Those clunky translation earpieces were nowhere to be found last Thursday night in the United Nations General Assembly, as a multinational assemblage of talent and star power filled the great hall with music and poetry rather than the usual polyglot diplomacy. The occasion was a concert titled “Breaking the Silence, Beating the Drum,” which sought to remember the victims of past slavery while raising awareness of the contemporary tragedy of human trafficking.

Among the African and African-American luminaries in attendance, from Ladysmith Black Mambazo to the Blind Boys of Alabama to choreographer Bill T. Jones, perhaps the evening’s central performance came from a white guy: musician and activist Peter Buffett, who premiered a new song, “Blood Into Gold,” that he had created in collaboration with the chart-dominating Senegalese rapper/vocalist Akon. The song had been commissioned by the nonprofit Culture Project specifically for the event, and UNICEF produced a video to accompany it.

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The issue of human trafficking is having a bit of a moment in the culture right now. The Liam Neeson film Taken, which has taken in more than $137 million at the box office this winter, concerns the kidnapping of young women for sale into sex slavery. (To be more direct, it concerns an ex-CIA operative who massacres the gaggle of nasty Albanians who kidnapped his daughter, but whatever.) Meanwhile, the documentary War Child has been making the rounds of film festivals worldwide, relating the story of a Sudanese child soldier and building on the attention brought to the issue by mainstream films such as 2006’s Blood Diamond.

“It’s interesting how these things happen – how an issue such as trafficking, or Darfur, can suddenly achieve such a public moment,” Buffett says. “Part of it is that, thanks to advances in technology, we’re in this strange time when we can see into the lives of faraway people like never before. So we’re starting to see these darker elements of humanity, and find out what people are capable of.”


Peter Buffett (right) with AkonFor Buffett, taking up advocacy against human trafficking was a natural segue from earlier concerns. Earlier this decade he traveled to Sierra Leone and Liberia in the aftermath of their bloody civil wars, and witnessed the effects on that culture of the mass kidnapping of young people for purposes of rape or recruitment as child soldiers. He has channeled his responses to that experience into a series of charitable efforts, as well as into his music; in fact, it was that focus on African issues that brought him together with Akon.

Introduced by a mutual friend, the two men quickly found they had numerous interests in common. Akon heard a track called “Anything,” from Buffett’s 2007 album Staring at the Sun, and asked if he could remix it. “Months went by and I didn’t hear back from him, so I thought nothing was going to come of it,” Buffett recalls. “Then finally he sent it back to me, and it was wonderful – he had added all sorts of new beats to it, and put his vocal on it.

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“It’s turned into a great relationship. It’s an interesting musical collaboration, and it’s brought a new audience to my work. You always want more people to pay attention to what you’re doing, but I want that to happen in a meaningful way, so this has been wonderful.”

Buffett is in a unique position to engage in activism both artistic and philanthropic. He’s a well-known and well-connected musician, with 20 years’ worth of album releases and Hollywood credits; he’s also Warren Buffett’s son, and – in the wake of his dad’s announcement three years ago that he was giving his vast fortune to charity – Peter Buffett now runs a foundation whose endowment tops $1 billion.

A scene from Peter Buffett's show SpiritThe music came first. Buffett first gained prominence creating commercials for MTV and CNN during the early 1980s; his work as a recording artist dates to 1987 and includes several film scores as well as, famously, the “Fire Dance” sequence from Kevin Costner’s Dances with Wolves. That project led to Buffett’s long engagement with Native American issues and peoples, culminating in his development of an elaborate musical-theater event called Spirit that toured the U.S. and was televised on PBS during the late 1990s, and eventually was revived for the opening of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian in 2004.

“I don’t see a difference between the American Indian story and a lot of stories in Africa,” he says. “A lot of things that Europeans did to the Indians were very similar to the horrible things we’ve been hearing about from Africa – it’s just that you’ll never read about them in the history books.

“It all comes down to indigenous peoples and the effects of colonialism. No matter where you look around the world, you’ve got somebody laying their belief systems and power structure on top of somebody else. People are shocked by what they hear about Darfur or Sierra Leone or the Congo, but it’s an old story. We’ve just got to change it.”

Buffett has been making strides toward that end for several years, through his NoVo Foundation — which he had established before his father’s Berkshire-Hathaway wealth was divvied up. In the process, he has learned that charity, like imperialism, too often is carried out without a sustainable cultural sensitivity. “It’s very important to avoid falling into this trap of philanthropic colonialism,” he notes. “It happens all the time – people with money decide that they, and only they, know what other people need and how to give it to them. Too often, we don’t listen to the people who have been in a place like West Africa for thousands of years and know how to solve their own problems, or who have been through a lot and need to learn from their mistakes instead of having solutions imposed on them.”

The gaining of such perspective is only part of the education Buffett has received since the massive infusion of cash into NoVo’s coffers. His work in Africa, and recently with the U.N. and its network of affiliated Non-Government Organizations (NGOs), has shown him both the beneficence and the occasional illogic of the nonprofit community. “The whole philanthropy world is like capitalism turned upside down,” he says. “Every NGO and foundation should want to go out of business as quickly as they can, right? Obviously, there are big problems out there in the world that take time to address, but shouldn’t the idea be that you identify a problem, solve that problem as fast as possible, and put yourself out of business?

“Instead of that, if you look at the mentality of both giving and getting at these organizations, a lot of times they devolve into the people inside them trying to maintain their job security or the foundation’s institutional security. And they wind up doing a lot of things that aren’t focused on their core missions. It’s understandable — nobody wants to put himself out of work – but it’s an awkward fact of life at a lot of organizations.”

Buffett has the luxury of being able to give away large sums of money without needing to raise it himself, which has allowed him to take a generalist approach. His most recent undertaking, again in collaboration with Akon, is a website (relaunched last week, with assistance from YourCause.com) called IsThereSomethingICanDo.com; it serves as a clearinghouse for information and advocacy on a variety of social and development issues. Its current focus is, of course, on human trafficking, but Buffett also plans to engage with causes such as female empowerment, disease prevention and the environment.

“The website is an engine for recommending causes that people might want to pay attention to, and a way of connecting people who feel similarly about various issues,” he says. “Hopefully, we’ll build it out in a way that provides interaction among people — not a social network, because we don’t need another Facebook, but a way of connecting people with ideas and stories. I’d really like the site to feature the stories of people on the ground in developing nations or places that have experienced hard times, because telling those stories is the most effective form of advocacy.”

Buffett also has begun telling his own story, with its parallel tracks of music and activism, in a recent series of “Concert and Conversation” events. That story, he says, is very much “a work in progress, an effort to find the right balance between these two things. When we all got together for the event where my dad gave all his money away, he asked me how all of this would affect my musical career. I couldn’t give him an answer, because I couldn’t guess where this would lead – I certainly never imagined I’d be onstage at the U.N.”

Buy Peter Buffett’s music at Amazon.