The rap star from New York flew briefly to the Somali town of Dolo along the Ethiopian border to visit a refugee camp run by the United Nations High Commission for Human Rights. 50 Cent, or Curtis Jackson as he is also known, has committed to providing 1 billion meals to the hungry, and according to the Associated Press, he is donating 10 cents from the purchase price of every bottle of a new energy drink called Street King, which he promotes. Ten cents covers the cost of a typical meal provided by the World Food Programme, the UN’s emergency food relief agency.
"What I am seeing is devastating -- these women and children have risked everything to come to this Somalia camp, just to get food,” he said, in a statement released through the WFP. “They need our help.”
When stars get involved in global issues, there is inevitably a frisson of excitement in the entertainment press about that star’s commitment and bravery, and in the news press, there tend to be a slew of snarky articles about how such trips are self-serving, self-promotional branding exercises. Both can be true, of course. And when powerful aid agencies such as the United Nations Children’s Fund asks a starlet like Angelina Jolie visit refugee camps in the Darfur region, they can be almost assured that her visit – and their agenda – will gain the attention of the world’s media. In a world of short attention spans and decreasing foreign news budgets, it’s a logical choice to make.
Rap and rock stars, action heroes, and yes, even comic book characters – DC Comics recently sent its Justice League to take on hunger in the Horn of Africa – do their job well, raising public awareness about world crises.
But some critics have begun to ask whether any of this attention does any actual good.
In her biting critique of the reporting of influential New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, published this week by the W.E.B. Dubois Institute at Indiana University, Kathryn Mathers writes that the twin events of the growing AIDS crisis and the post-traumatic shock of the Sept. 11 attacks created a new mood of American humanitarianism. Laudable as it is for Americans to want to contribute to solutions – rather than, say, launching another war – this new humanitarianism was wrapped up in some very old and repulsive assumptions about Africa as a helpless and hopeless continent, which had almost no role in contributing to those solutions or determining its own future:
This was also when the desire to save Africans became the dominant story told by American travelers. While a very real tragedy for too many people and families around the world, the AIDS story was also a perfect “African story.” It increasingly brought up all the old lemons about Africa: tradition versus modernity; patriarchy and hyper-masculinity; tribalism; over-sexualized black bodies; government failures and incompetence; etcetera. It was all too seldom a story about global inequalities, or the structural causes of poverty that contribute so much to HIV infection rates in Africa, and hardly ever about local health care providers, family and community support systems, and the flawed but willing health services all over the continent. Africans could not escape HIV/AIDS and nor could the Americans who cared about Africa. Suddenly there were no conversations about new democracies in Africa, or investment opportunities; the potential consumers were represented as too sick to labor, let alone to shop. This became the burden of caring Americans whose consumption practices can give a sick child in Africa ARVs or provide mosquito nets against the ravages of malaria.
For the news media, these are very valid criticisms. Are we being led by the nose, and by our desire for increased readership and viewership, to cover the stories that Mr. Clooney, Ms. Jolie, and Mr. Cent – and their backers – want us to cover?
By giving so much attention to their issues, heightening awareness about war, conflict, drought, and disease, are we diminishing the importance of other trends in Africa – the emergence of new democracies, the growing economic strength of resource-rich nations, the blossoming of technology?
By focusing on foreign celebrities, do we in the news media end up diminishing also the efforts of ordinary aid workers and activists who work on issues of hunger and conflict year-round? I would welcome a discussion on this issue on Twitter, by the way.
As for the rap star 50 Cent, his entry into the humanitarian field is not entirely new. It has its roots in a concert tour of Africa that the rap star took last year.
“I grew up without money but I didn’t grow up hungry. A lot of people out there are hungry right now – no, actually dying of hunger. It’s our responsibility to come together and do things to create a solution for this problem.”
That first African trip gave him the impetus to use his fame as a platform to make a difference.
“What I’ve seen from this actual run, when I was out in Africa was unbelievable, the devastation and desperation of people who don’t know when they’ll receive their next meal, or if they’re going to receive their next meal,” he said. “I want to feed a billion kids and I need your help to do it. I need you to utilize your energy, your voice, to provide additional motivation for me at times. My new project is called SK, Street King and y’all know the plan. I just told y’all the plan. I want to feed a billion kids.”