NEW YORK – This year’s Rock the Vote Awards couldn’t have been more timely. With a stated goal of “protecting freedom of expression and empowering young people to change their world,” the group used this star-studded evening Feb. 22 to speak out against censorship and war.

Rock the Vote, which annually holds its awards ceremony on the night before the Grammys, was founded in 1990 by members of the recording industry in response to a wave of political attacks on freedom of expression. The next year it expanded its focus to the political empowerment of the country’s youth.

This year’s Patrick Lippert Award went to multiplatinum-selling recording artists Peter Gabriel, a 2003 Grammy nominee, and Alanis Morissette. Chuck D, cofounder of Public Enemy, one of the first big rap groups, received the Founders’ Award.

“Music is a language that unifies the planet,” Morissette told the crowd filling the Roseland Ballroom. “Lately, I’ve seen democracy rise up” like we haven’t seen before, she said, noting in particular the Feb. 15-16 anti-war demonstrations around the world.

Chuck D, honored for his work with advocacy groups like Rock the Vote, the National Urban League and the National Alliance of African American Athletes, among others, continued the emphasis on preventing a war.

“The important people are those who lead normal lives … outside of LA, New York, and especially DC … ,” he said. While politicians are readying for war, “farmers are losing their property, [and people are wondering] how to pay the rent.”

Chuck D criticized the producers of the Grammy Awards, who had forbidden presenters and performers from mentioning the war, and offered this advice to the audience: “Tell the president he has to listen to the rest of the world.”

Gabriel, who was introduced by renowned singer-songwriter Lou Reed, is the founder of Witness, an organization that gives local groups around the world hand-held cameras to document human rights abuses.

A founder of the rock group Genesis before launching a solo career in 1975, Gabriel wrote the song “Biko,” the first pop song to address apartheid. The infamous Rodney King beating videotape inspired him to found Witness.

Morissette has donated her talent and time to numerous benefit concerts including: Groundwork, a benefit for the Act To Reduce Hunger; the John Lennon Tribute Concert, a benefit for gun control and 9/11 relief; and many more.

Grammy nominees Vanessa Carlton and The Flaming Lips performed at the event, as did British singer Robbie Williams and Public Enemy. The Flaming Lips went on to win a Grammy the following night.

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