Does the Earth orbit Bob Geldof’s ego?

Roughly a year ago, the island nation of Haiti was decimated by the most deadly natural disaster to occur outside Asia. Naturally, the response was huge, and despite justified criticism for the partial failure of governments and NGOs organising the relief effort, the money raised amounted to $3 billion. Of this, $61 million was raised by the Hope For Haiti Now concert that featured the likes of Jay-Z, Rihanna, Shakira and Madonna. They even had The Jonas Brothers answering phones. Primarily through the personal interest of Haitian-born rapper Wyclef Jean, the relief effort was closely intertwined with the efforts of the music community and, indeed, for a few months after the tragedy, it seemed that the potential presidential campaign of Jean overshadowed the relief efforts.

Contributions also flowed in from the music community outside the Jean-driven mission. Lady Gaga gave the profits of her January concert in New York and merchandise sales, totalling $500,000. Evanescence allowed fans to unlock a free, unreleased download, provided they donate to the United Nations Foundation. The world of classical music also responded with a benefit concert at the Royal Albert Hall in April, hosted by Aled Jones and featuring Britain’s Got Talent stars Paul Potts and Escala.

One interesting venture was Arcade Fire’s collaboration with charities Partners in Health and Kanpe, where fans were asked to volunteer for the charities in exchange for a free concert ticket. The band, like Jean, had personal links to the country with multi-instrumentalist, Regine Chassange’s parents having fled their native Haiti under the dictatorship of Jean-Claude Duvalier.

However, there is no doubt that the Hope For Haiti Now concert was the most fruitful single act of fundraising for the cause. The unbridled potential of a charity concert in its ability to exhibit the leviathans of popular music, united in a common drive and care (refusing to be cynical and attribute these efforts to concern over public image or the like) is heart-warming and intriguing, regardless of how artistically questionable the collaborations turn out.

Of course, the charity concert is no new thing. The most famous, multi-national events have all taken place over the past 40 years starting with The Concert For Bangladesh. Organised by George Harrison and his friend, renowned sitar player, Ravi Shankar, the concert was in aid of the Bhola cyclone and ongoing Liberation War. Featuring Bob Dylan, Harrison, Shankar and Ringo Starr amongst others, the concert took place on 1st August, 1971 at Madison Square Gardens. The merchandise still makes money for charity and estimates place the total earnings at around $250 million.

Then, in 1985, the concert to end all concerts, Live Aid, set the bar for grandeur, spectacle and fame. Geldof’s ludicrous brainchild has since sunk into legend and pop culture, spawning documentaries, films and, according to a BBC survey in 2005, the best live performance of all time by Queen. The transatlantic event was watched by 1.5 billion people out of a world population of 4.5 billion in over 60 countries and it was in this internationalism that the charity concert really worked as a concept. As well as providing a point of interest in the USA, lacking in previous UK concerts, Live Aid was televised in a strong metaphor for the global village. The unity of two continents taking action together; further emphasised by Phil Collins’ appearance at both the Philadelphia and London concerts.

The Hope For Haiti Now concert was nowhere near as successful as Live Aid. Firstly, it was only two hours long. Secondly, there was no grand reunion like that of Led Zeppelin – the mark of a truly seminal event. And thirdly, its telethon format meant that it lacked that genuinely live, continuous excitement, consisting instead of interspersed recorded footage and isolated performances from London, Los Angeles and New York. Nevertheless, it was this musical event that raised the most money for the Haiti relief effort.
It is undeniable that the unity of music and charity is natural and successful. That’s not to say that all live charity performances are touching (Beyonce’s “Haiti, I can see your halo” in her live version of ‘Halo’ was quite sickening). However, it does – for a moment – elevate music to something more important than just art.