WESTCHESTER, Pennsylvania — For decades, music has played a visible and controversial role in efforts for reducing poverty. Thirty years ago, singer-songwriters Bob Geldof and Midge Ure founded Band Aid to raise money for anti-poverty efforts in then famine-struck Ethiopia.
Band Aid succeeded in raising money and awareness with its single, “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” The release of the single was followed by the similarly successful Live Aid—a dual-venue concert also set up by Geldof and Ure.
While Geldof and Ure succeeded in raising money and awareness, “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” drew criticism for its patronizing and misleading lyrics, and it remains unclear how much of the proceeds generated from Band Aid and Live Aid actually went towards feeding Ethiopians, and how much was siphoned off by Ethiopian dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam for use in his regime’s deadly resettlement efforts.
In 2014, Geldof and Ure revived Band Aid for its thirtieth anniversary, in order to combat the spread of Ebola in western Africa. On Nov. 17, 2014, Band Aid released a re-recorded, Ebola-themed version of “Do They Know It’s Christmas?”
Despite raising $1.5 million within minutes of its release, the single was again met with criticism.
Damon Albarn, former Blur front-man and one-half of the duo responsible for the Gorillaz, joined the chorus of voices lamenting the re-release’s reductive depiction of the African continent.
“Our idea of what helps, and our idea of what’s wrong and right are not necessarily shared by other countries. There are problems with our idea of charity,” Albarn said in a 2014 interview with BBC’s Channel 4 News. Albarn also criticized the latest Band Aid single for including only one African-born singer.
While Albarn said that he hoped that Band Aid 30 would be successful in not only raising money, but also in getting it to those who need it, he also encouraged those involved in making the single to actually visit Africa- something he does on a regular basis.
Albarn is the mastermind behind Africa Express, which encourages Western musicians to travel to the African continent and immerse themselves in local musical traditions. The organization is unique in that its goal is the sharing of ideas and culture, rather than money. With Africa Express, Albarn seeks to build relationships of a level, rather than hierarchical, nature.
Venezuala’s “El Sistema” constitutes a different kind of initiative altogether. While Band Aid uses music to raise money, and Africa Express uses it to bridge cultural gaps, “El Sistema” uses music as a direct means of combatting poverty.
El Sistema, founded by economist and musician Jose Antonio Abreu, seeks to provide children surrounded by drugs, gangs, crime and despair with a musical alternative. By providing instruction in classical music, El Sistema instills in its students a sense of belonging to something other than a troubled ecosystem.
El Sistema estimates that it has reached 310,000 children in 280 teaching locations since its founding. Abreu says his goal is to reach 500,000 children by the end of 2015. The innovative initiative is now modeled in over 25 countries, including the United States.
In the last 30 years, music’s role in fighting poverty has become larger and more diverse. Whether raising money to fund NGO’s, or teaching values through their craft, musicians continue to play a unique role in poverty reduction efforts across the globe.
– Parker Carroll
Sources: Bloomberg Business, CF Standards, The Guardian 1, The Guardian 2, New York Times, Youtube