The Magazine

‘We Are the World’

First time farce, second time .  .  .

Feb 22, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 22 • By JONATHAN V. LAST
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The first week of February, a group of more than 75 celebrities met in a studio on Beverly Boulevard in Los Angeles to re-record “We Are the World.” The occasion was the January earthquake in Haiti, which left the bedraggled, destitute country even more bedraggled and destitute. 

‘We Are the World’

But Haiti was just the proximate excuse for the new “We Are the World.” Plans were already in the works to re-record the song to mark the 25th anniversary of the first “We Are the World.” In other words, it’s not fair to blame the Haitians for this new round of celebrity self-congratulation. These people were going to do it anyway. Who is to blame? Two of the most destructive forces of the 20th century: the United Nations and the Beatles.

American musicians have been preening for charity for a long time. In 1940, for instance, Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, and other assorted lefty singers put on a “Grapes of Wrath Evening in New York” to raise money for the John Steinbeck Committee for Agricultural Workers. In 1970, Joni Mitchell and James Taylor headlined a show in Vancouver to help Greenpeace send a boat expedition to Amchitka to protest a nuclear test.

But the modern pop-benefit extravaganza began on August 1, 1971, when George Harrison staged a two-day “Concert for Bangladesh” at Madison Square Garden. Moved by the plight of refugees who fled to India during Bangladesh’s war of independence, Harrison teamed up with UNICEF to raise money for relief. He put together an all-star bill including Eric Clapton and Bob Dylan. The other three Beatles were invited. Naturally, Ringo showed up. McCartney declined while Lennon initially accepted, only to change his mind when Harrison requested that Yoko Ono not insert herself into the performance.

Nonetheless, the 40,000 tickets sold out in six hours. The concert raised $243,418, and the ensuing album and movie documentary brought in, roughly, another $12 million. Hearts were opened; consciousness was raised; John Lennon was angry.

Not that it did the Bangladeshis much good. The $243,418 from the concert gate got to the United Nations pretty quickly, but the rest of the proceeds—about $8.8 million after expenses—were tied up in accounting for the better part of a decade. It wasn’t until 1981 that UNICEF received the balance, by which time Bangladesh had won its independence and was already onto its seventh presidential strongman. The money would surely have been welcome in 1981, since Bangladesh was (and remains) one of the poorest places on earth. But how much difference could $8.8 million really make? Since 1971, Bangladesh has been given more than $30 billion in grant aid and loan commitments to little effect.

The effect of the event on the music world, however, was substantial. In 1979, UNICEF sponsored another benefit concert, “Music for UNICEF,” which brought the Bee Gees, ABBA, Rod Stewart, and others to perform in the U.N.’s General Assembly Hall.

Not to be outdone by Harrison, Paul McCartney partnered with UNICEF for his own benefit concert later that year, “The Concerts for the People of Kampuchea,” staged in London over four nights with such acts as Queen and Elvis Costello. McCartney sold 35,000 tickets; a follow-up concert album and documentary were released. All told, the enterprise raised $400,000, which was handed over as a check to UNICEF—two years later. What good was $400,000 to a country with no government, in the midst of a protracted war between the brutal, semi-deposed Khmer Rouge and brutal, advancing Vietnamese invaders? Good question. In any event, the United Nations was happy to accept the money.

There were other benefits through these years—from Amnesty International’s “Secret Policeman’s Ball” series to the “No Nukes” concert at Madison Square Garden—but they rarely rose to the level of charitable endeavor. They were cultural poses, disguised as political rallies, masquerading as rock concerts. It wasn’t until the mid-1980s that pop stars got serious—really serious—about making the world a better place. The occasion was the discovery of a place irresistibly chic and downtrodden: a place called Africa.

In 1984, Harry Belafonte heard “Do They Know It’s Christmas,” a song featuring 45 British pop stars. The single was produced by an organization called Band Aid and the proceeds went to benefit the starving masses in Africa—particularly Ethiopians, who were much in the news in the mid-1980s. (“Africa is sexy and people need to know that,” Bono—one of the participants—would explain some years later.) 

Belafonte decided to do a similar project in the States. He asked Lionel Richie and Michael Jackson to write a song while he established the charitable organization which would run the enterprise, USA for Africa. (The acronym stands for “United Support of Artists for Africa.”) The song Richie and Jackson concocted was blindingly insipid: 

 

We are the world

We are the children

We are the ones who make a 

brighter day

So let’s start giving

There’s a choice we’re making

We’re saving our own lives

It’s true we’ll make a better day

Just you and me. 

 

Even so, 45 of America’s pop icons, from Cyndi Lauper to Bruce Springsteen, signed on and made it a hit. Released in March 1985, “We Are the World” went four-times platinum. Sales and merchandizing from T-shirts, books, posters, and more raised roughly $53 million to meet the urgent needs in Ethiopia.

With this war chest, Belafonte and members of his group went on a “fact-finding” mission to Africa where they discovered—somewhat belatedly—that the famines there were largely man-made, the products of corrupt governments intentionally starving people. Ken Kragen, USA for Africa’s president, told the New York Times, “What we’ve learned is that it’s not just a question of sending more money or more food.” The Times reported:

 

[T]here was the somewhat startling revelation that the relief workers involved in programs to feed the hungry were not asking that more food be purchased and shipped from the United States. The ports and warehouses of Ethiopia and the Sudan are already choked with food, the relief workers said. But arcane political, economic and logistical constraints have been preventing the bulk of the food that has arrived from reaching people in need. Similarly, many doctors advised against sending plane load after plane load of medical supplies. Africa’s most deadly disease is worsening poverty, they said, and it will take more than antibiotics to cure that. .  .  . By the time the U.S.A. for Africa team headed home this week, they had not decided how to spend most of the money that has been raised.

 

Still unsure what to do about Africa, in 1986 the group sponsored another fundraiser, “Hands Across America,” where millions of people paid $10 each to hold hands in an unbroken chain across the country and sing “We Are the World.” (There was not an actual unbroken chain of hands across America, mind you. The organizers merely claimed enough people participated that, if they had been arranged in a perfectly straight line, they could have made it from sea to shining sea.)

Between “We Are the World” and Hands Across America, USA for Africa banked nearly $70 million. By early 1987, the group told reporters that it had sent $5.5 million to Ethiopia, $6 million to Sudan, and $15 million to eight other African countries. The rest of their money stood pat, dribbling out here and there over the years, just a tiny rivulet of the $1 trillion in aid foreigners sent to the continent during the last 60 years. Not that the group didn’t make some lasting impacts. In 1991, for instance, USA for Africa announced the establishment of the Leland Community Development Fellowship to bring African development leaders every year to network on the sacred ground at the Carter Center.

Nevertheless, the benefit concert persisted. Following “Do They Know It’s Christmas” and “We Are the World,” more pop stars signed up for the Live Aid mega-concert during the summer of 1985. The two concerts, simultaneously in London and Philadelphia—Phil Collins was so concerned about Africa that he took the Concorde and played both shows—attracted a global TV audience of some 400 million viewers. It was billed as “The day the music changed the world.” (Note the second “the.”) The money raised—somewhere between $80 million and $110 million, depending on who you believe—sounded impressive. But as the Los Angeles Times reported, “All the rock charities combined earned less than $125 million in 1985. .  .  . The Red Cross received more help from the Mormon Church than from Live Aid and USA for Africa combined—and with only a fraction of the publicity.” 

What’s never been clear is that the money the rock charities spent did any good. A long exposé in the British journal Prospect in 2005 concluded the rock ’n’ roll aid that actually reached Africa often worked to the benefit of the dictators who were causing the famines in the first place.

But the concerts continued. There was Farm Aid, raising money for American family farmers, and Self Aid, raising money for the unemployed in Ireland. In 1991, “The Simple Truth” was put on in London to aid Kurdish refugees. That show was caught in the crosscurrents of charitable fashions: Just days before the event, the Red Cross had to settle a dispute among Sting, Sinead O’Connor, and Peter Gabriel over whether the proceeds should be shared with victims of a typhoon in Bangladesh and starvation in Africa.

After 9/11, there were concerts to raise money for the victims—few of whom seemed to need money. In 2005 came “Live 8,” followed in 2007 by Live Earth. By this point, concert organizers had given up the pretense of raising money, instead claiming they merely wanted to diddle the public’s consciousness. (About Third World debt forgiveness and global warming, respectively, in case you’ve forgotten.) 

It’s difficult to pin down exactly what such shows accomplish. The money raised is always minuscule in relation to the problems at hand. Put together, the proceeds from “We Are the World” and Live Aid wouldn’t be enough to save Chrysler, let alone the African continent.

But maybe it’s not really about the actual dollars and cents. The producer of Live Aid, Mike Mitchell, noted:

 

Africa was [a] kind of test for the civilized world. It was our souls that were at risk, not theirs. It’s a totally selfish act. I mean, they will go on being Africans, doing what they do and they will ultimately save themselves or not. But if we don’t reach out, we’ve already sealed our fate. We’ve lost our humanism. We’ve lost caring. We’ve lost what I call our souls.

 

Entertainment Weekly reported on the travails of caring with a sequence of vignettes from the “We Are the World” recording session:

 

[H]armonic convergence nearly fell apart, however, when Stevie Wonder announced the chorus would sing a line in Swahili. Some of the country singers were fit to be tied. Waylon Jennings walked out and didn’t come back. Finally a line in English was used instead. At 4 a.m. two Ethiopian women were escorted into the studio. “Thank you on behalf of everyone from our country,” one of them said.

Now we’ll be subjected to this rubbish all over again. Surely the people of Haiti have suffered enough.

Jonathan V. Last is a senior writer at The Weekly Standard.

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