When I say Africa

by SEAN JACOBS & KATHRYN MATHERS

Bob Geldof IMAGE/ Back2Black festival on Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 Deed.

Why are stories about African suffering so persistent?

Near the start of the documentary film The Greatest Night in Pop Music, released at the beginning of 2023, the American singer-songwriter Lionel Richie describes how he and Michael Jackson came up with the melody for “We Are the World,” the charity single recorded by American artists in 1985 to raise money for famine relief in Ethiopia. “We had to identify right away what kind of song do we want.” For the melody, they rejected an r&b ballad or an anthem style, like “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Richie then starts stomping his feet and vocalizing to “Rule, Britannia.” Pleased with himself, he concludes: “There it is. There’s your template. And once you have that, what to put on top of that.” Nobody, neither Richie nor the filmmakers, seems to notice the irony of trying to relieve suffering in the global South by drawing on a musical tradition that glorified the expropriation and extraction of natural resources in those countries.

“We Are the World” sold 20 million printed copies and became the first single certified multiplatinum.

The celebrity humanitarianism of the 1980s that the song was part of is having a moment again. Until March 2024, London’s Old Vic Theatre is home to “Just for One Day,” a musical about Live Aid, the transatlantic concert on one day in 1985 that also raised money for Ethiopian famine victims. At least 70 artists combined—including David Bowie, the Who, Queen, the Police, Elton John, Paul McCartney, and Diana Ross—performed at two venues: an audience of 72,000 people at Wembley Stadium in London and 89,000 people in Philadelphia, with another 1.9 billion people in 130 countries watching the live TV broadcast.

In the mainstream, Live Aid is still remembered, nearly forty years later, as “the day that music brought the world together,” despite evidence that most of the proceeds of events like this pay for staff and offices in the West and millions of pounds raised in telethons at Live Aid were siphoned off to purchase weapons for Ethiopian rebel groups. As a result, the populations the concert organizers claimed to help were subjected to more violence at the hands of the state and rebel movements. It was also lost on campaigners that the causes of the famine were political and required a political solution. 

So, a musical celebration of these events and the culture of giving it helped create feels like another parody of humanitarianism. 

Africa is a country for more

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