It was 13 July 1985, midday. Thousands of people gathered at the Wembley and JFK Stadiums. Queen started off with the “Bohemian Rapsody” and the crowds went wild. The clapping sequence of “Radio Gaga” left a mark on the history of live music. And so did the multi-venue concert.
Two stadiums –Wembley in London and JFK in Philadelphia were full. An estimated 2 billion viewers from over 60 countries witnessed what was later to be described as the greatest rock concert in history.
It appeared completely innocent and the cause seemed so right. The 1984-1985 famine in Ethiopia decimated its inhabitants. Moreover, the success of the Band Aid’s charity single “Do they know it’s Christmas” (it became a number one and sold more than 3.5 million copies in the UK) indicated that such initiatives could gain a lot of attention.
You couldn’t stay indifferent confronted with those images. A video shot by Canadian Broadcasting Corporation showing starving and diseased Ethiopian children was broadcast to audiences around the world as well as to the crowds gathered in London and Philadelphia, after which the number of calls to the 300 phone lines manned by the BBC skyrocketed.
Amongst many, on the same stage of London Wembley Stadium performed U2, Dire Straits, Queen, Elthon John, David Bowie, The Who, George Michael, Sade, and Paul Young. On the other Black Sabbath, Santana and Pat Metheny, Led Zeppelin, Eric Clapton, Madonna, Duran Duran, Mick Jagger, and Bob Dylan, to name just a few.
The clarity of intentions of the superstars involved might be questioned. Many admitted that although an event of this magnitude had sounded improbable, they were eager to take part in it for the sake of the buzz it generated. The image of combining the culture of pop with the philanthropy appeared positive. The era of commercialisation of aid initiatives was on its way. The artistic expression was to serve as means of the protest against the policies of the governments and the consequences of the globalisation.
The initiative has not been without controversy. Although the words of Bono and the lack of transparency in the money allocation initially generated waves of criticism, the aftermaths of the concert were a time bomb. It wasn’t until June 2005 that Fox News television host Bill O’Reilly claimed that large amounts of the funds were siphoned off by Mengisty Haile Mariam and his army.
That critique was followed by another in March this year when Martin Plaut of the BBC reported that vast sums of the fundraised money was spent on weapons by rebels from the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front who allegedly posed as merchants (one of the rebel leaders estimated the amount of money diverted for $95 million).
Although Bob Geldof, the founder of Band Aid initially dismissed the claims, documents released by the CIA confirmed aid was “almost certainly being diverted for military purposes”.
Many critics have also underlined that similar events divert the attention of the global north from the trade reforms and put emphasis on uncritical boosting aid.
You can’t question however the undeniable role Live Aid played in the sensitisation of the global community, which ever since has been more critical and cautious than ever.
A quarter-century after Live Aid I invite you to enlist with me in the comments section the lessons that we have learnt during the course of the years.