By almost all accounts, the fans congregated in the living room of a private home in Washington, D.C. on Wednesday (Sept. 20) were there for one reason: To see Ed Sheeran perform in a setting they previously could only dream of. They’d won contests. They’d kept the location a secret. They’d skipped out on work and school.
And although Sheeran didn’t disappoint — “Thanks for taking the time off to be here… College is important, but not today,” he jested before launching into an acoustic set just inches from the 75 or so guests — the chosen few got a lot more than an afternoon with their music idol.
Sheeran’s performance was one-third of a show staged as part of Amnesty International and Sofar Sounds’ global Give A Home campaign to raise awareness for the world’s refugee crisis. And the DC gig was one of 300 shows featuring 1,000 artists in 200 cities in 60 countries in 24 hours — the Sept. 20 date selected to mark three months since World Refugee Day and one year since the UN Summit on Refugees, which Amnesty has vocally decried for coming up short on solutions.
As the first collaboration between Amnesty and Sofar, the event serves as another bellwether for the organization on the model of engaging (mostly) young people via more organic events a fraction the size of traditional benefit stadium shows. For Sofar Sounds, whose secret sauce is staging concerts in intimate settings, it could lead to pairing again with Amnesty and other organizations that align with its DNA.
All signs point to go. The DC event included a short address by Amnesty International secretary general Salil Shetty, who noted the world’s current 22 million refugees — the highest number since the end of WW2 — still represent just 0.3% of the world’s population and a tremendous opportunity for others to help. “I never met a refugee who wants to be a refugee. It’s not a lifestyle choice,” he said. “We often forget this.”
In keeping with the relaxed vibe, Amnesty reps asked attendees to text a number, and they would receive more information on how they can get involved… tomorrow. Today was for music and connecting.
To the delight of the Sheeran fans, the artist slid easily into the stripped-down environment. His 20-minute acoustic set comprised hits “Castle On the Hill,” “Thinking Out Loud,” “Shape of You” and “Perfect.” He chatted with the respectful crowd, then sincerely apologized for not being able to stick around. He had to go prep for his second sold-out night at DC’s Capital One Center, which had necessitated some logistical acrobatics.
“I didn’t want to not do it, so we found a way to make it happen,” Sheeran told Billboard of his commitment to Give A Home. And while it’s his first touch point with Amnesty, he hopes it won’t be his last. “We are all global citizens, and we should help people who need help.”
Participating was also an easy “yes” for Sheeran because the ask came from Holly Branson. Fun fact: Branson used to catch Sheeran playing gigs in the UK for audiences as small as the one gathered in DC; they connected, and he performed at her 2011 wedding.
Amnesty enlisted Branson to help shepherd the DC event. Together with her father Richard Branson and the Virgin Group, she’s been a vocal advocate for aiding refugees, most recently the climate refugees displaced from their homes in the Caribbean by Hurricane Harvey.
“The refugee crisis is something close to our hearts,” Branson said. “Even in the last 10 days there are 4,000 people on the local island next to where we live in the Caribbean who are homeless now. It’s devastating to see the effects, we want to do everything we can to help.”
While Sheeran delivered the star power, the most powerful musical messaging came from singer/songwriter Jaja Bashengezi, a refugee from The Republic of Congo, who has found purpose in sharing his story through music. He wrote the song “My Father Was a Good Man,” he told the crowd, after his father passed away four years ago and he wasn’t able to return home to bury him. It includes the chorus, “You taught me to believe, even in times of trouble.”
Bashengezi said Give A Home provides an opportunity to personalize the statistics. “People have different concepts of who the refugees are,” he told Billboard. “We are just people. We are not terrorists, it’s just what people do. Whenever there is a danger, people run away. People are running away from wars, it’s not because we want to leave our homes. We’re looking for safety.”
The DC set was closed on a high note by Local act Black Alley, which included a cover of Prince’s “When Doves Cry.” “Black Alley is all about helping the community,” singer Kacey Williams said. “So helping Amnesty International globally is something we were really happy to do.”
Amnesty believes the community connection is the key to spreading its message. “The problem is not getting fixed by anything in our current system. So we need people to be creative, to tell their members of Congress that it matters. And that’s what today’s ask is,” Margaret Huang, Amnesty executive director, told Billboard after the show. “We believe everyday people can take an action and make a difference for human rights. This is a perfect event for us. Get a ticket, listen to amazing music, listen to stories about refugees and then stand up and get involved.”