Bob Geldof: the Pied Piper of celebrity activists

The Irish rocker helped spark celebrity interest in Africa in the 1980s.

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Celebrity involvement in Africa is typically traced back to the mid-1980s, when rocker Bob Geldof, moved by the plight of starving Ethiopians, put out a single with his musician friends as "Band Aid."

Most Ethiopians – as Mr. Geldof, Sting, Paul Young, and others crooned – were too hungry and miserable to know it was Christmas. Likewise, most non-Africans were too busy with Christmas (or with everything else going on in their lives) to know so many Africans were starving.

The song reminded everyone what the holiday season was supposed to be about. Moreover, the tune was catchy, and the whole project fed the British tabloids for weeks: Was Annie Lennox happy with only having one line? Did Kool & the Gang feel they were being bigfooted by Phil Collins? Is it true Geldof had to wake Boy George up and fly him from New York to record his solo part?

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"Do they know it's Christmas?" went straight to No. 1 that December 1984, becoming the fastest-selling single in British history, with a million copies sold in the first week. It raised millions of dollars for food aid to Ethiopia.

The following July, Geldof held Live Aid, a rock concert staged simultaneously in London and Philadelphia, which raised another $100 million for famine aid. By 1991, the Band Aid project had raised more than $140 million for six African nations, with about half spent on emergency aid and half on long-term projects. Geldof, at age 34, was subsequently knighted for the efforts.

"The experts will tell you it's hopeless," he wrote in a letter to contributors in 1992. "It is not a hopeless thing for one individual to care for another, to extend the hand of sympathy and shared humanity.... Ask those people if it's hopeless. Ask especially the poorest of the poor ... ask them ... why they do not just give in and succumb to what seems to be their inevitable fate? Because they too don't believe in a world without hope."

Since then, despite "competition" from the likes of global warming and the antifur movement, "Africa" remains a popular celebrity cause. From rock star Bono's efforts to get Western governments to forgive African debts (Time magazine put the U2 frontman on its cover last year, declaring him – along with Microsoft billionaire Bill Gates – "person of the year," for having "persuaded the world's leaders to take on global poverty") to pop star Madonna's orphanage in Malawi, to talk show diva Oprah Winfrey's new $40 million leadership academy for poor girls in South Africa – everyone who is anyone seems to care about Africa.

"I believe this phenomenon is infectious," says John Prendergast of ENOUGH, a nonprofit group with a mission to "prevent genocide and mass atrocities" in Africa. "Bono, Angelina, and others have done so much to make these efforts seem useful and worthwhile. So once the ice was broken, lots of others dove into the water."

Tonya Nyagiro, associate vice president for HIV/AIDS at Save the Children, agrees: "There has been a lot of renewed energy and awareness-raising ... over the last five years. Africa has become more accessible for travel and there has been greater attention at global levels on issues of HIV/AIDS, children in conflict, and broader health issues."

The fact that people such as Mr. Gates and others have made huge investments in these issues, she adds, has raised the profile of Africa and brought other celebrities on board. "Africa represents a cause that they can support – with an infrastructure of the UN, donors, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and governments that are happy to work with them to advance their mission," says Ms. Nyagiro.

Brad Pitt has visited Save the Children's programs in Ethiopia, for example, while Bono has seen firsthand the NGO's projects in South Africa and Malawi. "Africa has been overlooked for so long – and for celebrities, it still represents a 'novel' cause. The attraction of a star in a war-torn, poverty-ridden area attracts attention to the celebrity, [but also] ... to the issue," she says.

Rock singer Peter Gabriel says, "You get asked to do things, you get opportunities, and it's crazy not to take them." He was in South Africa last month with British billionaire businessman Sir Richard Branson, launching "The Elders," a conflict resolution initiative.

"It's a mixed activity in terms of the reviews it gets ... but I think if you feel inspired, you should go ahead."

Mr. Gabriel recalls the time he was writing "Biko," a protest song about Steve Biko, an anti-apartheid activist who died in police custody in South Africa. "I remember thinking, 'I'm a guy from a middle-class, privileged white background in England – is this going to have credibility?' " Gabriel recounts. "And a friend of mine said, 'If it gets attention and money, who cares?' "

[Editor's note: The original version of the sub-headline misstated Bob Geldof's nationality.]

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