After Marcus Mumford visited Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan five years ago, he spent a few days in nearby Jerusalem — and met a woman whose words would change his life forever.
Robi Damelin’s son had been murdered by a famous Palestian sniper after he was conscripted into the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). She transformed her grief into a group called the Parents Circle, reconciling with Palestinian parents who had also lost children. They partner up, Mumford tells Hozier in the sixth episode of the Cry Power podcast, and tell their stories side by side.
The Mumford and Sons frontman went with her to listen to some of these personal histories. But before that, Damelin told him: “Whatever you do, don’t pick a side, because then you import my conflict into your country ... Wherever you see injustice, stand up for it.”
“And she said, ‘the most important thing you can do is listen to my story, because when you listen to my story, you bring dignity to my humanity,’” Mumford said.
In a studio at the Universal offices in Kings Cross, London, Hozier says that such advice is essentially “empathy in action.”
When it comes to action, the activism of musicians often goes hand in hand with visibility. But Mumford’s parents brought him up in an “anonymous giving” culture. Add that to a reaction to “preachy” bands from the 1990s, and the result is that most of Mumford’s work has operated privately, distinctly under the radar.
“I don’t really talk about this stuff very much publicly,” Mumford says.
That all changed in 2014 with the war in Gaza, alongside the extermination of the Yazidi people by ISIS. Both he and his wife became ambassadors for War Child — an organisation that stands up for the rights of children caught up in conflict — and hosted a fundraising dinner where Hozier later performed.
Mumford bore witness to some of the places that had been hardest hit, including the trip to Zaatari refugee camp where he met Damelin. He then felt a responsibility to listen to and amplify other people’s voices.
“I really resist people talking about things that they haven't seen for themselves or experienced themselves,” Mumford adds. “I feel uncomfortable with people telling other people's stories on their behalf.”
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That responsibility to listen extends over every inch of Mumford’s activism.
He talks at length on the podcast about how he and Adele tried to help those in their community after the tragic Grenfell Tower fire that killed 72 people a London tower block in June 2017.
Their first instinct was to put on a fundraising concert — with backing from “some of the world’s biggest artists” — but they pulled the plan after they hearing the stories of survivors, and understood that it wasn’t what the bereaved needed or wanted.
“Grenfell, sadly, is a story of voicelessness,” Mumford tells Hozier.
He eventually went to support a group called Grenfell United alongside Adele, Stormzy, and Akala — an organisation led by the community, for the community. It’s that empowerment, that urge to put other people’s experiences first, that connects Mumford to War Child and their work to protect children, equally powerless and voiceless, from conflict around the world.
Last year War Child directly supported 123,182 children, young people, and adults worldwide. That’s everything from thousands of kids getting school equipment in Yemen to children undertaking educational activities in Afghanistan.
“It guts me when Trump talks about cutting aid — I’m an American citizen so I’m allowed to talk about Trump!” Mumford says. “I was born in the States … and I like the global and the local — they’re not mutually exclusive.”
Global Citizen helped launch War Child’s US sister charity, Children in Conflict, with a special concert in New York on Sep. 17, 2017 — and we campaign extensively on education in conflict zones too. Mumford has since set up War Child FC, harnessing the power of football to improve the lives of children in conflict zones.
“Innately, people are awesome — and to be celebrated,” Mumford adds. He says it’s the new catchphrase for his band.
New episodes of Cry Power will drop every fortnight. Head to GlobalCitizen.org/CryPower to check out the latest episodes, take action on the vital issues discussed in the podcast, and to #PowerTheMovement to end extreme poverty