Band Aid 30 and Live Earth

It’s extremely late, but still compulsory for the first post of 2015: Happy New Year.

Before getting on to the crucial reviews of last year’s music, books and television, as is now blog tradition (albeit for January rather than February), two recent (-ish) news stories provided an opportunity to rehash the following, the bulk of which, even more shamefully, was meant for December but I like to think is now a most welcome gloomy distraction from all that is hideously pink around Valentine’s Day.

(That’s right, I’m still killing time, filling the white space, waiting for the cue to share exciting news about David’s plans for the year ahead. It’s coming, fear not, but you’ll have to bear with me a little longer because I can say no more at this point.)

The first story of interest was that the first grants from proceeds of the sale of the Band Aid 30 single, totalling some £2 million, have been distributed to charities working on the ground in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone to manage Ebola.

The second, I’ll come to later.

Ebola hasn’t been in the headlines as much lately, and I wonder how much the famine that is bound to follow will feature in our news reports now that terrorists have taken centre stage once more. Food prices have risen dramatically across West Africa. A bag of rice, for example, now costs 30 per cent more than it did before the outbreak.

The latest version of ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas?’ marked the 30th anniversary of the classic tune, originally released to raise money for famine relief in Ethiopia in 1984, its lyrics altered slightly to apply instead to the threat of Ebola in West Africa.

What did you think of it?

The ‘There won’t be snow in Africa’ line always annoyed me, considering Morocco’s fairly high annual snowfall and ski resorts in the stunning High Atlas Mountains, Africa’s largest mountain range, so I’m glad that was cut, but I thought it a shame that Bono’s famous ‘Well, tonight thank God it’s them instead of you,’ which he sang so perfectly, has been replaced with a much tamer ‘Well, tonight we’re reaching out and touching you.’ Nothing could be as hard-hitting as the original and let’s not pretend that we aren’t glad that this horrible affliction, the deadliest occurrence since the discovery of Ebola in 1976, is ravaging someone else’s family, someone else’s community, many miles away – but still just a flight away, lest we forget – from our own.

Whatever the lyrical tweaks, I know some are angered by the increasing emotionalism of preaching celebrities, but in our celebrity-obsessed culture, it’s what we do. (And we’re doing it again this summer, by the looks of it, with another Live Earth concert extravaganza. That was the second story. More on this later.)

I know some would prefer to give directly to charities working on the ground, to local charities, volunteer-driven, without the overblown bureaucracy and high chief executive salaries. Some think it best not to give at all, such is the corruption and incompetence of African governments, we are told. For all the refuting of myths about foreign aid, few can plausibly defend the general mismanagement of African aid and how, in allowing it, we have failed the world’s poorest.

The initial reaction to the single was typical, with lots of reminders that ‘charity begins at home’ and resentment at sanctimonious, quite possibly tax-avoiding musicians urging generosity at times of austerity when they could, perhaps should, be the first to open their considerably heavier wallets. It brought out the nastiness in people, as every telethon or fresh charity appeal tends to do.

But I say, thank goodness there is a sense of moral commitment, otherwise we’d never help anyone. If it makes a difference to someone, somewhere, it doesn’t ultimately matter if we give out of pity, out of shame (about our comparative wealth; because of colonial theft and exploitation; because other people are giving so we have to be seen to be giving, too; because an Ebola outbreak was first reported in March 2014, yet it took western deaths months later for us to really club together to find a cure), to make us feel better about ourselves and our grubby lives if for only a fleeting moment, or out of panic, as if enough of us giving whatever we can afford with great urgency will somehow magically keep Ebola away from us.

We all can see the egotism and self-indulgence of celebrities in this project, but let’s look away, because Bob Geldof announced that more than £1 million had been raised in pre-orders alone within five minutes of the song being premiered on vulgar popular music talent show The X Factor the night before it was available for download. And although it did not claim the coveted UK Christmas Number One spot, with a French as well as German version this time, that money will help a great many people who, still, in 2015, need the things so many others take for granted.

I honestly don’t know who half of the people singing on it are, few of them were even born in 1984, but I don’t really care. It’s for young people to buy, for they are the ones doing most of the downloading, and their parents to be cajoled into buying on CD. A collaborative hit single from the most profitable acts of the moment is always a good way of raising a lot of money very quickly. I still believe in the power of a song to raise money, first and foremost, and then to increase awareness and change perceptions, all of which are necessary to help stop the terrifying spread of Ebola.

It’s just so easy to criticise.

It is true that all four of the English language versions since 1984 have featured mainly white faces from the First World, but that’s what sells to teenage girls with posters of pretty boys on their bedroom walls.

To be fair, I doubt that it takes all that much in the pampered life of a teen star to turn up at a studio to sing a line or two, knowing they stand to gain much from the experience, but we shouldn’t assume that those involved haven’t donated privately – their time as well as money. I noted that Ellie Goulding, who sings on the record, had planned to spend Christmas Eve volunteering at a homeless shelter – and not for the first time. How many of the noisiest critics did the same? Not many, I expect. (Besides, anyone who says that, if they could buy any property in London, they would buy Buckingham Palace and turn it into a house for people living on the streets is alright in my book.)

Of course, that is not to forget nor detract from the likes of William Pooley, the British nurse who contracted the disease while working in Sierra Leone and, since recovering, has bravely returned to continue his work there, who said of local medical staff: “The big problem at the moment is they haven’t been paid for months, which sounds bad enough to English ears, but in Sierra Leone if you’re not getting paid, then you’re facing starvation. But they’re still coming to work.”

He also said of the song: “It’s Africa, not another planet. That sort of cultural ignorance is a bit cringeworthy. There’s a lyric about ‘death in every tear’. It’s a bit much.”

Bob Geldof’s priceless response: “It’s a pop song, it’s not a doctoral thesis. They can f*ck off.”

Yes, the song probably does reinforce negative stereotypes of Africa for another generation, but is it better to do nothing and pretend it isn’t happening? The popular conception of Africa isn’t pretty, preferring to focus on poverty and pestilence, massacres, genocide, and unimaginable suffering that puts our own petty woes into perspective, but if it’s the fault of some well-meaning musicians, rather than our news broadcasters, that much of what we see from Africa is terribly sad, we should be asking questions of the media. Maybe we should be criticising our schools’ geography teachers, too, for not equipping a generation with the knowledge to shoot down such accusations of “cultural ignorance” with a similarly offended retort of: ‘But, actually, everybody knows that Africa is a vast, divergent continent made up of 54 countries, and only four of these have been affected by Ebola, so please don’t insult our intelligence.’

Then there’s the whole controversy around Christmas becoming increasingly secular, when political correctness dictates we should lump all end-of-year religious observances into one giant, inoffensive ‘Happy Holidays’ instead, so as not to upset anybody. I don’t personally mind all that much if certain groups attempt to take the Christ out of Christmas, as much as we all enjoy the story of Jesus being born in a cattle shed, especially when our children get to dress up and look adorable. Maybe they could remove some of the commercialisation and over-consumption while they’re at it. But if we remember the true meaning of Christmas and what we consider to be ‘Christian’ principles of kindness and generosity, it’s all about being nice to others and giving what you can to those who have less.

Those most at risk of contracting the Ebola virus, being Muslim, wouldn’t have cared too much about it being Christmas although I expect they all knew that it was. Muslims do celebrate Jesus, the Prophet Isa, and his mother, Mary. Both religions agree on Jesus’ birth, if not death.

So I’m really not bothered that they – we – ‘let them know it’s Christmastime,’ that we care and would like to help in some small way, as uncomfortable as we may feel about being patronising outsiders interfering in their countries’ affairs after so much rape and pillage by our ancestors, and all too aware of the continuing exploitation of their lands’ mineral resources, because it’s the right thing to do and infinitely better than doing nothing. I’m just sorry that we didn’t care a bit more before some white do-gooders got sick and we all started to panic that they’d infect our cities upon their return and kill us all.

Frankly, even Christians have forgotten why this time of year was so important long before any son of God – or not, it’s fine, I don’t mind – was born in a manger. Consider the misery of hunger, of starvation, during the darkness and bitter cold of winter, where the weakest perish and crops are far less plentiful, which teach us the importance of fellowship and serve as a stark reminder of our fragility – then as now.

The Christmas just celebrated, or not, could turn out to be anybody’s last. We should all count our blessings and might pause to reflect that death is final and devastating no matter who you are or what you possess. So, if it’s not too late for a resolution, knowing that most of January’s have usually been abandoned by February: let’s vow to hold our loved ones nearer, to call them more often, to be there for them when they need us, to remember that we’re all getting older and weaker and won’t be around for ever. And not to be so bloody judgemental when someone wants to do something to help another.

I’m even going to vow to stop wondering why Cuba, an island nation with a population of 11 million people, with a GDP of $6,051 per capita, once again led the humanitarian effort and provided the largest number of healthcare workers in the fight against Ebola. Their doctors, nurses and surgeons were in West Africa while the US and UK were providing military troops, promising aid and considered sending in remote-controlled robots, which just seems to me like showing off. If only Western governments were as fearful of going into war zones.

Anyway, this Live Earth.

There will be more concerts, in June, to get people het up about climate change in preparation for the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris at the end of the year.

I was somewhat embarrassed about this even before reading the following claptrap from Pharrell Williams, Live Earth’s ‘creative director’, that had me reaching for a bucket to vomit into: “Instead of just having people perform, we literally are going to have humanity harmonise all at once.” He’s just so flipping ‘Happy’ these days, that one, isn’t he? Harmonise all at once? Do me a favour.

Over 100 artists will perform across seven continents, apparently, with concerts in New York, Paris, Australia, Brazil, China and South Africa.

Of course, the carbon footprint will be ABSOLUTELY MASSIVE and there won’t be lots of money generated, to give away as grants to those suffering most, to make that OK. How can anyone justify it?

The global television, radio and online audience is expected to be in the region of two billion, which sounds great, but so what? It’s not going to raise lots of money.

The original Live Earth took place in July 2007 and was broadcast to over 130 countries which included a then-record online audience of more than eight million viewers. Although I’m sure it made some people more aware of the very real threat of climate change, inspiring just as past events have similarly inspired – and this survey from The Yale Project on Climate Change Communication, to assess the impact of Live Earth on American public opinion, is very interesting – it didn’t make lots of money (for the wider good, I mean. I’m sure it made loads of money for hypocritical corporate sponsors, to enable them to trash another patch of land somewhere else once they’d stopped pretending to care about the planet and promising not to waste its finite resources on yet more silly vanity projects.)

This unique television event was something of a flop in the UK, and what makes me even more miserable is that one reason for the poor viewing figures (the others were that the weather was nice that day and live tennis from Wimbledon was on another channel) was that ‘it came just six days after the Concert for Diana, which had attracted a TV audience three times larger.’ That says everything you need to know about the British. More people cared that a fickle princess had died, albeit in tragic circumstances, and wanted to join in the synchronised mass mourning, than they cared about the world being, for want of a better word, f*cked.

There goes another resolution, again…

I remember the assurances that the power for the Live Earth concerts would be supplied by green sources and the food produced locally. Sydney’s Aussie Stadium, for one, would run on 100 per cent renewable energy and each Australian Live Earth ticket would come with a free public transport voucher, while all the bathrooms would be waterless and all the waste would be composted into fertiliser. It turned out that London’s Wembley Stadium had the capacity to recycle only around a third of waste produced.

So now that the aim is raising consciousness rather than money (what, by encouraging people to travel a long way to be at a stadium and drink out of plastic cups?), that basically amounts to a hell of a lot of carbon offsetting, not least to cover the flights of those performing (it makes you wonder whether there will be more or fewer musicians and crew flying in for Live Earth than delegates and flunkies flying to Paris for climate talks), while the rest of us make a pledge, wear a wristband and enjoy the entertainment with assorted drinks and nibbles.

I don’t know about you, but I’d much rather see these concerts scrapped and governments stop their pathetic dithering, fobbing us all off with promises and insufficient targets set as low as they can haggle them down, and finally get tough – by kicking out all the dangerous corporate lobbyists representing carbon-intensive industries and the climate change deniers in their pay, who have for so long hindered effective action on climate; by promising to stop banging on about economic growth when that’s the trouble; and by admitting that the elephant in the room is that there are too many of us for the Earth to sustain, so it’s high time we shake up the tax laws to bring in financial and banking reforms, social reforms to encourage us to have fewer children and live more modestly, discourage our catastrophic mass consumption, ban this, ban that, and finally prove that we really do care about our planet and the spectacular species on land and sea that we are driving into extinction before it’s too late. Bring on the public shaming, too (go, Seattle!). Many people have been saying this confidently for thirty-odd years, for goodness sake, yet we are still waiting for the gutless movers and shakers to agree on a weak plan of action. It’s nothing less than an absolute disgrace.

Obviously I’ll be watching the Live Earth concerts on a larger-than-necessary TV. How about you?