Monday, June 27, 2005

Live 8- Who really cares about Africa?

Woe be to any pop star trying to be a Samaritan. You're immediately accused of drawing attention more to yourself than for the cause you're trying to help. It's seen as a career move to make you look sensitive and caring. Now, we can't have any of that nonsense in the music industry, can we?

Former Boomtown Rats singer and Knight of the order of the British Empire Bob Geldof (not 'Sir Bob' since he's Irish) faces these questions about himself as next week marks the huge Live 8 concert series, spanning countries and continents, following up on 1985's Live Aid, to bring recognition again to aid relieve efforts for Africa, in lieu of the upcoming G8 Summit.

Not surprisingly, there are detractors and supporters lining up about this new enterprise. Probably one of the worst ones is Andrew O'Hagan's Noisy public displays of compassion (The Telegraph) where Geldof gets chided for making such a spectacle of himself, preferring instead that we all experience suffering alone in solitude, rather than bonding over a common cause. Antonia Zerbisias' What's next, Live 8 ring tones? takes a similarly cynical view of Live 8 (as if you couldn't guess from the title of the article) but does bring up two really salient points: the wristbands for the event were made in Chinese sweatshops and the event was pretty Ameri-Eurocentric until complaints made them bend to include African performers. On that last point, it's important not just because Geldof and friends don't want to look like a bunch of racists but also because it'll serve as a fine example of the rich culture which could be lost otherwise.

As you probably can guess by now, I'm a little cynical myself but not about Geldof. If his detractors want to complain that this is becoming a bleeding-heart megafest for the do-gooding chart-toppers and dinosaurs, maybe there's something to that- Coldplay, Madonna, U2, R.E.M., Sir McCartney, Sir Elton, Deep Purple, Pink Floyd- but how does Eminem, Snoop Dogg and the Sex Pistols fit into that? Also, not much mention is made of the fact that in between Live Aid and Live 8, Geldof has been working tirelessly on projects to forgive Third World debt and increase aid to Africa for the past 20 years- I'm sorry but nobody puts in that much time and effort jut as a career move. So much for the ignorant snarks who lob arrows at him for his do-gooding.

That's not even mentioning what he's doing now. Traci Huckill's The Great Live 8 Debate is a very thoughtful look at Geldof and his work. Huckill is realistic enough to note that the guy's an egotist but also points out that it's stupid and naive to think that Live 8 is going to solve all of the problems with poverty and hunger. Geldof is using the concert series to bring light to his ongoing charity work, which is why the shows are free this time. As for him yelling about E-bay auctions for tickets, how dare he complain that a bunch of scumbags were trying to rake in piles of cash for themselves on the back of a charity event!

Annette John Hall's Stars have long made noise for causes is another fine article that details the history of do-good concert events: George Harrison's Concert For Bangladesh, Willie Nelson's Farm Aid, last year's Vote for Change tours. Like Huckill, she realizes that these shows don't end problems but if they can raise awareness, they've done a lot.

As such, one thing I really resent about detractors for these events and causes is how stupid they think the audiences are. The theory is that the fans will go, have a good time and promptly forget everything that they were supposed to learn about or care about from these shows. There's no question that this'll happen to many people who go to these events but definitely not all of them. Say what you will about the egos of U2, Coldplay or Bruce Springsteen but they're not one to mince words when it comes to letting fans know who or what they support. They do this in interviews and not songs, wisely because they want to work to appeal to people at a grand scale without getting too much into demagoguery . To say that NONE of their fans then get the message is condescending. A great example is the heat that Springsteen took for the song "American Skin." As Dave Marsh pointed out, most of the critics didn't bother to really listen to the words and understand that the song wasn't saying how evil cops are (as most reactionary punks would have) but what a sad and unfortunate tale it was. Similarly, an event like Live 8 isn't done to point fingers but to point out great tragedies.

If there are some short-comings to an event like Live 8 that are worth pointing out, two recent news stories are instructive. Gearing up to be at 21st Century Idi Amin, Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe has continually destroyed his own country for the last 5-10 years, in a desperate grab to maintain his power. After years of attacks, murders and imprisonments that he's orchestrated, his latest atrocity is throwing thousands of poor families out of their homes: see CNN's Rights groups call for end to Zimbabwe's 'crime against humanity'. Even though he's plunging his own country into disaster, many other African leaders are hesitant to criticize him. When he originally took over the country, he had an amnesty for many white land owners because he understand that despite their racist, slave-owner past, he still needed their help to build a society where every race had rights. Having visited there in the late 80's, I can attest to what a beautiful, green countryside there is and what friendly people there are living there. Nowadays, I'd be loathe to tell anyone to visit there as they'd likely lose their life for speaking out against the horrors there. Mugabe is causing misery not just in his country but in the whole Southern region of the continent. Any aid or debt relief will be meaningless there until a dictator like Mugabe reforms or leaves power.

One other thing that's worth addressing in a huge charity event like Live 8 is the idea that not just aid but also self-helping initiatives need to be encouraged. A great example of that is Indira A. R. Lakshmanan's article For Venezuela's poor, music opens doors where we learn how classical music is helping children who have little else in their lives. It's a wonderful idea and something that a big concert event would be ideal to promote since there's the obvious music connection. It might seem like a white man's burden to have these truly down-trodden kids learn classical music but it brings so much to their lives and gives them a sense of accomplishment and hope. I'm sure there's good arguments that they should learn their own native music instead and that's fine too as long as they have something to grasp on to.

So go ahead and throw all the pies that you want at Geldof and his imperfect enterprise. He'll shrug it off anyway and despite some short-comings, he's got the right idea. Maybe you should ask his detractors what the hell they themselves are trying to do to make this world a better place. Clogging it up with snarky articles is just pollution and if we need some kind of concert event to stop that, sign me up.

POST-SCRIPT: Bono on NBC's Meet The Press this past Sunday was truly a surreal sight if only because it's usually a gotcha session for a bunch of Washington spin-masters to make their cases and dodge thorny quotes. The U2 singer was lobed softballs by host Tim Russert mostly, wondering how much good Live 8 will really do and if the aid will actually reach the intended victims, which are both legitimate questions. Bono admitted that the biggest problem they face is corruption (where the food and money is siphoned to dictators) so they try to deal with aid organizations that best work around these limitations. Just as Geldof has done, Bono also showed the political acumen of Hilary Clinton when he refused to slam George Bush, instead praising his work so far but warning that history's gonna judge him harshly if he doesn't step up to the plate and do more. Might be wishful thinking but you have to admire his and Geldof's tact. Whether there's going to be any payoffs (literally and figuratively) remains to be scene. That's how history is going to judge them and if the whole event is a success or not.


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