NEW YORK -- On a night filled with chilling stories of violence, torture and false imprisonment, a night when the dark side of humanity was in focus, Michael Stipe maintained his calm, dignified poise.
The R.E.M. singer and lyricist can seem like the coolest guy in the room and also the most serious. He can be both enthusiastic and guarded. These qualities were evident Wednesday night, as Stipe participated in the annual Reebok Human Rights Awards at the Miller Theatre on the campus of Columbia University here.
Stipe wore a black suit jacket, blue undershirt and brown casual shoes. After excusing himself from the company of friends at a reception next door at the Low Library, he offered his views on human rights activism, the night's awards and how his political and musical lives intersect.
"I think the main thing I've learned is humility," Stipe said, reflecting on the tumultuous lives he encounters through the human rights program. He spoke while sitting on the steps of the library and smoking a cigarette.
Stipe, 39, is a member of the award program's board of advisors, which selects four winners annually from a list of around 450 nominees dedicated to defending human rights. Singer Peter Gabriel and former President Jimmy Carter also sit on the board.
"I've been involved [with the awards] since 1992," Stipe explained. "Peter Gabriel and Jimmy Carter invited me to come to one of the awards ceremonies. Those two men for me are really very inspiring. I had no idea what I was in for. The award recipients are really very inspiring. It's an honor to be part of the process."
R.E.M. has a long history of involvement in humanitarian events and projects. This week, R.E.M. guitarist Peter Buck is in Cuba to participate in a cross-cultural songwriter's workshop and concert with musicians there. The band played at last year's Tibetan Freedom Concert in Washington, D.C., and Stipe appeared at the Tibet House benefit concert in New York last month to help raise awareness about China's occupation of Tibet.
While he explained that the band is considering it, Stipe said he was unsure whether R.E.M. would play at one of this year's four Tibetan Freedom Concerts. "Things have been talked about, but nothing's been set," he said. "We're embarking on a tour [in June]. It's a lot to have on our plate."
The band will be touring in support of its Up album, which is considered by many to be one of R.E.M.'s most experimental projects. Up, which hasn't sold as well as some of the band's other albums, includes the track "Lotus" (RealAudio excerpt).
Regardless of any future participation in charitable events, Stipe spoke softly but confidently of this night's work and how his participation affects his music.
"It's experience," he said. "And it's profound. And it's educational. And it's inspiring. It's very inspiring to meet people who are so dedicated to an idea. So much so that they would risk their lives. I'm not really faced with that very much in my life. These people are.
"The work that [past award winners] are doing this year ... it's because of their efforts that three people were released from prison in different places around the world. That's pretty astonishing," he added.
This year's winners include a woman who escaped from slavery in Ghana, a student organizer in Kenya, an activist for changed labor practices in Burma and an anti-death penalty attorney from Atlanta.
Stipe smiled as he reflected on the selection process. "It makes sense to [spotlight] something a little more personal than what you'll get in the news," he said. "Other times, someone's worked tirelessly or worked under the threat of death, torture or imprisonment."
Speaking of human rights offenses, Stipe expressed his frustration with NATO's bombing of Yugoslavia as a response to the country's aggression toward ethnic Albanians in the province of Kosovo.
"If you promise me you'll couch this in, 'He laughed, ha, ha,' I don't know why we don't just go in and pop the guy at the top," he said. "It doesn't really serve the war machine, I guess. It's ridiculous to bomb a country. But ... that situation is really horrible."
He told of activists in Kosovo who are unable to send video documenting the violence and abuses by Yugoslavian Serbs, because the chaos has crippled mail service. Stipe's voice trailed off as he relayed the story.
Several seconds passed, then Stipe spoke again. "Your shoelace is untied," he said, pointing to this reporter's shoe.
"Your shoelace is untied," he repeated. With that, the interview concluded. Moments later, Stipe returned to the reception.