17 Dec 2017

How Music Forged a Fighter for Free Expression

Hunter Heaney, executive director of The Voice Project, on protecting artistic expression at home and abroad and on the power of music to change the world


Dan Morrell: The Voice Project is an 18-year-old non-profit dedicated to protecting freedom of expression. In this conversation between Voice Project cofounder Hunter Heaney (MBA 1996) and the Bulletin’s associate editor April White, Heaney talks about his unique path from entrepreneurship and investment banking at Goldman Sachs to taking up the fight for free speech.


April White: Hunter, take me back to the sort of first spark that became the Voice Project. You were volunteering at an internally displaced persons camp in Uganda, and you heard a woman's song.

Heaney: I was over in Africa doing some work, and in Africa, many of the organizations need very specific skill sets, medical training, logistics experience. I didn't have those, so I had to look for a while to find something that needed management experience that I had. Otherwise, you're just an aid tourist and, oftentimes, a draw on those organizations resources. The opportunity I found was setting up a job trading center at one of these IDP camps.

While I was there, someone had asked me if a woman's group in town, about an hour away, could speak with me. They wanted some advice on setting up a small business that they were doing. These women were all widows and rape survivors from the war. Their children had been abducted, they had been raped by soldiers, their husbands had been killed, and they were banded together to try and take care of each other. And it was an incredible story, I mean, to listen to these women and their resilience.

And their idea was they wanted to band together, buy a grinding mill, and sort of take care of each other, live together, if they could, and it was just this amazing story of resilience, community. And I said, absolutely, you know, let's get into this. You know, how much is the grinding mill? And they said it's $150.

And I said, well, number one, we're obviously going to do that, but number two, I want to take your story back to where I'm from, where this idea of community and looking out for each other oftentimes gets lost. So I want it to be a two way street. And they were so happy with that. They said, you know what, if we get this going, we could probably live together, and there's so many things that we could do.

And they and they broke into song, and they were singing this wonderful song and they were in tears, I was in tears. And I said, what is that song about? And they said, well, that's the song we use to call back the child soldiers and the ones who have heard us essentially, and we tell them they're forgiven and that no matter what they've done they can come home and we can end this. And it was just one of those moments that was simply the most amazing act of forgiveness, but also the most amazing piece of music that I've ever heard. And at that moment, that's when we started the Voice Project, to support them and to support what they were doing.

White: Tell me more about the songs, and what the Voice Project did on this first effort.

Heaney: What we started doing was working with the UN, and we would record the songs, that were these doo patcha songs that are essentially come home songs. That's what it literally means. We would record them and then transport the recordings over to Congo, and Central African Republic, and South Sudan where we were helping to build radio stations and broadcast them out to the LRA.

Basically, the songs were subverting the brainwashing that a lot of the commanders use, which is they will often make the children kill someone in their own community or their own family member, and then they will say to them, you know, we are your world now. You can never go home. They will kill you. And so these songs worked against that, but it was important that they were recorded locally and authentic, and they were incredibly effective in bringing kids out of the bush. And in fact, one study showed that Kony's army had been depleted down to just 200 fighters, and that from the intake interviews, with the people coming out of the bush, 80% of them were saying that it was because of the radio broadcasts they were leaving and deciding to try and come home.

White: Hunter, you met these women because you had the managerial skills they needed. But what was it about this music project that spoke to you personally?

Heaney: I've loved art my whole life and wanted to be involved in that in some way. And here, it was not just having an impact over time or over a lifetime, or shaping sort of a young person growing up who, I don't know, back in my day, would have been maybe listening to the Grateful Dead and so maybe ended up being a bit progressive. Now, you know, here was an immediate impact. These songs were being broadcast or sung from person to person, reaching out into the bush and letting these kids come home. And with—I just—I wanted to be involved in that and support it and amplify it as much as we could, and support other efforts like that around the globe. That, to me, would be a dream job, and so that's why I wanted to start the organization.

White: Was this the path you saw for yourself when you were in business school?

Heaney: No, absolutely not. I was—you know, I was just trying to get a better job, essentially, you know, to try and—try and be successful, I guess, is really what my path was. And I think my definition of success then was different than it is now. I think my idea of success then was more involved with what others thought of me and things like that. But what I realized, for myself, was that success is a much smaller thing. It's, you know, what your family thinks about you, and the moments that you have with you with your loved ones. I thought that maybe there has to be more to life than what I was currently doing my role within the banking community and then as an entrepreneur, and I think that that started as a nagging feeling just got louder into a voice that was yelling at me.

And so I had a number of issues. You know, I had—not only was it this voice in the back of my head. I was dealing with depression myself and feeling sort of unfulfilled, and that was sort of at the height of when most of the people would have considered that I was doing quite well. And so that was a very stark example for me, and I think that's what led me to go over to Africa and just to see—to learn about the situation, see what I could do, see what was going on.

White: When did the Voice Project become something that you knew you would continue to grow after your work in Uganda?

Heaney: One of the things that we found, as we looked around the globe for more of these efforts to support, was that—due to a number of factors, rising authoritarianism, diminished freedom of expression—is that more and more artists were getting locked up. So the folks that we would want to be supporting, doing these types of efforts or speaking truth to power, were being imprisoned, and this was happening at an increasing rate. And the first and most glaring example that we came across was Pussy Riot. So we started at the very end of 2008, and then in 2012, as we were trying to expand globally, is when Pussy Riot got arrested. And that was the first example that not only sparked our interest in those who were getting imprisoned, but really made us aware of the situation that was happening on a global scale.

White: Pussy Riot was a Russian protest punk group, and three of the members were arrested in Moscow. How did the Voice Project respond?

Heaney: We got in touch and, you know, we did the same thing we did in Uganda, which—and that we always hoped would be a mantra of ours, which is we asked how we could help, instead of barreling in with something. What they were facing was needing to get lawyers and, of course, international awareness of what was going on with the trial. And then after they were sentenced and sent to Siberian labor camps, the issue was clothing, food. Hiring local lawyers so that they were monitored and so that the prison officials would see that they are being watched, and if anything happened to them, if they showed up that day with bruises, the world would know about it. So there was an aspect of helping with the legal defense as much as we could, providing support and care for them while they were on trial and imprisoned, and of course, just the global advocacy and managing their international support funds.

White: Obviously, the Pussy Riot story is one that really broke through in, at least, US media. Do you think it raised people's understanding of this issue that you're trying to help with?

Heaney: It was such a high profile case, and there have been others since, not as high profile, but some of them piercing the filter bubbles in the West. And I think the more that that happens, the better, obviously. The more awareness that we have that people are getting arrested, still, all over the world, for taking a picture, or singing a song, or writing a poem, the more that we are able to connect those dots and see the trend, I think the better, because I think it will help us formulate a stronger response. And it's not just—it's not just abroad. I mean, it's here at home, as well.

You raise a very good point, which is, you know, we like to think of these arrests as something that happened elsewhere, no matter where we are. Where has the Voice Project worked?

I mean, all over the world. You tend to see the concentrations of these arrests where you would expect them, where the strictest limitations on freedom of expression, so China, Turkey these days. Many, many countries, Thailand, Vietnam. I call them clients, because in some regards, we have to think of ourselves as a PR agency for folks that are imprisoned and can't speak for themselves.

But we've had a number of cases in the US recently. Documentary filmmakers arrested at Standing Rock. Photographers arrested at the anti-Trump protest down in DC. Artists harassed. An artist named Illma Gore who did a famous naked Trump portrait, and a bunch of lawyers came after her. The clients behind those lawyers, it was a little bit indeterminate, but they came after her strong.

White: Give me a sense of what it looks like from your end. How do you find out about these artists? What kind of time, money, tactics does it take to protect their artistic expression?

Heaney: From our end, we are doing a lot of monitoring of local organizations, but generally, what we'll find is that there is a good local organization, a human rights organization within the countries, monitoring these arrests and these imprisonments. So we spent a lot of time monitoring them, trying to work with them as best we can, and then using sort of whatever resources we have available to us to give it more of a global scope, which can be helpful in applying international pressure or embarrassment for having this person in prison. Basically, we're trying to raise the costs of keeping this person in prison versus the benefit of keeping them in prison.

And from our standpoint, in terms of resources, we do it with a very small budget, not necessarily out of choice, but getting funding for human rights work internationally right now, with so much domestic focus, is difficult. And just in general, nonprofits are obviously difficult to fund, especially for us. We can't take any government related funds, because obviously, we need to be able to speak truth to power and, you know, we can't be encumbered by any certain allegiance to administrations or governments that might be imprisoning artists.

White: And what do you, as the Voice Project, consider success for these artists, for your clients?

Heaney: A government that releases an artist or drops the charges against an artist that we're advocating for is never going to say, well, it's because the Voice Project did this or any other organization did this or that. They're going to say it's a presidential pardon through the munificence of whoever is in charge, or something like that. But what we can do is try and raise these cases to the highest level we can in terms of international coverage, and also push on whatever levers we have available to us.

So I think a good example would be Tania Bruguera was an artist, Cuban-American artist, who was detained down in Cuba 2014, 2015, and this was just at the time that Cuba and the US were looking to normalize relations. And we got reporters down there. We tried to get that story into the press as much as we could. Here's someone who has been detained for simply artistic expression.

And what happened is that we made a big story out of it, and as the congressional hearings were going on about normalizing relations, she came up during those hearings. And it was shortly thereafter that she was released. So we can't link the exact sort of causal relationship there, but we just sort of know what are good levers to push on or where we can try our best.

White: Some people will say, in this moment when we're seeing a rise in authoritarianism, that there might be more important issues. There might be other things we should be worried about than protecting artistic dissent. Is this the most important way we can combat that?

Heaney: One of the things that has struck me from the very beginning with the project was watching these women in Uganda use that song to call back the child soldiers. My co-founder, Anna Gabriel—her father is Peter Gabriel—and my other co-founder, Chris Holmes, we've all been involved in the music industry for a long time. And it was something that Peter said, is that it's not surprising to me that the music is having this impact, because there is something about language that is cerebral, but there's something about music and art that goes directly to the heart and can move people directly to the emotions. And that's true around the world.

You know, we've had a dramatic transformation within the project, and me myself, honestly. You know, we started there in Africa trying to do something akin to aid work, essentially supporting the people, but it was in that traditional model of Western aid work. And I certainly had the realization that—and have learned much more about this sense that it is not just about delivering aid. If you start to go down that path, what you start to realize is that the rules of the global economy, of global trade, of what we do in the West to these countries—if we are extracting trillions of dollars in minerals from Congo and giving back a few million or even a billion in aid over time, then you have to really wonder what is that system that is in place.

And if—and if you understand that that is the system in place, then it becomes about speaking truth to power, and artists are so good at that. In fact, it's one of the very few asymmetric systems of power that exists. One person with a guitar, Bob Dylan with a guitar, can have more influence and more impact than millions and millions of dollars spent on think tanks or the American Legislative Exchange Council.

Skydeck is produced by the External Relations department at Harvard Business School and edited by Craig McDonald. It is available at iTunes or wherever you get your favorite podcasts. For more information or to find archived episodes, visit alumni.hbs.edu/skydeck.

Featured Alumni

Featured Alumni

Class of MBA 1996, Section D

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