Sterling Campbell: A Musician Takes a Stand

With the Chinese characters "Truth, Compassion, and Tolerance" emblazoned on his drum kit, Sterling Campbell uses his music as a platform for human rights in China

With the Chinese characters "Truth, Compassion, and Tolerance" emblazoned on his drum kit, Sterling Campbell uses his music as a platform for human rights in China

In the 1980s and 90s, Sterling Campbell was a rising star in the music industry, performing and touring as the drummer for Cyndi Lauper, Duran Duran, Soul Asylum, David Bowie, and many more. It was the lifestyle he dreamt about since he was a young boy growing up in New York City.

But there was a downside to the constant partying.  Campbell says he prided himself when he was young on staying away from drugs, but as time wore on, the temptations grew. He eventually became heavily involved in drugs and alcohol, and was a two-pack-per-day smoker.  His relationships began to deteriorate.

“After a while I became very depressed and ashamed of myself. My confidence and self-esteem were shattered,” recalls Campbell.

He tried to turn his life around by exploring Tai-Chi and yoga, but no avail.  “I felt trapped,” he recalls.

But one morning in 1998, all that changed.  During an early morning walk in the park, Campbell came across a group of people performing Falun Gong meditation, and he was handed a pamphlet with information on the practice.

At first, he says, he was skeptical.  “I was quite cynical about a lot of these spiritual things due to the fact that I spent thousands of dollars to people who were putting a price on spirituality and universal matters,” he recalls.  “So I was pleasantly surprised when I found out that there’s no price on Falun Dafa – it’s totally free.” 

The next day Campbell began practicing Falun Gong meditation and reading its primary text, Zhuan Falun.

“The more I read the more I was drawn into the book,” he says.  “I felt I was in the presence of something very unique and immense.  I knew that I had found the truth I’d been searching for.” 

To his amazement, within a month of practicing Falun Gong, Campbell no longer had any desire for cigarettes, drugs, or alcohol. 

“For so long I equated music to drugs, alcohol or being promiscuous,” he says. “Now I realize it doesn’t have to be that way.”

While Campbell admits that changing his lifestyle was no easy task, an even greater challenge was yet to come. 

In July of 1999, China’s then-president Jiang Zemin initiated a nation-wide crackdown on Falun Gong after the spiritual practice had attracted an estimated 70 million adherents.  Thousands of Falun Gong practitioners were rounded up and detained without trial while the country’s state-run media apparatus engaged in a campaign to demonize Falun Gong and dehumanize its followers.

Within months, reports of torture and deaths in police custody began leaking out of China. 

Falun Gong adherents who attempted to protest the persecution policy through official channels were arrested immediately, and given no forum to voice their grievances.  In response, thousands began traveling to Tiananmen Square in symbolic protest, holding banners reading “Truth, Compassion, Forbearance,” or asking for an end to the persecution. 

On the other side of the world, Campbell and others did their best to bring media awareness to the plight of Falun Gong adherents in China, but it wasn’t enough.  Then, in late 2001, Sterling and a small group of Western Falun Gong practitioners decided to go to Tiananmen Square themselves. 

His goal, he says, was to unfurl a banner proclaiming Falun Gong’s innocence, and hopefully talking with some Beijing residence about the practice and the violent – yet hidden – persecution. 

On Valentine’s Day,  2002,  Campbell made it to Tiananmen Square, along with dozens of other Western Falun Gong practitioners from around the world.  The Chinese police were expecting them. 

The Square was ringed with police officers.  “The atmosphere was very oppressive,” recalls Campbell. “The police were very suspicious of westerners.” 

Before he could make it to the middle of Tiananmen Square to stage a demonstration, the police vans arrived and began taking Campbell and his companions away to be detained, beaten and interrogated. 

At a nearby police station, they were searched and interrogated.  “Anyone who resisted was met with brute force,” says Campbell.  “They were being punched, kicked, slapped in the face. People were screaming”

Campbell himself was kicked and thrown to the ground when he refused to tell the police where his passport was. 

“At that point, I wasn’t angry, I felt no hatred,” he recalls.  Instead, Campbell says he felt sorry for the policemen who were abusing them.  “They get caught up in the government’s policies. You could feel that some of these young policemen really didn’t want to do what they were doing. But if they have any goodness or sense of justice in them, they’re not allowed to show it, or else it’s all over for them.”

On his return to the United States, Campbell continues to do whatever he can to raise awareness of the persecution in China that he witnessed first-hand.