they came from and how far they had come.  “When you reflect on slavery and how we live together today, this could have never happened years ago,” he said.  People were coming together “slowly, but surely”, and one important reminders of that change was Barack Obama becoming President of the United States.


Mr. Buffet added that it was wonderful to be commemorating the end of slavery, because it showed that phenomena like that could be ended.  By presenting a new song with Akon today, he wanted to remind people that human trafficking and slavery were still an issue today.  “But let’s remember that we ended something, so we can end this, too,” he said.


Ms. Michel said that coming from Haiti, she particularly appreciated today’s commemoration, which allowed the international community to see “where we are at and also the next steps”.  It was delightful to see so many cultural icons come together for the event, and she was sure everybody would have a fantastic time tonight.


Speaking in French, Mr. Keita said that he was very happy to be at the United Nations for the Day, which shed light on the events of the past and highlighted the values of humanism.


Mr. Rogers said that growing up, neither he nor his mother had had a voice, and today, he had found himself standing on stage in the General Assembly, with amazing people.  The power of music, art and dance gave him the ability to communicate a message that was bigger than anything he had ever imagined.  He was overwhelmed by the power of artists and musicians to give a voice to the under-privileged.


The United Nations stood for the best hope for humankind, Mr. Buchman said.  The world was “in a pretty bad shape” yet “there is this wisdom that existed through the ages, with the best of mankind”.  If that wisdom could be heard, humanity had a chance to make an impression on decision-makers “about all our future”.  He felt that if one combined great music that opened people’s hearts, important messages would be better heard.  Out of that concept, the idea of the Day of Remembrance celebration had grown.  Organizing the concert had been very challenging, but also very fulfilling.


Responding to a question about the role of music in bringing about change, Mr. Gil said that when the military dictatorship came to power in Brazil in 1964, he had been very young.  He belonged to a generation that was caught “in the middle of that drama” of having liberties taken away.  Young and enthusiastic, “we had no choice but defying the dictatorship”, he said.  That protest took the shape of songs, poetry and theatre.  He had lost many friends and ended up in exile, but democracy had been reinstated in his country.


“At a particular time, if you throw together leadership and music, you get change,” Mr. Buffet added.  One could not think about the civil rights movement without “We Shall Overcome”, for example.  In many cases, songs were critical in bringing people together.  He was amazed at the power of music, which was “part of the stew” at a time of change.


Asked about the impact of Mr. Obama’s election, Mr. Gil said that people from different cultures had been profoundly affected by that event.  President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva of Brazil who had met President Obama in Washington last week, had said that he had been praying for him more than for himself.  “We are all praying, in different ways,” he added.


“Obama is not going to save us -– we are going to save Obama,” Mr. Buffet added in that regard, saying that everybody had to pull together to push for change.  “It is up to us to bang the drums louder, to keep everybody moving.”  To several questions about the impact of today’s commemoration, Akon stressed the importance of publicizing such events and preparing the public opinion in that regard.  “All you can really do is try to reach the people who want to be reached,” he said.  “Our responsibility is to bring our message to the people who are not necessarily aware of it.”


Mr. Rogers emphasized the importance of community outreach.  Growing up in New York, he had seen the United Nations as a structure that was “larger than life”.  Many New Yorkers did not see the United Nations as part of the community, as “touchable”.  It was a perception problem, and it was necessary to improve the Organization’s public outreach.  Personally, he was a big fan of the United Nations and believed that it was important to educate the public about its role.


Mr. Buchman added that the footage of the event would be distributed for free around the world.  The role of such cultural events was to humanize the dialogue between the “untouchable elements of the United Nations” and the people who needed to be touched.


* *** *


For information media • not an official record