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Will Live 8 really matter?

Pop stars' tenacious commitment to alleviating Third World poverty has become increasingly politically sophisticated.

July 02, 2005|Randy Lewis and Geoff Boucher | Times Staff Writers

Paul McCartney and the Irish rock band U2 will have history on their minds today in London, where they plan to kick off a globe-spanning chain of concerts to combat Third World poverty by singing "It was 20 years ago today...."

That opening line from the Beatles' "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" is meant to invoke the memory of Live Aid in July 1985, when dozens of the world's top pop musicians rallied together to raise money and food for Africans dying of starvation.

An even bigger conglomeration of rock, pop and rap's biggest movers and shakers is now taking stages in nine world capitals for Live 8, urging world leaders who meet next week in Scotland for the annual G-8 summit to do more to end poverty and disease in Africa.

"They're not asking for a handout this time," says Jack Healey, architect of the Amnesty International concert tours in the 1980s that similarly aimed to effect change, not just collect it. "They are asking people to get the world's boot off the throat of Africa."

Specifically, Live 8 supporters want leaders of the Group of 8 nations -- President Bush, British Prime Minister Tony Blair and heads of state from Russia, Japan, Germany, France, Canada and Italy -- to cancel hundreds of millions of dollars in debt owed by Third World countries.

Can Live 8 make a difference?

Despite the big-name lineups or estimates that global coverage of the concerts could reach a potential audience of billions in 140 countries, there remains a monumental gap between political reality and the humanitarian intentions of pop music stars and their fans, many of whom have little understanding of the issues. On Thursday, a London forum with Blair and Irish rocker Bob Geldof kicked off with a videotape in which rapper Snoop Dogg asked, "Excuse me, Mr. Prime Minister -- or President -- Tony Blair, I'd like to know who or what is the G-8?"

A generation after all-star Live Aid and No Nukes concerts, millions of Africans are still starving and the issue of nuclear weapon proliferation is as volatile as ever.

But having studied the limitations and problems of such celebrated rock humanitarian efforts as the Concert for Bangladesh and Live Aid, Live 8's musicians and organizers, led by Geldof and U2 singer Bono, are implementing a new model of pop music activism, one that's beginning to yield more significant payoffs.

Where entertainers once were brushed off in the halls of power as politically naive do-gooders, increasingly their voices are being heard.

Geldof, Bono and others have learned the importance of showing commitment to a cause over a sustained period, avoiding partisan politics and exhibiting sophisticated knowledge of complex issues rather than espousing pie-in-the-sky ideals. And they've stopped simply urging fans to feel someone else's pain.

"I think compassion is an old-fashioned idea," says Bobby Shriver, the Kennedy clan member who now sits on the Santa Monica City Council and is one of the organizers of the Philadelphia Live 8 show. He's also one of the driving forces behind the "Very Special Christmas" series of compilation albums that has raised money and awareness for the Special Olympics.

"Pop music as a vehicle for compassion never worked for me," says Shriver, the son of Peace Corps founder R. Sargent Shriver and Special Olympics founder Eunice Kennedy Shriver. Following in the family tradition, he and Bono co-founded the nonprofit DATA (Debt, AIDS, Trade, Africa) organization in 2002 to address poverty and disease in Africa. "Pop music is a vehicle for self-expression, for self-discovery about the truth of your own life. That's what pop music is, and that leads you to justice in your own heart."

That justice, however, doesn't automatically translate into easing poverty around the world. So pop musicians increasingly have been backing up their onstage pronouncements by establishing advocacy organizations and working much the same way political candidates do, generating grass-roots support and tapping volunteers to lobby their case to policymakers.

The Live 8 coalition is in sync with Blair, who last month urged G-8 leaders to agree to a doubling of foreign aid to Africa -- to roughly $80 billion a year by 2010 -- and to write off African loan debts, measures Geldof and Bono have been lobbying for for years.

International affairs experts say any long-term results are more likely to stem from years of work leading up to Live 8 rather than from one high-profile day of rocking, rolling and rapping.

"It's so easy to do a simple benefit and send people out having had a nice time at a concert never thinking about the issues for which they're raising money," says David Gere, acting chairman of UCLA's department of world arts and cultures.

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