Milarepa Fund Co-Founder Erin Potts Memorializes Adam Yauch
"I don’t think as much fun has ever been had while trying to do good in the world."
Erin Potts (second from left) and Adam Yauch (second from right). Photo from PeaceJam.
Erin Potts was still in her early twenties in 1994 when she co-founded the Milarepa Fund with Adam Yauch of the Beastie Boys. The goal was to help raise funds and awareness for the movement calling for a free Tibet. As part of this effort, she became an organizer of the Tibetan Freedom Concert, an annual benefit festival that gathered alternative rock and hip hop acts. Potts and Yauch became close friends and he even served as the maid of honor at her wedding.
After she left the Milarepa Fund, Potts worked for years as the Executive Director of the nonprofit agency Revolutions Per Minute. She now lives and consults in New Orleans, and she recently started the artists and activists residency program Jumpslide.
Potts’ work with Yauch and the rest of the Beastie Boys came during a defining period in the group’s history, when they were releasing some of their best music while also engaging in other creative pursuits and getting deeper into activism.
Today marks the five year anniversary of Yauch’s death, so we spoke Potts about their history and what she learned from him.
MASS APPEAL: How did you two start working together in the first place?
Erin Potts: I was living in Nepal when I first met Adam. He was there on vacation and I was there studying Tibetan language and human rights work. Somehow some of the people in my group of friends knew somebody that he was traveling with and we ended up talking to each other at a party and became fast friends.
Me and another friend showed him around the Tibetan parts of town and had one of those crazy days where you take two steps and you run into a friend and his sister’s getting married, so all of a sudden you’re the guest of honor at a Tibetan wedding. They didn’t know [Yauch] was a Beastie Boy, it was just we were there, so we were the guests of honor next to the bride and groom. Then we left there and we’d go to another place. It was just one those magical days where one thing lead to another.
He ended up leaving the next day, but we stayed in contact. When I went back to the States to finish school we just started talking: I was an activist. he was a rockstar, and what could we do to help Tibet?
What was it like working with him?
I was so new to doing work of any sort, but I don’t think I realized how different everything was. Working as an activist in the music industry was kind of crazy. I didn’t know much about the music industry at the time, so a lot of the people who worked with Yauch—his managers and his whole team–were really, really helpful to me in learning how to do everything that needed to get done. It was this family vibe. When I came into that group of people, the Beastie Boys family, they kind of took me under their wing.
Working with the guys directly and Yauch in particular, those guys messed around and everything was a tangent. There were often costumes or wigs involved in crazy meetings, and it was just a lot of fun.
I wrote something right after he passed about how I don’t think as much fun has ever been had while trying to do good in the world. It was always hysterical. I think this is really important. I, as an activist, tend to be very serious, the problems of the world are grave. At that point in my life I don’t think I knew how to mess around enough, and I really learned a lot about how that lightness and that ability to joke was really important to actually getting the work done. It was what could sustain you personally and in a community of people trying to do really, really hard work and kind of do the impossible. I learned a pretty big life lesson from that.
And when I say everything was a joke, that might make you think that they didn’t get stuff done, but I’ve never seen more productivity out of a group of people. At the time they had Grand Royal magazine and the record label. Mike [Diamond] was doing X-Large. Yauch was starting to do film work. And they all had musical projects and personal lives and it was like on and on and on. The stuff that they were doing was a laundry list of really great, creative, intriguing stuff. And yet they messed around a lot.
That was a life lesson for me, especially thinking about it in this day and age. Everybody is so serious, on their phone all the time, too busy to do whatever. But [the Beastie Boys] got a lot done. They did incredible things, whether it was creatively, business wise, or with activism. They took it to another level, and they did it all while goofing off and having a great time and loving each other.
How did Yauch feel about taking on this role of being a musician who is an activist as well?
I think he was a little uncomfortable with it. He didn’t want to come off as a know-it-all. He didn’t want to come off as telling people what they should do. And yet he knew that people were looking to him to be a leader. I think he actually walked that line pretty well.
I don’t know if you’ve seen the movie he made about the Tibetan Freedom Concert, but there’s this part in it where he starts reading the letter that we wrote and had tens of thousands of people sign, asking the president to do certain things with regards to Tibet and human rights violations in China. He starts reading the letter and he says, “Dear Mr. President” and then he starts kind of giggling. I think it was because he sort of recognized, “This is crazy, here I am telling the president what we think he should do with regards to Tibet and human rights.” It was kind of a juxtaposition that he felt, but I don’t think he was hugely uncomfortable with it. I’ve seen others become reluctant activists. He wasn’t reluctant. He just knew that it was unexpected. And he knew that there was a huge responsibility with it.
When people think about the Beastie Boys, their story is kind of about them maturing as artists and people, and I think their interest in activism plays a big part in that, whether it was their work for Tibet, or supporting women’s rights, or speaking out against the Iraq War.
I was not kind to Adam when I first met him. The early shenanigans of the Beastie Boys didn’t sit well with me as a woman and as an activist and as somebody that, as I had previously said, was probably a little too serious. So I was pretty rude to him at first, and I remember somehow we kept talking and I realized it was hard for them.
All of us do stupid shit, usually when we’re younger. They just had cameras on them all the time. It doesn’t excuse what they did and the things that they said by any means, but having spent so many years with them, they wouldn’t sing some of their lyrics anymore. They changed them or they sort of made noises over them.
I think that the amazing thing about their maturity is they did so much, that they still remained joyful. They were joyful about their activism in a way that I never was and a lot of activists aren’t. The maturity didn’t change who they are. And who they are isn’t “Girls.” It’s fun-loving, creative, innovative, risk-taking, caring people, ultimately.