When the Revolution Was Televised: Live Aid Thirty Years Later

13 Jul 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

Do pop stars know they’re patronising Africa?.

Thirty years ago today, at lunchtime in the United Kingdom and just before breakfast on the East Coast, 1.5 billion people sat rapt in front of their television sets, waiting for the revolution to be televised. The woman who as a starving three-year-old became the face of Live Aid 30 years ago has said the campaign has done “nothing” for her, and the celebrity that came with it has forced her to live a life underground.

The revolution, which was called Live Aid, was being conducted on two concert stages in London and Philadelphia and then bounced across various satellites to 150 countries, an unprecedented procedure executed with the intent of raising humanitarian aid for famine victims in Ethiopia. Woldu was catapulted into the limelight after being rediscovered in 2005 and brought on stage by Sir Bob Geldof during the Live 8 concert, 21 years after she was captured by a Canadian camera crew, moments away from death at a feeding station in the Tigray region of northern Ethiopia in 1984. The lineups at Philadelphia’s JFK Stadium and London’s Wembley Stadium featured some of the world’s biggest pop stars, including Paul McCartney, Elton John, Bob Dylan, David Bowie and, on both continent, Phil Collins. There had been a couple of colossal T.V. moments in the preceding twelve months — the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles; Reagan’s second inauguration — but this was to be the largest by a mile, not only that year but in the entire history of the medium.

This song, featuring artists such as Phil Collins, George Michael and Sting, talked patronisingly of Africa — with its four majestic rivers, the Nile, Niger, Congo and Zambezi — as a place “where nothing ever grows, no rain or rivers flow”. Woodstock was larger as a physical event, of course — an on-site audience of 400,000 compared to the 90,000 at Live Aid’s Philadelphia stage and the 60,000 in London — but whereas Woodstock was a gleeful veneration of the counterculture, Live Aid sought to occupy the mainstream psyche with a traditionally uncool message: one of humanitarian awareness and sympathy. A Sahelian drought had been made worse by Ethiopian autocrat Mengistu Haile Mariam’s brutal and misguided agricultural collectivisation policies and forced displacement of 600,000 people.

Bob Geldof, the musician-turned-inadvertent-activist who found himself at the helm of the event, envisioned a show “as huge as humanly possible,” one that defied all precedent to bring music to the world, and in turn aid for Africa. Rieff observed that Geldof’s “Live Aid” funds had contributed to humanitarian nongovernment organisations such as Oxfam and Save the Children facilitating these displacements that resulted in about 100,000 deaths. Thirty years after “Live Aid”, it is clear that celebrity efforts to “save Africa from itself” have often reinforced negative media stereotypes about the continent, portraying its 1-billion citizens as helpless creatures in need of benevolent assistance from western saviours in a new “white man’s burden”. In fact, the group’s 19-minute set at Wembley Stadium, during which they managed to squeeze in six songs, including Bohemian Rhapsody, Radio Gaga and We Are the Champions, was ranked the great rock performance all of all time by a 2005 BBC poll. “They didn’t waste one second,” says author and veteran music journalist Alan Light. “When you go back to it, that’s what’s so impressive — the efficiency of it, just coming with their peak performance and staying there.” Thirty years later, frontman Freddie Mercury’s performance remains a master class for other performers in the art of crowd command. Two years before The Joshua Tree confirmed U2’s position at the vanguard of superstardom, Wembley Stadium stood rapt as the group delivered a twinkling rendition of the now-mostly-forgotten “Bad,” with a mulleted, wholly unpretentious Bono leaping from the stage to dance with a young woman in the front row.

Bob Geldof and Bono are seeking to “end poverty”, Angelina Jolie is “protecting” refugees and rape victims, George Clooney is “saving” Darfur, Sharon Stone is campaigning for mosquito nets, Madonna has adopted children in Malawi as if buying new pets, and Prince Harry is on his way to Namibia to “save” the black rhino. While it wasn’t technically a Led Zeppelin reunion, Robert Plant, Jimmy Page and John Paul Jones hadn’t performed together publicly since drummer John Bonham’s death five years before. When Elvis Costello covered The Beatles’ “All You Need is Love,” the stadium joined in. “The audience was at the center of it — they were the stars of the show. Problems began immediately, with the band members not being able to properly hear themselves in their monitors: Considering what everyone else was hearing, that was probably just as well.

The acts who succeeded that day were the acts who realized that,” David Hepworth, the British music journalist who co-presented the BBC’s Live Aid coverage, told TIME. “That’s what Live Aid changed in the music business — afterwards, you had this explosion in scale, the rise of these massive, often outdoor concerts.” It wasn’t perfect, of course. I do not have a job and I cannot support my family on my own.” Woldu explained that she had been hired as a nurse for 10 months soon after graduating from the private Sheba University College in the city of Mekelle, Tigray, but had been jobless since. When Paul McCartney played “Let it Be,” the microphone on his piano failed for the first two minutes of the song (not that it mattered much—in one of the most moving moments of the entire broadcast, the audience sang along anyway). She married at 28 but has since separated and lives in a one-room house with her two daughters. “[People] question how it is I am not able to support my family,” she said.

As much as a sixth of aid money ($250bn) between 2000 and 2012 was spent on administrative costs, debt relief and hosting foreign students and refugees. According to ACET she received half of the advance of a book about her life, Feed the World: Birhan Woldu and Live Aid, 10 years ago, and has received money from media interviews. The appearance caused severe damage to the band’s reputation that wasn’t fully repaired until a stellar 2007 set for an Ahmet Ertegun tribute concert at London’s O2 arena that likely was the band’s final performance. TIME’s coverage was decidedly ambivalent, noting Live Aid’s success as a charity benefit but seeming nonplussed about the larger idea of it. “Television may be great for raising big bucks, but it is no friend of live music, especially not of rock ‘n’ roll, which needs urgency, immediacy, volume and balance,” TIME’s critic Jay Cocks wrote. “If this occurred to Bob Geldof… it obviously did not give him serious pause. Like a Virgin and Material Girl had made Madonna the hottest female act on the planet the year before, but nude photos appearing in Playboy and Penthouse threatened to derail her career momentum.

Woldu is positive about change in her country since the famine of 1983-85, which took the lives of her mother and sister, sparing only her and her father. “The country has come a very long way since then,” she said. “We now have schools and hospitals and road access to remote areas. As the Ebola crisis unfolded in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea last year, Geldof recorded “Band Aid 30” for yet another cause, singing that “there is no peace and joy in West Africa”. She deflected the controversy with aplomb, telling a sweltering Philadelphia crowd, “I’m not taking (expletive) off today,” during a high-energy set consisting of Holiday, new single Into the Groove and Love Makes the World Go Round.

Music was the come-on of the day, not the essence, and world television was like a vast electronic banking window.” Other critics were — and still are — harsher, deriding the concert as a failed exercise in misguided imperialist sympathy. Later, she joined Nile Rodgers, Billy Idol guitarist Steve Stevens to back the Thompson Twins on a cover of The Beatles’ Revolution. “Even though she was a huge star at the time, she wasn’t taken very seriously,” says Rolling Stone contributing editor Anthony DeCurtis, “and her performance at Live Aid proved that she should play with the big boys.” Sabbath played Live Aid? The more than $150 million it raised, they said, did next to nothing to relieve the suffering in western Africa, and maybe even worsened the political situation there. Decades before the first online sympathy story went viral, Live Aid demonstrated that compassion could be commodified in the interest of the greater good. The three songs the band played that day — Children of the Grave, Iron Man and Paranoid — didn’t make much of an impact, the appearance gave the Sabbath brand a much-needed boost and set the stage for a long-term reunion in 1997.

Africa certainly needs to seek partners in a globalised world, but it may be time to light a bonfire of vanities for the celebrity missionaries who are so intent on saving us from ourselves.

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