Will Live 8 bring change?
Published: Friday, July 1, 2005 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, June 30, 2005 at 11:01 p.m.
On Saturday, several million people will attend the Live 8 concerts: a worldwide series of star-studded shows organized by Live Aid founder Bob Geldof to bring global attention to economic and social crises in Africa.
Another billion will watch the largest concert event ever staged on television, listen on the radio, or stream it online.
And then what?
Unlike Live Aid, the groundbreaking pair of 1985 concerts that raised $200 million for famine victims in Ethiopia, and Farm Aid, which funds programs that support family-based agriculture in the United States, Live 8 is an awareness-raising event. Tickets are free. Phone banks are nonexistent.
"This isn't charity," says hip-hop entrepreneur Russell Simmons, who is producing the Philadelphia concert. "This is justice."
In other words, Live 8 is targeting your conscience, not your wallet - a significant paradigm shift in the era of rock 'n' roll activism. The organization's mission is to enlighten the citizenry and in turn put pressure on the leaders of the world's wealthiest nations - who will be meeting in Scotland on Wednesday at the G8 summit - to erase debt, increase aid, and make trade fair for developing countries. While the G8 recently pledged to forgive at least $40 billion in debt, Geldof and cohorts are calling for a complete cancellation of Africa's burden.
It's a righteous cause and a noble pursuit, but the question remains: Can a stage full of pop stars change the world?
Geldof, frontman for the defunct Irish rock group Boomtown Rats, was knighted by Queen Elizabeth for masterminding Live Aid.
He continued his advocacy work while vowing that there would never be a sequel but bowed to pressure from U2 frontman Bono, rock's most prominent human-rights activist, and screenwriter and antipoverty campaigner Richard Curtis ("Four Weddings and a Funeral") to revive the mega-rock concert model he pioneered two decades ago. In the last six weeks, a behemoth machine has kicked into gear, as cities are added to the event and media powerhouses MTV and AOL join forces to bring an event of unprecedented size and scope to a global audience.
The music television network will go live for eight hours to broadcast the concerts on sister channels MTV, VH1 and the college-targeted MTVU. The online giant will offer free streaming coverage of the shows, as well as host real-time blogs and reports from correspondents trailing a handful of globe-trotting artists - a la Phil Collins circa Live Aid, who jetted from London, where he played a solo set, to Philadelphia to play drums with Led Zeppelin. Coverage will be posted for six weeks at music.channel.aol.com; membership is not required to log on.
"I think it will have deep political resonance," Geldof said at a news conference announcing Live 8. It will most definitely have deep media attention, with a thousand-watt lineup of performers that includes U2, Paul McCartney, Destiny's Child, Coldplay, Mariah Carey, Brian Wilson, Green Day, Stevie Wonder, the Who, Elton John, Jay-Z, the Sex Pistols, a landmark reunion from Pink Floyd, and - if Russell Simmons has his way - Prince and Michael Jackson.
Simmons's ultimate Live 8 fantasy is Jackson, Prince, Beyonce, Stevie Wonder and Alicia Keys closing down the Philly festivities with "We Are the World," the 1984 theme song for another celebrities-for-charity collaboration.
"It's not just about music, it's about heart," says Simmons, who founded Def Jam Records and, in 2001, the Hip-Hop Summit Action Network. He signed on to Live 8 a few short weeks ago to "politicize this thing in the United States.
"Artists are leaders," he says. "They make things sexy and are great brand-builders. People will do what they do. And the politicians will do what the people want."
There's no arguing with the artists' vast influence on their fanbase, from choice of sneaker to choice of political cause. During Live 8, a potential audience of more than a billion will be encouraged to sign petitions at www.one.org and www.makepovertyhistory.org, wear a white wristband, send a photo for the 2-mile-long G8 Gallery on Princes Street in Edinburgh, and take what organizers trumpet as the final step in the "Long Walk to Justice" by traveling to Scotland during the G8 Summit, where pilgrims from around the world will form a giant human circle around the city center.
Whether or not elected officials interpret these gestures as a mandate to reach a consensus on further poverty relief is debatable. Given the unlikelihood of raising the many billions still owed by developing nations, Geldof, Bono and company have instead set their sights on a consciousness-raising campaign of epic proportion, and about which experts are variously skeptical and exuberant.
"I'd be hard-pressed to say when grass-roots pressure changed policy," says Susan Moeller, University of Maryland journalism professor and author of the 1999 book "Compassion Fatigue."
"What we saw coming out of Live Aid was a much longer shelf life for the issue," Moeller says. "These stories receive more attention from the media because not only are the events supporting deserving causes, but it also feeds the beast of celebrity coverage. It's like a two-fer."
The most daunting challenge facing Live 8, predicts Chronicle of Philanthropy editor Stacy Palmer, will be to make a complex political issue both understandable and applicable for pop fans.
"It's a very complicated message," Palmer says. "If they can find a way to make the G8 summit something the average person can understand and relate to, that will be something. They also need to tell people, 'Here's what you can do.' Studies show that young people don't want to just feel good, they want something concrete they can do. The risk is you turn them off if you don't give them a way to contribute."
Bono would disagree. He speaks often of the constituency he and others have cultivated through related debt-relief efforts - the One campaign in the United States and the Make Poverty History movement in Europe. Palmer notes that Live 8 is building on the momentum of Moveon.org, the grass-roots online advocacy group that became a surprisingly potent voice in the 2004 presidential campaign. If all goes as planned, Live 8 will represent a similar breakthrough: a moment in which a vast swath of the population comes to grips with the issue of poverty and comes together as a vibrant political force.
Renowned economist Jeffrey Sachs, author of "The End of Poverty" and director of Columbia University's Earth Institute, has been collaborating with Bono on debt relief issues. He's a firm believer in the power of musical activism and the potential of Live 8.
"Playing a song doesn't solve a problem, but playing a song makes people aware that they have a responsibility to solve a problem," says Sachs. "I've been working with Bono and watching with awe. He's bringing people to the issue that otherwise wouldn't come, people who when they hear 'foreign aid' go 'ugh' but when they hear that a bed net will save someone from malaria they sign up. The strategy is to get practical. Let's stop generalizing about what can and can't be done."
But Geldof's grand concert event and Bono's breakthrough moment of global unity are, one could argue, just that: a grand moment. Mobilizing hearts and minds is a far more ambitious goal than soliciting 50 bucks, especially in the span of a rock concert. Even Sachs concedes that if the G8 leaders don't set an explicit course to end poverty during the summit, "we'll know it's been a failure."
By contrast, homespun Farm Aid, conceived by Willie Nelson, Neil Young and John Mellencamp as a one-off benefit concert in 1985, has endured for two decades not simply as an annual music event (although for various reasons they missed three years of the last 20), but a year-round educational and fund-raising organization based in Somerville.
"The concert is one day a year, and it matters a lot to the farmers, but we're here all year long," says Farm Aid executive director Carolyn Mugar. "We applaud Live Aid. I'm glad they're coming back, that artists are taking their role as cultural leaders seriously and trying to make a change. It remains to be seen what will happen at the G8. But these events enliven people. And it's a lot better than not doing anything."
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