Relive the Beastie Boys’ Legendary Tibetan Freedom Concert in SF

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Scaffolding at the back of the stage is on view behind three men, one playing bass, one playing a guitar and one standing in between them clutching a microphone.
Beastie Boys onstage at the Tibetan Freedom Concert, Golden Gate Park, June 1996. (Tim Mosenfelder/Getty Images)

Update, Feb. 26, 2023: Noise Pop’s scheduled screening of Free Tibet at The Cut Outdoor Cinema has been postponed until June 15, 2023, due to poor weather conditions.

Back in 1996, Beastie Boys’ Adam “MCA” Yauch was going through a spiritual awakening. He had recently converted to Buddhism after years of studying the religion and Tibetan culture. Yauch had attended lessons by the Dalai Lama and spent time with the monk Palden Gyatso, who had survived torture and imprisonment in Chinese camps for 33 years.

As Yauch embraced Tibetan ideologies, he felt compelled to do something to help the people of the region who had been living under Chinese occupation since 1949.

“There’s really only a couple of years left that Tibetan culture is gonna survive unless something starts changing,” Yauch told Inside Edition at the time. “At the rate that their culture is being destroyed, there’s very little time left. I think we all have a responsibility because it’s part of our world. To ignore it is to contribute to it.”

What Yauch came up with to assist the Tibetan people was the biggest benefit concert since 1985’s transatlantic Live Aid event. The two-day Tibetan Freedom concert in Golden Gate Park’s Polo Field ended up attracting more than 100,000 fans and raising $800,000.


It’s no surprise that the lineup featured a lot of the biggest alternative acts of the day. On Saturday, June 15, 1996, Beastie Boys, the Smashing Pumpkins, Foo Fighters, A Tribe Called Quest, Pavement, Cibo Matto, Biz Markie, Richie Havens and John Lee Hooker all performed. The following day, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Rage Against the Machine, Sonic Youth, Beck, Björk, Yoko Ono, De La Soul, Fugees, Buddy Guy and Skatalites hit the stage.

A fresh-faced woman with dirty blond hair sits calmly next to a man with a shaved head wearing a buttoned up shirt. She is wearing a puffy white winter coat.
Björk and Adam ’MCA‘ Yauch hang out backstage at the Tibetan Freedom Concert, San Francisco, June 1996. (Tim Mosenfelder/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)

The shows were a huge deal at the time, and two years later resulted in a concert documentary directed by Sarah Pirozek titled Free Tibet. The movie is a mashup of live sets, crowd footage and interviews, plus historical context about the occupation of Tibet. It’s far from a perfect film — at the time, one New York Times review despaired at the “well-meaning musicians who ... display a woeful lack of eloquence and coherence when given the opportunity on film to rally support.”

But the film does preserve footage from a significant day in San Francisco music history. It is peak-’90s viewing — the music, the fashion, the pre-cellphone mosh pits, the slackerdom. (“I care, you know,” one kid says, “but short attention span.”) Though several sets from the weekend are available to watch now on YouTube — Rage Against the MachineBjörk, Smashing Pumpkins, Pavement —  the quality of those is decidedly grainy.

The Free Tibet documentary has been lost to time in a lot of ways — there is no trailer online, and it’s not available to stream anywhere. Unless you’re willing to invest in a DVD or VHS purchase, it’s likely you’ll never see it. That is, unless you head to The Cut Outdoor Cinema on Feb. 26.

Free Tibet is screening as part of this year’s Noise Pop festival, and marks the movie’s 25th anniversary. The screening will also feature a Q&A with Deyden Tethong of the Milarepa Fund​​ — the nonprofit co-founded by Yauch to raise funds and awareness for the Tibetan cause — and Stacy Horne, the Noise Pop producer who helped plan the original Tibetan Freedom concerts with Yauch.

Sure, the movie doesn’t know if it wants to be a concert film or a rallying cry. But in many ways, that reflects the Tibetan Freedom concert itself — and much of the 1990s musical landscape.

Free Tibet is showing at The Cut Outdoor Cinema (250 Main St., San Francisco) on Sunday, June. 15 at 7:30 p.m.