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Envoy on a world stage

Citing his role in recent advances to ease suffering and starvation in Africa, Bob Geldof sees rock as means to a harmonious end.

November 13, 2005|Chris Lee | Special to The Times

IT'S been a heady couple of weeks for Sir Bob Geldof. In late October, the Irish rock singer was proclaimed 2005's Man of Peace, an honorific awarded by previous winners of the Nobel Peace Prize for "an outstanding contribution to international social justice and peace." Then on Tuesday in Burbank, Geldof was named entertainment marketer of the year at the EPM Entertainment Marketing Conference -- he co-owns a little-noticed stake in TV's "Survivor," among other successful media ventures.

It's all in a month's work for the former frontman for the 1970s-'80s rock group the Boomtown Rats, a guy who has been both praised and derided as "St. Bob" for his sense of moral outrage. But to hear it from Geldof, 54 -- the organizational brains behind 1985's Live Aid concert for Ethiopian famine relief and last July's star-studded Live 8 concerts promoting Third World debt cancellation and increased foreign aid -- everything he has ever achieved is pure rock 'n' roll.

You've been named entertainment marketer of the year in part because of your stake in "Survivor." How do you feel about being acknowledged for contributions to a consumer culture that is so often indifferent to the inequities that outrage you?

Rock 'n' roll is a direct articulation of the consumer culture. That's all it is. "Don't step on my blue suede shoes!" That's disenfranchisement from not being allowed into that culture.

So consumerism isn't a dirty word to you?

Not at all.... What are individual artists selling? They're selling whole concepts of the emotional world, the concrete world and all that. It's all I've done my whole life: sell my ideas.

How do you feel about all the recent accolades?

People hurl cubes of Lucite at me -- it's either that or they give me the scratched-out golf trophy. [Laughs] No, it's very nice. When I get a music [award], I absolutely love it. Entertainment marketer of the year -- I'm not insulted by it.

It's getting to the point where you're recognized for everything but music.

Music is central to me. It's never let me down. It frames my life, gets stuff out of me that I don't even know is there. Politically, it's always been the instrument that works.

How so?

You take that emotional energy of something like Live 8 and drive straight into the center of the political process. You force change. It really is without question the most powerful social and political force that has ever been developed -- rock 'n' roll.

What do rock stars need to know about becoming political statesmen?

You have to know what you're [talking] about. [U2 singer] Bono and I have known each other for 150,000 years. We're both from Dublin. We're proper friends. He called about the debt issue. He's sort of gone on this intellectual journey over the last 20 years since Live Aid. He said, "Should we do Band Aid and Live Aid again?" I said, "No, no, no! This is devalued currency. There've been 100 big concerts since then. Who remembers them? There must be another that reverberates down the years."

He said, "What do you think we should do?" And I said, "Use the great access you have through celebrity." We've seen the celebritization of politics -- it's not the politicization of celebrity.... But if you do have that access, you must know what you're on about because the leader sits with his advisors. At first there's the photo opportunity aspect. But suddenly, maybe you know a lot about this subject. Maybe you can be an effective bridge to other people. Maybe there's the opportunity to persuade. Why not do it?

Where do you find the energy to pursue these causes?

It comes from the "why not? [attitude]." At a fundamental level, all of it's improbable. The actual problem of an entire continent being in this vortex of decline while the rest of the world moves ahead economically is nonsensical. It makes no sense at all.

Last year I rang [British Prime Minister Tony] Blair. I was furious. I said, "None of this is working. We've got Live 8, the G8 [economic summit] coming up. Don't you think we can stand back, analyze precisely what's going on, cost it and put a plan together to move forward to implementation?" So we did it, called it Commission for Africa, which I sat on for a year. It had G8 leaders at the prime minister or presidential level on, plus a majority of African academics, intellectuals and businessmen. That [plan] was reported in March to general hosannas from the community. As a document, it was not going to get through the G8. But Live 8 pushed it through. It's a really dense report. So in case you think it all has to do with hairy-fairy rock star nonsense, it's a big book.

There must be a pretty steep learning curve for all that stuff.

You're daunted. You're looking at serious intellectual firepower. These guys have done this all their lives. But there is a position for the informed amateur. Sure, they ask, "Why do you reach that as a conclusion?" But you can say, "Stop.... Is this the way it should be?"

Did you actually have to say that?

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