The Art of Listening: Live Aid

On 25 years of charity pop music.

The recent Hollywood comedy caper Get Him to the Greek stars Russell Brand as Aldous Snow, a preening rock star who records a song entitled "African Child". Professing concern for a war in "Darfur or Zimbabwe or Rwanda, one of 'em", Snow comments: "I'm not saying I'm an African White Space Christ . . . that's for other people to say."

The sentiment should be foremost in our minds as we mark 25 years since the spirit of Aldous Snow was first visited upon us. On 13 July 1985, the golden calves of western pop - which then included U2, Queen and David Bowie - were herded into stadiums in London and New York to perform concerts that, ostensibly, would raise money to alleviate a famine in Ethiopia.

The concerts certainly generated a large amount of cash - around £150m, at the final count - but the sum was less significant than the message it sent to the estimated two billion people who watched or listened to the live broadcasts. Live Aid was a landmark event for the new economic orthodoxy championed by the governments of the host countries, then led by Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan.

The process that led to the concerts was set in train by the refusal of Britain and the US - at the time, the world's leading aid donors - to give state funds to Ethiopia. Instead, private aid agencies joined forces with the music industry to create a spectacle that would draw in money by appealing directly to the consciences (and wallets) of its viewers. Despite the protestations of its organisers that Live Aid transcended politics - "Just give us your fockin' money," in the apocryphal words of Bob Geldof - its effects were explicitly political.

In the short term, as Linda Polman explains in her new book, War Games: the Story of Aid and War in Modern Times (Viking), the no-strings-attached way in which the money was raised and distributed enabled Ethiopia's oppressive Derg regime to manipulate food shortages further in order to extend its control over the country's rebellious northern provinces. In fact, to generate the necessary feel-good factor in the months before Live Aid that would allow audiences to donate with a clear conscience, it was necessary for the media to ignore the political causes of the famine altogether. As the BBC's Michael Buerk later said, journalists reporting from the region actively wanted to avoid conveying the impression of "yet another stupid African war".

In the longer term, Live Aid promoted the idea that capitalism is the solution to - and certainly not the cause of - the world's problems. Correspondingly, the pop star has emerged as a kind of supreme being, one with the power to direct consumers' behaviour in one way or another. Nobody has occupied this role more closely than U2's singer, Bono. According to Polman, Bono's ongoing crusade has been nicknamed "the white band's burden" in international aid circles - after the 1899 poem by that noted philanthropist, Rudyard Kipling, who urged his readers to "Take up the White Man's burden", to "serve your captives' need" and to tend to these "new-caught, sullen peoples,/Half-devil and half-child".

Inside the pantheon of pop, however, the "half-devil and half-child" is not some far-off colonial subject - it is you, the listener. This past week, that Lady Gaga is the first living person to attract more than ten million fans on Facebook made headline news on the BBC website. Even our political leaders are in awe: in 1997, Tony Blair asked the stars of Britpop to endorse New Labour, while David Cameron picked Andy Coulson, a veteran celebrity journalist, as his press secretary (although, admittedly, the Tories could only muster a mediocre seal of approval from Take That's Gary Barlow during their election campaign).

In 2006, Bono launched a "global brand", Product Red, which would send a share of its profits to the fight against Aids in Africa. Taking free-market fundamentalism a step further, he dispensed with the happy-clappy feel of previous charity campaigns: "Philanthropy is like hippie music, holding hands," he told the world's media. "This should feel like hard commerce." And so it does. Thanks very much, African White Space Christ!

You can read more from The Art of Listening column here.

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Daniel Trilling is the Editor of New Humanist magazine. He was formerly an Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 12 July 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Behind the mask

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How the death of a militant in Kashmir went viral

Burhan Wani was a 22-year-old Hizb al-Mujahedin commander. In life, he resuscitated the flagging insurgency. Now, his death has put it on a firm road to revival.

His photographs began to circulate on Facebook last year. In one, he leans against a cedar tree in a forest in southern Kashmir, a Kalashnikov slung over his shoulder. In another, he stands before lush green mountains under a cloudless sky.

But the picture that created the myth of Burhan Wani, the 22-year-old Hizb al-Mujahedin commander, was a group shot with ten armed associates standing around him. They faced the camera calmly, a hint of a smile tugging at their lips. The photograph went viral, not only in Kashmir but also across India and Pakistan.

On 8 July, when Wani and two other rebels were shot dead in a joint operation by the police and paramilitary forces, thousands of people across southern Kashmir took to the streets to mourn and protest. The mosques reverberated with slogans of freedom – a throwback to the late 1980s, when armed struggle against Indian rule broke out in the region. The protesters lobbed stones. The police fired back.

The following morning, news of protesters’ deaths started to emerge. The injured, numbering in their hundreds, began to reach the hospitals in Srinagar. Many had been hit in the eyes with pellets from pump-action guns, non-lethal weapons used for crowd control in Kashmir since 2010.

The eye doctors at Sri Maharaja Hari Singh Hospital said that more than a hundred people had been partially or completely blinded. Among them was a 14-year-old schoolgirl, Insha Malik, who lost the vision in both eyes. A picture of her pellet-riddled face has become the symbol of the ongoing mayhem.

The fury soon spread across Kashmir. Mosque loudspeakers boomed with slogans and songs calling for resistance against India. Apart from the government-owned broadband service, internet and mobile-phone networks were shut down. Yet this made little difference. Roughly sixty people – many of them teenagers – have lost their lives. According to figures presented to parliament by the Indian home minister on 11 August, 4,515 security personnel and 3,356 civilians have been injured in the protests.

What made Burhan Wani important enough to warrant such widespread mourning and anger? The answer is tacitly understood in Kashmir but little articulated. In his six years as a rebel, Wani revived anti-India militancy from near-extinction. His strategy was primarily tech-driven – according to police in Kashmir, he hadn’t fired a single shot.

The image of a handsome young man in battle fatigues against a pastoral backdrop, calling for a new attempt at jihad against India, held a powerful appeal for a young generation in Kashmir. These are the people who are enduring the fallout of more than two decades of separatist insurgency, and they are bitter about New Delhi’s oppressive hold over their homeland. With his fresh, viral image, Wani separated his movement from Kashmir’s history and bestowed a new moral glamour on their actions.

He was soon joined by scores of recruits. In 2015, for the first time in a decade, local militants outnumbered outsiders. This year, out of 145 active rebels, 91 are from Indian-administered Kashmir and most of the rest are from Pakistan or Pakistan-administered Kashmir (though this is still a far cry from the early 1990s, when thousands of militants, both local and from elsewhere, roamed the valley). The recruits – many of them home-grown, Wani-inspired youths – are replenishing the ranks as others are killed.

As the ongoing turmoil shows, Wani long ago transcended his modest militant credentials. He has become an emblem of Kashmir’s deepening alienation from India and a role model for young people for whom guns seem to be the only route to a better future.

In life, he resuscitated the flagging insurgency. Now, his death has put it on a firm road to revival. Unlike during the mass uprisings of 2008 and 2010, Kashmir today is drifting back to active militancy, with the myths about Wani enlivening the separatist narrative.

“You will kill one Burhan; thousands of Burhans will be born”, one slogan goes. “Burhan, your blood will bring revolution”, promises another. The millennial generation has little memory of the horrors of the 1990s, of the innumerable killings and disappearances. An estimated 60,000 people have been killed in the armed rebellion against New Delhi, in part aided by Pakistan (which claims Kashmir as part of its territory, in a dispute that stretches back to the 1947 partition of India). Human rights groups put the number of enforced disappearances in the present conflict at 8,000.

Contributing to this mood are India’s rightward turn under Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the perception that New Delhi wants to forcibly change the demographics in Kashmir. This fear has been reinforced by recent government measures to set up colonies to be settled by Indian soldiers and Kashmiri Pandits – the latter from a small Hindu community that was forced to flee the region during the separatist violence.

At Wani’s funeral on 9 July, all eyes were on a group of masked rebels in the front row. They fired their guns in salute to their fallen chief. When prayers ended, the mourners strained to catch a glimpse of Wani’s comrades. Those who were close enough kissed them on the forehead before they escaped.

More than a month later, the anger on the streets shows no sign of abating. Protests take place daily across Kashmir. Businesses are shut down for most of the day, opening only briefly late in the evening and early in the morning. Internet access is restricted, except through the state-owned broadband. With each week of disturbances, the numbers of deaths and injuries continue to mount.

Meanwhile, a new video has appeared on Facebook and YouTube. This time, it comes from Sabzar Ahmad Bhat, Wani’s successor. Again, it shows a commander and his associates in battle fatigues, in a forest in southern Kashmir. Bhat waves to the camera as the others remain engrossed by their phones. It, too, has gone viral. 

This article first appeared in the 18 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn’s revenge