Saturday, June 25, 2005 - Live 8 concerts - Pop activism, Take Two - Pop activism, Take Two

Jun. 25, 2005. 09:48 AM

Pop activism, Take Two
The world has changed in 20 years — but there's still need to feed the poor.

Will next week's Live 8 concerts do more for them than last time, or less?


We are the world.

It's a familiar sentiment, one forever etched in the public imagination as the title of the song that brought down the curtain on Live Aid, the 1985 benefit concert that until today has stood as the high watermark for pop-star activism.

Now we prepare for another refrain — though not exactly.

In some ways, the world poised to cast its collective gaze on the various Live 8 concerts taking place around the globe next Saturday is not the same world that stood transfixed by the two stadium shows in London and Philadelphia 20 years ago for the similarly altruistic Live Aid festival.

The communist Soviet Union, whose authoritarian leaders prohibited its citizenry from joining the 1.5 billion TV viewers in more than 100 countries who watched Live Aid, is no more. It is now capitalist Russia, whose democratically elected authoritarian leader is among the presidents and prime ministers that organizers of Live 8 hope to shame into making global poverty a priority when the G8 holds its next summit July 6 to 8 in Gleneagles, Scotland.

South Africa, another country prevented from joining the party on July 13, 1985, was then home to the world's most famous political prisoner, Nelson Mandela, the anti-apartheid activist who went on to become his country's president, a Nobel Peace Prize winner and who will appear at a July 2 concert in Johannesburg.

Among those who did watch Live Aid was Tony Blair, a 32-year-old rookie Labour MP in the British House of Commons, who apparently spent the day glued to the set with his friend, another young member, Gordon Brown. Today, the former is the host prime minister for next month's G8 summit and the latter is his government's Chancellor of the Exchequer.

Yes, things have changed. But they haven't changed enough, apparently, to make the need for Live 8 redundant.

"It's wrong to give the impression that everything is sinking backwards," says Dave Toycen, president of World Vision Canada, one of the many non-governmental organizations backing Live 8.

"It's just that in the West we're moving toward that future in a jet plane and in Africa and many other developing countries they're walking."

One thing that hasn't changed is the public face of the effort. Bob Geldof, who founded Live Aid with the help of fellow musician Midge Ure, is back as the mercurial, cajoling organizational force behind Live 8. But Geldof's strategy is significantly different this time around.

Live Aid, with its all-star roster of musical celebrities, was essentially a glorified telethon, one at least partly motivated by a CBC-TV documentary depicting the abject plight of Ethiopian famine victims.

Like "Do They Know It's Christmas," the Geldof/Ure-produced single released the preceding winter, Live Aid had one objective: to feed the starving. And it succeeded beyond the organizers' wildest expectations — raising an estimated $245.4 million (US) — even if, as almost inevitably happens with charitable endeavours, not all of the money found its way to the people who needed it most.

Live 8, although similarly studded with rock royalty, doesn't intend to raise a cent, but instead aims to elevate awareness of endemic global poverty, estimated to cause the deaths of 50,000 people per day, 30,000 of them children.

"The difference between now and (1985) is that then it was to do with charity, the human impulse to help another person because that's all you are left with," said Geldof during a conference call involving The Star.

"Charity is always worth it, but it can never deal with the structures of poverty. That's politics. The world is broken. And it's a political fracture. Live 8 will be the splint hopefully that joins it."

The objective isn't as nebulous as it sounds. Beyond increasing awareness, Geldof is using the concerts, including the one at Park Place in Barrie, to pressure G8 leaders into committing themselves to increased foreign aid and more favourable trade arrangements for developing countries. In addition to expected public service announcements from supporting aid organizations, concertgoers in Barrie will be handed postage-paid cards to petition Prime Minster Paul Martin to increase foreign aid and address child poverty in Canada.

"This isn't a time for messing around," Geldof says. "Potentially, within two weeks, something magnificent can be achieved — a true shift in the pattern of the world that will benefit 600 million people almost immediately. That's worth fighting for."

Compare that with Geldof's 1985 rallying cry: "Don't go to the pub tonight — please stay in and give us your money."

As a musical event, Live 8 has the potential to dwarf its predecessor — in scale, at least, if not in iconic stature. If the 35,000 expected to attend Canada's Live 8 show seems like small numbers, consider that the total attendance for 1985's Live Aid concerts at London's Wembley Stadium and Philadelphia's JFK Stadium was less than five times that.

Looked at another way, the people who witnessed Live Aid first-hand amounts to roughly half the number who will attend the July 2 concert in London's Hyde Park alone. A million more are expected in each of Philadelphia and Rome. Concerts will also take place that day in Cornwall, Paris, Berlin and Tokyo, with a July 6 Edinburgh concert set to coincide with the start of the G8 summit.

More than 180 TV networks, including CTV, are on board, as well as 2,000 radio broadcasters. Internet users will have access to the concerts, as will European cell phone subscribers. An estimated 3 billion people will be able to tune — or plug — in.

What they will see, in some instances, might seem strikingly familiar. Several of Live Aid's performers have been re-enlisted, including Madonna, Elton John, Paul McCartney, Roxy Music, Bryan Adams and U2, which began the climb to "world's biggest band" status with its Wembley set.

Phil Collins, whose Concorde hop earned him the distinction of being the only Live Aid musician to perform in both London and Philadelphia, is not involved this time, but Senegalese star Youssou N'Dour aims to one-up Collins by appearing in London, Cornwall and Paris.

If Pink Floyd, who have reunited for Live 8, closes the London show, it will bookend the Live Aid appearance by '70s rockers Status Quo, who got back together to kick things off at Wembley.

The rate of celebrity volunteerism has been much higher for Live 8, according to promoter Harvey Goldsmith, in contrast to the arm-twisting required to fill the card in 1985. Even bands that haven't made themselves available claim to be squarely behind the objectives.

"If we weren't doing anything that day, believe you me we'd be there," said Oasis singer Liam Gallagher, whose band has a stadium show in Manchester on July 2. "You'd have to be f--king Hitler to have something against it."

Not that there haven't been quibbles. Blur's Damon Albarn began by complaining that the London show was too "Anglo-Saxon," which may or may not have prompted Midge Ure and Peter Gabriel to organize Cornwall's all-African Eden Project show.

There is also a sense that organizers have missed an opportunity to put a younger face on Live 8, which abounds with veteran acts — not only in Barrie but at the other venues as well. In 1985, U2 singer Bono was 25 — about the same age as most of the band's fans.

Joan Baez opened the Philadelphia show by announcing, "Good morning, children of the '80s. This is your Woodstock. And it's long overdue." It's hard to imagine anyone pulling that off with a straight face this time around, when even some of the youngest acts, including Coldplay and Joss Stone, skew to an older demographic.

Nor would such idealistic anthems as "We are the World," or Canada's version, "Tears are Not Enough," be able to rouse today's crowds as easily as in 1985.

Live 8, however, does dovetail with recent trends in political activism. The G8 summit would already be a lightning rod for organized expressions of discontent, even without Geldof's involvement. The concerts will take place on the same day as an Edinburgh march organized by Make Poverty History, an umbrella organization for aid groups that share the Live 8 objective to emphasize government involvement rather than charity.

"For what it was, Live Aid was a success," says Gerry Barr, co-chair of Canada's Make Poverty History campaign. "It was the most watched broadcast event in television history. It engaged citizens of the world in a key fashion. Millions of lives were saved.

"That is not to say that it resolved the issue of global poverty. This is about coming at things in a more systematic way. And governments are needed in order to do that."

That approach makes sense to K'naan, a 28-year-old Toronto poet/musician who fled war-scarred Somalia 14 years ago and who will perform in Barrie with Canadian household names such as Bryan Adams, Gordon Lightfoot, the Tragically Hip and the Barenaked Ladies.

"Charity is a romanticized thing," he says. "Charity quenches the thirst of an imbalance in economics, but just for a moment. But when you realize that it's about justice you can make a bigger impact.

"The West understands its history with Africa, but it hasn't completely stepped up to the plate in its responsibility to Africa as far as justice is concerned. That's what it's about for me. It isn't about charity."

No question there will be a lot of voices raised in unison next Saturday. It will take another week after that before we know whether anyone was listening.

"Good intentions are okay in this situation," says Barenaked Ladies singer Steven Page. "If we can affect policy change, then great. If we can't, then it makes you think more about how impenetrable the seat of power sometimes is."


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