Woman who was face of Live Aid laments price of fame 30 years on

13 Jul 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

Do pop stars know they’re patronising Africa?.

Sixty years separate us from the birth of rock’n’roll – and slap bang in the middle of that is the event that marked rock’n’roll’s passage into respectability.

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.THIRTY years ago today, Irish pop star Bob Geldof organised a star-studded concert at London’s Wembley Stadium attended by 72,000 people (another 100,000 fans graced a concert in Philadelphia) to raise funds for Ethiopian famine victims. “Live Aid” reached 1.9-billion people across 150 countries and raised £40m. 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. 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”.

No one puts money in a jukebox with the intention of playing a record they’ve never heard before, and the cleverest artists who performed that day realised this was no time to shift new product. Given one song early in the day to rescue his flagging fortunes, Adam Ant sang his next single Vive Le Rock and effectively signed his own death warrant.

Bryan Ferry was similarly short-sighted, choosing to perform three songs out of his allotted four from his new Boys & Girls album (the other was his cover of Jealous Guy) over his most fondly remembered Roxy Music hits. 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.

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”.

As their drummer, Roger Taylor, said at the time: “It’ll make a pot of money for a wonderful cause, but make no mistake, we’re doing it for our own glory as well!” The following week’s chart positions ratified their new status. 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. Queen’s Greatest Hits, The Works and Mercury’s solo album Mr Bad Guy soared up the charts; the following summer they returned to Wembley for a headlining show of their own. 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. Ensuing shows by Simple Minds, Genesis, The Rolling Stones, Pink Floyd and U2 meant Wembley was being used almost as much for music as it was for sport.

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. By helping create a new superleague of rock stars, an event conceived purely to raise money for African famine victims ended up generating just as much revenue for the labels to whom the artists were signed. 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. 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.

With this in mind, it’s no surprise that, in the intervening years, the music industry has been desperate to relive Live Aid – a major live pop event, usually charitable, that reinforces the status of established artists and anoints a handful of new ones. 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. 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. 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 festival which, according to the editor of Roots magazine and inaugural attendee, Ian Anderson, started out as “just one stage, a bunch of hippies, with free milk handed out from the farm”, now caters to two audiences.

While frontman Ozzy Osbourne had found multi-platinum success as a solo act, guitarist Tony Iommi and a succession of singers had carried on the Sabbath name with diminishing results. 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. Lionel Richie is playing his hits to 200,000 people whose desire to experience a moment of musical togetherness radiates outwards into the sitting rooms of middle England, in the process giving Richie a No 1 album and further ratifying Glastonbury’s place in the cultural fabric of Britain. 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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