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Beyond Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, Peter Gabriel Is a Voice on World Stage

NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- I will be going to the Barclays Center in Brooklyn on Thursday, April 10, to see Peter Gabriel inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame for his career as singer, composer and all-around musical mastermind behind such hits as Solsbury Hill, Don't Give Up, In Your Eyes, Shock the Monkey, Games Without Frontiers and others.

But that honor alone masks what may be his most important work. 

Building out from both his social and political concerns, outlined in songs like Wallflower and Biko, and his fascination with technology, Gabriel founded Witness in 1992, an international effort to empower citizens of all nations to put significant social events on the world stage. The project distributes cameras, archives uploaded footage and stories and broadcasts them on its Web site.

Inspired, in part, by the impact of the video of the Rodney King beating by police in 1991, Witness was organized the following year to distribute cameras to organizations around to world, asking ordinary citizens to document abuse and significant social events.

The goal, according to the group's Web site, is "to fight injustice, and to transform personal stories of abuse into powerful tools that can pressure those in power, or with power, to act."

From the Witness Web site:

WITNESS has partnered with more than 300 human rights groups in 86 countries, trained over 4,500 human rights defenders, developed widely used training materials and tools, and supported the inclusion of video in more than 100 campaigns, increasing their visibility and impact. Videos made by WITNESS and our partners have been seen by over 260 million people worldwide. And they have told hundreds of critical human rights stories, galvanizing grassroots communities, judges, activists, media and decision-makers at local, national and international levels to action.

The Witness project also spawned the Elders, a project instigated by Gabriel and Richard Branson that creates a panel of influential, independent world leaders who can help mobilize change for the betterment of world society. The first Elders lineup was formed around former South African President Nelson Mandela. The current panel is chaired by former U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan and includes former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, Bishop Desmond Tutu and former Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo.

Star Outsider

Gabriel was a youthful founder and frontman for Genesis back in the band's pre-pop days of the early '70s, when it was a theatrical, psycho-surreal progressive-rock unit. Just as the band touched stardom with the album Lamb Lies Down on Broadway, Gabriel announced he was leaving to pursue a solo career. He soon became one of the most influential figures in the pop world with a series of albums crafted to the highest standards of the time and pushing the boundaries of technology, cultural influence and Jungian storytelling.

Gabriel deliberately broke rules in ways both big and small. His first four solo albums didn't have a title: each one was called Peter Gabriel, with the name displayed uniformly on each. World music-inspired songs were loaded with heavy synthesizer. His third solo album featured a lot of drums in African rhythms and no cymbals -- an artistic decision that also served to clear the high end in the recordings and allow the synths, guitars and voices to sparkle.

Every move he made seemed to trigger a wake of artists doing the same thing, beginning with fellow Genesis alum Phil Collins, who seemed to copy Gabriel's every move in his own solo career.

While Gabriel sustained his career on a series of hits -- one per album -- each of those hits before 1986 and some thereafter could be described as "novelty songs," a Tin Pan Alley term to denote songs heavy with gimmick. Only in Gabriel's case, it's not gimmick, but a result of experimental approach that just naturally produces material that stands well apart from the normal range of pop offerings. Some of that turned into outside-the-box hits.

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