MTV’s video jockeys (VJs) hosting the July 2 Live 8 concert certainly had their talking points well-rehearsed.
In the little broadcast time allotted to the concert between the Burger King commercials and self-promoting MTV ads, viewers were bombarded with the message that this event was not about charity—it was meant to “raise awareness” about African poverty and to pressure participants of the upcoming G-8 meeting to alleviate the problem by erasing African debt and approving billions more dollars in African aid.
The VJs and concert organizers repeatedly emphasized that they were not asking “for a penny” from anyone. Instead of our own money, they were seeking to dip into the giant pool of cash that our governments apparently collect from money trees.
The VJs incessantly parroted the statistics rattled off by the day’s performers: An African dies every three seconds from poverty-related illnesses. Some 30,000 Africans die everyday. A VJ articulated the problem with characteristic eloquence for the show’s discerning viewers: “It’s amazing, but you know what? Thirty-thousand people in Africa die every day from poverty and preventable diseases like tuberculosis and malaria. The crappy thing is, it doesn’t have to be that way. The wicked awesome thing is that you can help just by going to MTVnews.com and learning more.”
The New York Times, however, found the statistics somewhat less than wicked awesome, reporting that “[s]ome of the stars seemed unsure of the statistics they were citing—in London, performers could not agree whether 50,000 Africans die of poverty every day, or just 20,000—but the sentiment was there.”
Spread the Gospel
And, indeed, what difference do 30,000 dead Africans a day make when you have sentiment? Pop stars traveled to nine different cities across four continents to spread the gospel of human compassion and unity. The pop-punk trio Green Day made its unique contribution to international harmony by playing a rousing rendition of its hit song “American Idiot.” The lead singer, Billy Joe Armstrong, was decked out in the bizarre trappings of a black, button-down shirt and tie, thick armbands and heavy black mascara that gave the appearance of a psychotic Hitler Youth acolyte. (Playing the Berlin concert, his repeated screams of “Deutschland!” at the bewildered crowd enhanced his strange Gothic-Nazi image that seemed slightly at odds with the day’s altruistic theme.)
Back in Philadelphia, rapper Kanye West offered a glimpse of the gentle humanism and deep-seated realism that underlay the day’s festivities when he related that “[t]he concept of AIDS alone—what my parents always told me, who are activists—is that it was a man-made disease in the first place that was placed in Africa just like how crack was placed in the black community to break up the Black Panther Party.” The interview ended shortly after that statement, probably because West was running late for his rendezvous with a flying saucer.
The audience was treated to appeals and performances from other philosopher-kings as well. Will Smith, the virtuoso composer of “Gettin’ Jiggy Wit’ It,” explained the concert’s purpose to the crowd: “Today, we are calling on the eight most powerful world leaders to do what they can to end this daily tragedy. With the stroke of a pen, eight men can make a world of difference in the lives of billions of people.” His comments were echoed by singer Dave Matthews, who told an interviewer that stopping the spread of AIDS and malaria and ending poverty in Africa “is effortless. It’s eight signatures, really.”
This was the day’s main message—that the G8 can wave a magical pen and instantly end Africa’s pathologies. All that’s required, we were told, is public pressure to force eight leaders to do the right thing. African poverty was continually blamed on the continent’s debt ($40 billion of which was written off even before the Live 8), inadequate levels of foreign aid and unfair trading policies, while the G-8 was blasted for refusing to immediately rectify Africa’s plight. This was as sophisticated as the analysis got. One of the online “petitions” to the G-8 that viewers were repeatedly asked to sign did not say anything other than: “Ask the G-8 leaders to help make poverty history”—although potential signatories were enticingly reminded that if they signed, “your name may appear on the big screen at Live 8 concerts.”
Of course, there remains the question of the extent to which giving Africa another pile of cash and better trading opportunities will help the average African who is suffering under a corrupt, authoritarian government that exploits the country’s resources and foreign aid for its own purposes. The pop star Bono, who was a leading organizer of Live 8 and who is an energetic activist for ending African poverty, was recently asked this question point blank by Tim Russert on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” Peering through wraparound sunglasses apparently needed indoors to counteract the camera’s single lightbulb, Bono acknowledged that “[t]his is the No.1 problem facing Africa—corruption. Not natural calamity, not the AIDS virus. This is the No.1 issue and there’s no way around it.”
Interestingly, neither the performers, nor the organizers, nor the VJs at Live 8 seemed comfortable discussing this aspect of the problem. In fact, over the course of an eight-hour TV broadcast featuring relentless hectoring about Western responsibility for African poverty and mini-documentaries describing the sources and extent of African misery, African state corruption was not mentioned a single time by anyone. Thus a mammoth series of concerts specifically designed to “raise awareness” about African poverty neglected to mention what one of the concerts’ chief organizers and pop music’s most outspoken anti-poverty activist admits is “the No.1 problem facing Africa.”
Now why wouldn’t anyone want to mention the root cause? Here’s a guess: Because if Westerners are told that people in Zimbabwe are suffering because we don’t give them enough money, then we can act immediately by pressuring our own governments to increase aid. But if they’re poor because Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe is a corrupt, brutal, murderous thug who wrecked his own country’s economy through the massive dispossession of farmers and through an “urban renewal” project that has left a quarter million people homeless, then the options for action are limited, as Mugabe is unlikely to stop pillaging at the behest of Western rock stars.
So instead of leaning on Mugabe, we’re told to pressure our own leaders. Hey, they may not be able to actually solve the problem, but unlike Mugabe, at least they’ll listen, and then we can feel good about our own activism. And besides, the proposition that the Western world can fix the problem of African poverty with a few signatures, but has heretofore simply declined to do so, helps perpetuate notions of Western guilt on which international activists typically thrive. Singer Alicia Keys encapsulated this sentiment in her on-stage remarks: “Personally, I’m ashamed that we helped to create a world where people suffer and are not allowed to have their basic rights.”
So around 10 years from now, when pop-star activists suddenly realize that Africa is still mired in poverty despite the cancellation of African debt and even further increases in foreign aid, we will see the inevitable Live 8 sequel that once again holds Western governments accountable for Africa’s problems. At that point, let’s hope everyone takes inspiration from the anthem sung at Live 8 by the aging hipsters of The Who: “Won’t Get Fooled Again.”