Charity auctions and merch sales may grate less than an asinine lip-syncing compilation. And it’s undeniable that more resources will help the overburdened food banks and hospitals at the front lines of the coronavirus crisis. But the pandemic isn’t a contained disaster that can be managed from afar. For millions across the country, this new threat doesn’t exist somewhere over there, separate from daily life. The pandemic is taking a financial, medical, and psychological toll on the very people who are viewing celebrities’ tweets or Instagram posts seeking donations (and who are taxed at much higher rates than the uber-wealthy, too).
The language that some stars resort to in their charity appeals is telling: Many try to persuade their audience by insisting, “We all need to do our part.” In a release announcing the sale of his branded T-shirts reading check yo self before you wreck yo self, Ice Cube leaned into an naive egalitarian vision: “As a global community, we all need to come together to fight against this Coronavirus. Every citizen needs to step up. Hopefully, people can buy the shirts, and help us get supplies directly into the hands of the frontline healthcare workers that need it the most.” But what does stepping up look like when you’ve lost your job?
Thankfully, some relief projects have found a way to give something to the public without simply requesting a donation in return. One World: Together at Home, a special broadcast featuring multiple performers, began with a welcome from its hosts, Stephen Colbert, Jimmy Kimmel, and Jimmy Fallon. Noting that first responders and medical workers deserve more than just thanks, Colbert instructed “everyone at home to take out their wallets—and then put them away. We aren’t asking for money tonight.” Kimmel added that the event had already raised more than $50 million for the World Health Organization, after which Fallon joked, “Half of that was just from turning Jeff Bezos upside down and shaking him for loose change.” And last night’s star-studded coronavirus-relief special from BET similarly gave audiences much-needed entertainment. Though the event was a telethon to support a joint relief fund with United Way, BET’s program also educated viewers on how to manage the spread of the virus within the most vulnerable communities.
As the pandemic continues, audiences will likely see other uncomfortable attempts by celebrities to raise money with little concern for what their followers are going through. One particularly egregious recent example might even exacerbate the economic strain placed on fans—many of whom are in the demographics most likely to be affected by both layoffs and complications from the virus. For the past month, the producer Swizz Beatz’s “Verzuz” battle series has attracted hundreds of thousands of viewers, who’ve tuned into Instagram Live to watch some of their favorite music producers face off against each other. Thus far, the battles have been free to watch, a balm during difficult times. Now, though, Beatz is teasing a possible battle between Dr. Dre and Diddy, musicians whose cumulative net worth is more than $1 billion, as a “pay-per-view for the COVID.”