9 Times Beastie Boy Adam Yauch Took a Stand for Peace and Nonviolence

The Beastie Boys’ deepest voice always hit the high notes.

adam yauch

Illustration by Dan Redding

Adam Yauch had the world’s ear. He was the volcano-throated voice of the Beastie Boys, one of the dopest hip-hop groups to ever blast from a stereo speaker. Along with Michael Diamond and Adam Horovitz, better known as Mike D and Ad-Rock, the Beastie Boys could have shown the world just about anything they wanted to.

For over three decades, Adam Yauch chose to show us love. Known as MCA on the microphone, Yauch started his career with a hard-living B Boy stance – but as the Beasties’ career progressed, he put that pose in his rearview mirror. Yauch had found peace in his universe. He had become a devout Buddhist. This was a man reflecting on what it means to be an artist. Yauch used his platform across music, video, magazine and television to shine a light on the violence that he feared was going unnoticed across the globe.

When Yauch spoke, it was about something he knew was going to affect people’s lives – peace. He didn’t just say this as MCA or as his alter-ego, Nathaniel Hörnblowér. This message didn’t require an alter-ego; in fact, it required no ego. Yauch was aware that confronting discrimination was a risk to his image – a risk he decided was worth it. The Beastie Boys’ deepest voice always hit the high notes.

Here are nine defining moments when Adam Yauch used his art to speak out against violence and stand up for peace across the continents.

1. Yauch’s Spiritual Awakening

“On Paul’s Boutique, there’s a song where I am starting to say what I’m feeling spiritually,” Yauch told Shambhala Sun in a 1995 interview. That song was ‘Year and a Day,’ which gave Beasties fans a glimpse of an evolving MCA. Under thundering break-beats and sizzling lead guitar, Yauch soaks his vocal in distortion and says, “my body and soul and mind are pure.” Balanced by ‘Shake Your Rump,’ which found MCA feeling psychedelic (“I’m in a lava lamp inside my brain hotel”), ‘Year And a Day’ was Yauch’s lucid communication about what was coming next for him in both sound and discipline.

2. The Creation of the Milarepa Fund

In 1992, Adam Yauch visited Nepal to snowboard. It was a break from the Check Your Head recording sessions, which marked a new direction for the Beastie Boys, featuring a change in lyrical tone and a headlong dive into live instrumentation. Years before, the Licensed to Ill Tour had sent the B Boys on stage with cages of go-go dancers and inflatable beer cans. Paul’s Boutique, produced by the Beastie with the Dust Brothers, expanded the band’s sonic palette but didn’t quite change the direction of the band that Yauch sensed was inevitable.

On the mountaintops a world away from New York City, Yauch encountered refugees on their way to Tibet. He heard about the ways of the Dalai Lama and a Tibetan folk hero called Jetsun Milarepa. He met Erin Potts in Katmandu and grew so devoted to the cause of a free Tibet that by 1994 the two co-founded the Milarepa Fund to sponsor peace by festival.

The Milarepa Fund worked with the Beastie Boys on their Lollapalooza tour, distributing Buddhist literature and inviting the Namgyal Monks to dance on stage. The cause of Tibetan freedom and non-violence had become vital to Yauch’s life.

3. “The disrespect of women has got to be through”

‘Sure Shot’ (from 1994’s Ill Communication) was an instant classic of the Beastie Boys’ catalogue. During his verse, Yauch pulled the plug on the cartoon qualities of his past image and made himself clear: “I wanna say something that’s long overdue / the disrespect to women has got to be through / To all the mothers and the sisters / and the wives and the friends / I wanna offer my love and respect to the end.” The verse has become one of the MC’s lyrical hallmarks.

“There are a lot of lyrics on our first two albums that talk about carrying guns or being disrespectful to women,” Yauch told the Chicago Tribune in 1999. “We looked at it as a fantasy, a cowboy movie. But I began to realize those things have a deeper effect, where people actually think that’s who we are. And in some cases, you kind of become that, a caricature of yourself, your image.”

4. Yauch’s Interview with the Dalai Lama

The Beastie Boys were like an older brother that taught you everything. You learned what Brass Monkey was and that Sadaharu Oh had a lot of hits. And in 1993 they squeezed almost all of it into 100 pages – enter Grand Royal magazine.

The self-published six issues of the now-legendary magazine informed fans of the Beasties’ interests in music, art, cooking and mullet haircuts. One Grand Royal highlight was Adam Yauch’s decision to give the teachings of the Dalai Lama a major platform in the B-Boy universe.

Adam Yauch’s interview with Tenzin Gyatso, the fourteenth Dalai Lama, was published in Grand Royal issue number 3 in 1996. The discussion highlighted Buddhist concepts for the Grand Royal readership, celebrating compassion and equating nonviolence with resistance.

“Some people think that being nonviolent is a sign of weakness or passivity,” the Dalai Lama remarked in the interview. “However, I believe that violence goes against human nature and that nonviolence is a sign of strength.” The importance of nonviolence became one of Yauch’s central beliefs.

Adam Yauch’s interview with the Dalai Lama can be found here.

5. Organizing the Tibetan Freedom Concert

The first major success of the Milarepa Fund was the 1996 Tibetan Freedom Concert in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park. 100,000 people showed up on a Saturday and Sunday in June to dance to the Beastie Boys along with Beck, Red Hot Chili Peppers, A Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul and Pavement. The bands were gathered to promote the cause of a free Tibet.

Related: 20 Things You Didn’t Know About the Beastie Boys

Yauch’s attitude during this era was also reflected in the Ill Communication track ‘Bodhisattva Vow.’ In Buddhism, a bodhisattva is a compassionate person who delays the attainment of enlightenment in order to assist suffering beings in their quests for peace. In the song, Yauch raps, “So I pledge here before everyone who’s listening / To try to make my every action for the good of all beings / For the rest of my lifetimes and even beyond / I vow to do my best, to do no harm.”

6. Yauch Smashes His Handgun

Ill Communication includes ‘Something’s Got to Give’, a cruise-speed jam that cuts right to it: “I wish for peace between the races / Someday we shall all be one.” The song is peaceful in poem and groove, but in the video, we zoom in on Earth to follow the path of missiles and rolling flames on an aerial assault that takes us to Adam Yauch smashing his 9mm handgun with a sledgehammer. He swings the sledge from behind his shoulder and blasts the weapon into fragments. Yauch’s act of defiance was a rejection of his early Beasties bad-boy image, hip-hop’s glorification of guns, and of violence as a means of solving problems.

“There’s something coming to the surface,” the lyrics warn us, and the resistance to violence found its way onto the stage as well. While introducing the song live in Roskilde, Denmark, in June of 1998, Yauch thanked his heroes: “This next song is dedicated to everyone who has stood behind nonviolence before, to Ghandi and Martin Luther King and his holiness the Dalai Lama. The next song is called ‘Something’s Got to Give’.” This was the year the Beastie Boys would challenge hate and violence on microphones of all platforms.

7. Standing for Nonviolence in Front of an Audience of Millions

When Adam Yauch took the podium at the 1998 MTV Video Music Awards to accept a Video Vanguard award, he made a quick thank you to Beastie Boys creative staff before segueing into a more serious topic. Yauch acknowledged that he had the world’s ear before saying, “I think it was a real mistake that the U.S. decided to fire missiles into the Middle East. I think it’s very important that the United States start to look into non-violent means of resolving conflicts. Those bombings that took place in the Middle East were thought of as retaliation by the terrorists, and if we thought of what we did as retaliation, certainly we’re gonna find more retaliation from people in the Middle East – from terrorists, specifically, I should say, because most Middle Eastern people are not terrorists.”

“I think that another thing America needs to think about is our racism,” Yauch continued, “racism that comes from the United States towards Muslim people and towards Arabic people. And that’s something that has to stop, and 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.”

The Beastie Boys continued their message of peace with the New Yorkers Against Violence Concert, which occurred less than two months after September 11, 2001.

8. ‘An Open Letter to NYC’

On this track from the Beastie Boys’ 2004 album To the 5 Boroughs, Yauch sews it all together in stories celebrating the diversity and resilience of his home city kin. Manhattan had been attacked only three years ealier. This track is a love letter and a ‘how’ve you been?’. It is the Beasties’ reminder to New Yorkers of how much they have in common. On the track, Yauch defines New York City as “Diversity unified, whoever you are.”

9. Adam Yauch’s Closing Messages of Peace

In a July, 2009, video to fans, Adam Yauch sat with Adam Horovitz at a mixing board and revealed a diagnosis of a cancerous tumor found in his throat. He wanted fans to know the tour and new record might be pushed back. He was talking about friends and family. He was thinking about everyone else.

Adam Nathaniel Yauch died on May 4, 2012.

A statement from the Dalai Lama said, “Adam had helped us raise awareness on the plight of the Tibetan people by organizing various freedom Tibet concerts and he will be remembered by his holiness and the Tibetan people.”

In New York in 2014, Buddhist monks performed a breakdancing routine to celebrate the second MCA Day and remind the world of Yauch’s courage and grace.

Even in his 1998 VMA speech, Adam Yauch had closed with gratitude. “I thank everyone for your patience in letting me speak my mind.”

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