Hugh Evans Talks Merging 'Pop and Policy' With First-Ever Global Citizen Week: Exclusive

Hugh Evans, 2017
Grey Hutton/Global Citizen

Hugh Evans

When Global Citizen's Hugh Evans answered Billboard's call, it was the morning after Rihanna's Diamond Ball charity event, where Evans and the pop star planned to change the world -- specifically, how to continue their work with Julia Gillard and the GPE to reform global education for girls. This is just one of the star-powered meetings Evans has taken since founding the now-international Global Citizen Festival, which merges “pop and policy” by awarding concert tickets to citizens who record activist efforts on the organization's app.

The Global Citizen army has logged more than 12 million "actions" since its founding in 2008, from placing a call to a congressman to signing a petition, united in an overall goal to eradicate extreme poverty by 2030. And the army is growing: Evans kicks off the inaugural Global Citizen Week in New York City on Sunday (Sept. 17), culminating with the organization's annual music festival in Central Park, this year with donated performances by Stevie Wonder, the Killers, the Chainsmokers and others.

"All of a sudden, the footprint, it very much organically started to grow," Evans, 34, tells Billboard. "We never want Global Citizen to be a night in Central Park -- it has to be a 365-day-a-year movement to eradicate extreme poverty."

The free, week-long program includes everything from a celebration to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King’s pro-social justice "Beyond Vietnam" speech to panels on women's education reform and performances by the likes of Demi Lovato and Mumford & Sons. While many events are open to all who RSVP, others must be "earned" through logging actions in the organization's app, in the same way Global Citizen awards festival tickets.

Much of this is made possible through a powerful alliance Evans has built with the music industry. Previous headliners, from Pearl Jam to JAY-Z, have donated performances to the Global Citizen Festival, and the fest's current creative director is none other than Coldplay lead vocalist Chris Martin.

"Music, all throughout history, has been that great beacon of change," explains Evans, citing Quincy Jones' 1985 charity single "We Are the World" as one example. "You’ve got these amazing uniting moments... songs that periodically come together and show how music can unite a collective sentiment that we need to do better."

Evans adds that music helps Global Citizen reach the people who otherwise might not engage with activism. "Pop provides a way in which we’re not just speaking to the echo chamber of other charities talking to each other," he explains. "You need to be speaking to people who want to create change, but don’t know how."

And it's no mistake that all this takes place during the same week world leaders descend on New York City for the annual UN General Assembly. The actions encouraged by Global Citizen are specifically designed to put the pressure on government figures to make binding commitments. So far, it's working -- since its founding, Global Citizen has secured more than $30 billion in financial pledges.

In a recent example, the organization's army of citizens called on Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to commit $100 million towards polio eradication for the country's 150th anniversary. A few months later, at Global Citizen's Hamburg, Germany, festival in July, Truedeau got up onstage to make that $100 million pledge.

"Our global citizens went all-out, and all around the world, [Trudeau] got calls from every embassy in the world," Evans says. "And we succeeded."

Evans hopes that Global Citizen Week will expand to other countries soon: "I want that to be the case, 100 percent," he says. The festival has already launched internationally, with editions in Montreal, Canada; Mumbai, India, and Hamburg, Germany. And asked whether he's ever felt overwhelmed by challenges in, well, changing the world, Evans is ever-optimistic.

"You never want to lose your hunger for your mission, and I think that our team is hungry to create change," Evans explains. "Yes it’s hard, yes there are challenges, yes as a growing team, a growing organization -- it’s hard. But I think that creates this hunger that we’ve got to do better, we’ve got to do more."

The inaugural Global Citizen Week in New York City runs Sept. 17 through the Global Citizen Festival on Sept. 23. You can view the schedule, and find more information about earning festival tickets, here.