Someone’s looking at you

Bob Geldof and the strange contradiction of celebrity activism

bob geldofGraphic by Samantha Sector.

The field of benefit concerts and charity singles is dominated by one man: Bob Geldof, the Irish rocker who was one of the driving forces behind the Live Aid and Live 8 concerts and who has corralled pop singers into recording and releasing his charity single “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” four times since 1984 under the umbrella of “Band Aid.”

Geldof ushered in a new era of celebrity activism where every actor and pop star supports their own pet cause and everyone who’s anyone in the charity world has some vaguely famous person to be the public face of their organization. Whether or not this is a positive change, it is one of the factors that drives the charitable world even today.

With Band Aid 30’s record—the 30th anniversary version of “Do They Know It’s Christmas?”—released last November, and the 30th anniversary of Live Aid fast approaching, Geldof has found himself back in the headlines. Just as in the 1980s, much of what is being said about him is not positive.

The Geldof-style benefit concert is a lavish spectacle featuring as many big-name pop stars as he can fit in one place. Live Aid, which was put on in July of 1985 at the Wembley Stadium in London, featured performances by David Bowie, Dire Straits, the Who, Paul McCartney, and, most memorably, Queen.

The concert brought in 100 million pounds for famine relief in Ethiopia, so no one can doubt Geldof’s effectiveness at raising funds. But Live Aid, Band Aid, and the rhetoric surrounding them have come under fire over the years from two different angles.

On the one hand were criticisms of the way the money was used. David Rieff, in an article published in the Guardian in 2005, called attention to the cooperation of Western NGOs, some of which were funded by Band Aid, with the Ethiopian government’s resettlement plan at the time of the famine.

This resettlement uprooted 600,000 people from their homes in order to move them out of disputed territory and into the areas that were controlled by Ethiopia’s communist regime. At least 50,000 people died in the resettlement, and Médecins Sans Frontières president Claude Malhuret likened it to the Khmer Rouge genocide in Cambodia.

Médecins Sans Frontières refused to cooperate with the resettlement, but other NGOs such as Oxfam and Save the Children, as well as some UN agencies, cooperated in order to remain in the country to distribute aid. Reports of the resettlement reached the western media, but the narrative of the famine was by this point largely driven by Geldof, who criticized Médecins Sans Frontières and defended the NGOs who stayed.

Rieff claimed that staying in Ethiopia put these organizations in the position of being “unwilling collaborators” with the Ethiopian regime, and he castigated Geldof for purveying bland platitudes that gloss over the real political complications of aid work.

“Predictably, Geldof takes a morally serious dispute, with respectable arguments on both sides [ . . . ] and turns it into a pissing match in an alley behind a pub,” wrote Rieff in another article.

On the other hand, many have criticized Geldof for glossing over a whole other set of complex political realities. In his speeches and lyrics, Geldof tends to talk about Africa monolithically, in the abstract, and with little reference to individuals.

He also tends toward portraying Africans as abject victims desperately in need of heroism from the West. This is an image that has become especially unpalatable in recent years as African voices have become more available to the average Westerner.

In response to Band Aid 30, which is to help fund the fight against Ebola in West Africa, Al Jazeera published an article in which they asked several African intellectuals for their opinions on Western charity singles for Africa.
“Producing an Ebola song now to raise money, nearly one year after the first reported case in Guinea, is belated at best,” said Robtel Neajai Pailey, a PhD student from Liberia. “It reeks of the ‘white saviour complex’ because it negates local efforts that have come before it.”

“[Ethiopia] has been trying to depict a new bright image to the world so as to attract tourists and foreign direct investment. But this uphill battle is always hindered when such reminders of the past appear again on the screens of the people that are trying to be persuaded,” said Dawit Gebreselassie, an Ethiopian financial analyst.

Another criticism that has arisen on occasion is that Geldof’s benefit concerts for Africa have largely excluded African performers – Live Aid, for example, had none.

Geldof’s fundraising is indeed unimpeachable, but some have suggested that it has produced little in the way of structural change, as Ethiopia remains one of the poorest countries in the world while the rhetoric surrounding the problem of African poverty still assumes that the entire continent will perish without the help of a rock musician who has not put out a worthwhile record since 1979.

For many years now Geldof has arguably been an activist first and a musician second, so he can hardly be unaware of these criticisms.

Yet Geldof has a rosy view of Live Aid and Band Aid as “something that was wholly good and incorruptible and that worked.” His refusal to dignify arguments such as Rieff’s betrays what could be a quaintly idealistic devotion to this idea. Still, when he does respond to criticism, he occasionally seems to reveal a certain cynicism about the listening public.

He is under no illusions about the artistic quality of his charity singles; he has gone on record describing “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” as one of “the worst songs in history.” As far as Geldof is concerned, it seems, the music is beside the point.

“The reality behind the pop song—Christmassy, corny, whatever you think about it—the reality behind it is stark,” said Geldof to Rolling Stone, “If it’s a pop song that can help ease the pain, the agony, if they can die with a little more dignity then, yeah, I’m there. It’s pretty simple.”

He responded to criticisms of his depiction of Africa by saying that “It’s a pop song, it’s not a doctoral thesis” and inviting critics to “fuck off.” He believes that Band Aid has brought the discussion of international aid to the general public, and that it gives a boost to voices the public ordinarily doesn’t hear – such as, perhaps, Al Jazeera’s interviewees.

This is the strange contradiction of celebrity activism: either benefit concerts and charity singles are supposed to unite the world spiritually or they are an elaborate put-on to trick the drones (i.e. you) into behaving as required (i.e. donating). In the former case, the images and words we use matter a great deal, perhaps even more than the actual effectiveness of the charitable dollar.

In the latter case, it’s all right for them to be a little broad or cartoonish, since it’s all just an excuse to extract money from wallets. You can’t have it both ways, but it would seem that’s how Bob Geldof wants it.