The Legacy of Live Aid, 30 Years Later
The 1985 all-star benefit concert gave rise to the trend of high-profile, celebrity-endorsed charitable efforts, and changed the nature of fundraising in the process.
On July 13, 1985, Africa became a brand. The image of a starving Ethiopian girl named Birhan Woldu flickered across TV screens as Paul McCartney, David Bowie, and Madonna played beneath a “Feed the World” banner on stages in London and Philadelphia. Live Aid, as the event was known, was attended by almost 175,000 people at both venues, and raised an initial $80 million in aid for the victims of a horrific famine. But the 16-hour, transcontinental broadcast was more than just a benefit performance: It was a marketing exercise that distilled the African continent’s complex history into a logo seen by more than a billion television viewers—roughly one-fourth of the planet’s population at the time.
If, on that day, Africa’s symbolism to the world became an empty silhouette welded to the neck of a guitar, then the continent also became a star. Never before had it featured so prominently in the worldwide media spotlight, nor had music fans been urged on such a massive scale to help others. The concert raised questions about the efficacy of celebrities advocating for foreign aid, but it also undoubtedly changed the nature of fundraising by introducing the factor of high visibility thanks to celebrity philanthropists. Today, 30 years later, as famous figures continue to wield influence on social media to promote charities, Live Aid’s legacy continues to be felt in fundraising efforts and movement-building around causes.
One of the major charity events to debut in the U.S. this year was Red Nose Day, a comedy telethon that benefits efforts to fight global poverty. In the lead-up to the inaugural airing of the TV special in May, Walgreens sold more than $7 million worth of recyclable noses alone. That’s a drop in the ocean, however, compared with the £1+ billion the tomato-shaped noses have brought in from British telethons over the past 30 years for the charity Comic Relief, which launched the same year as Live Aid. These red noses are a reminder of how ubiquitous the act of charitable giving to Africa has become since 1985: Currently, on the consumer ratings site Charity Navigator, nine of the “Top Ten Most Followed Charities” provide direct funding to programs on the African continent.
There would be no red noses without Live Aid, at least according to the filmmaker Richard Curtis (Four Weddings and a Funeral, Love Actually), who co-founded Comic Relief and Red Nose Day in the 1980s after being inspired by Live Aid’s organizer Bob Geldof. “I remember watching [the ensemble] Band Aid and Live Aid and feeling like I should be involved, then I ended up in Ethiopia for three weeks,” he says. “This was when the famine was still very bad, and I saw terrible things—really close up—which changed my life completely. It led to a lifelong commitment to end extreme poverty.”
The term “extreme poverty” didn’t exist before Live Aid; it was coined in 1995 when the UN defined it as a base measurement (equivalent to an income of less than $1.25 per day) used in the research that led to the creation of the Millennium Development Goals in 2000. The origins of the phrase are inextricable from the graphic pictures of Ethiopian famine victims shown on BBC television in the fall of 1984. The images of starving children in one of the poorest places on earth moved Geldof (the lead singer of the Boomtown Rats) and Midge Ure (Ultravox) to write the charity single “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” and assemble an all-star group to record it that November. After accompanying the first shipment of aid to Ethiopia funded by the sale of the song in the spring of 1985, Geldof returned home to London, determined to do more, which led to the birth of Live Aid.
A lot has changed in the last 30 years, and the results in Ethiopia are mixed: The concert’s poster child Woldu grew into a healthy adult but resents being used as a symbol of Western aid. Ethiopia has become one of the fastest-growing economies on the continent, although the country’s regime has been rightly criticized for government control of market sectors and human-rights violations. This month, on the anniversary of Live Aid, the UN is hosting a development conference in the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa to discuss new global goals to be instituted this fall. The country’s situation has improved but more work lies ahead.
Aid is still a complicated topic, yet progress on the continent is real: The Brookings Institute reports that the share of Africans living in extreme poverty fell from 60 percent in 1996 to 47 percent in 2011 and is expected to fall to 24 percent by 2030. The credit for these achievements belongs to African countries themselves, but Live Aid’s acolytes—including actors, musicians, doctors, aid workers, faith-based grassroots organizations, and average citizens—have played a supporting role by lobbying governments to invest in programs that help fight the root causes of poverty and save lives from preventable diseases such as AIDS and malaria.
In the years following Live Aid, the Band Aid Trust (set up to handle donations from the sale of music and video/DVD licenses) continued to distribute funds to an array of charities working on the continent of Africa. Criticisms of Live Aid's money trail, including reports about funders suspected of using monies to purchase weapons in the 1980s, have made philanthropists, governments and charities who work in Africa acutely aware of the impact of corruption on the donation chain. Today, aid groups such as Oxfam have joined the International Aid Transparency Initiative, which helps organizations assess transparency and provide data resources to donors.
UNICEF and Amnesty International both held charity concerts in the 1970s (including George Harrison's Concert for Bangladesh), but Live Aid was the first to harness the powers of mass media and peer-to-peer persuasion to bring the world together around a targeted cause. After the initial event, the concert’s impact spread via the “Six Degrees of Geldof”—a web of celebrities and influencers who evangelized about Africa within their networks, eventually getting the word to billionaire philanthropists and world leaders.
If Live Aid had never happened, would Richard Branson have swum with Desmond Tutu while discussing world peace? Would Ted Turner have funded mosquito net initiatives, or Bill and Melinda Gates committed their wealth to provide vaccinations and contraceptives, or Jimmy Carter spent his post-presidency trying to eradicate tropical diseases in countries like Nigeria? Would George W. Bush have enacted PEPFAR (the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief), a massive government initiative to fight AIDS/HIV around the world? Would David Cameron have devoted unprecedented amounts of money to the UK's foreign assistance budget? It's also easy to question whether the African schools, water wells and AIDS-awareness campaigns of Oprah, Brad Pitt, Matt Damon, Will.i.am, Annie Lennox, and Alicia Keys would exist today if Live Aid hadn’t set the precedent for celebrity focus on the continent.
Rock stars influencing the policies of world leaders might not have been possible before Live Aid, but an interconnected world in which African countries experience major economic growth might have become a reality even without celebrity concerts. “We didn’t need Bono or Geldof to alleviate tragedies in Africa,” says William Easterly, a professor of economics at New York University. “Without the legacy of Live Aid, the West's view would be less condescending and more Africa-centric. As it is, our patronizing attitudes perpetuate the idea that we are the source of hope.”
If a song had the power to make 1980s music fans feel like they could help “feed the world,” it wasn’t because they perceived themselves as colonialists, but rather as activists, says Coldplay’s Chris Martin, who was 8 years old when Live Aid aired on the BBC in the summer of 1985. “I remember it,” Martin says. “It made my generation feel like caring for the world was part of the remit. Rock and roll doesn't have to be detached from society.” After Band Aid and Live Aid transformed the purchase of records and concert tickets into meaningful charitable contributions, music became the advocacy tool of choice. “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” inspired other records such as USA for Africa's "We Are the World” for famine relief; Steven Van Zandt’s “Sun City” in protest of South African apartheid; and a Dionne Warwick remake of the Burt Bacharach ballad, “That’s What Friends Are For” for AIDS research.
At Live Aid, regular songs became anthems as they assumed the gravitas of the day. Howard Jones’s “Hide and Seek;” U2’s 12-minute version of “Bad;” and the gospel overtones of Teddy Pendergrass singing, “Reach Out and Touch (Somebody’s Hand)” added to the show's groundswell. “It was like dropping a pebble in a pond, and the ripples were huge,” says the co-organizer, Ure. “The average guy on the street felt connected to making a difference. Live Aid wasn’t [the artists’ baby], it belonged to the fans. They created the momentum by putting their hands in their pockets, buying the record, and by being at the concerts."
Elizabeth McLaughlin was 23 when she attended the London show and stood within feet of the stage. She remembers the moment the sun fell below the rim of Wembley Stadium and the audience clapped in unison to Queen’s “Radio Ga Ga.” “People were crying a lot,” she says. “The combination of the images on the screens and the messages coming from the artists reminded us why we were there. We knew we had to do more.” McLaughlin credits Live Aid for influencing her to leave a career as stockbroker and later become a country director for CARE. “Whatever came out of Live Aid—millions of pounds and dollars, that’s great. But what really happened at the concert is that a new generation was born, a generation meant to be aware of what’s going on around us.”
Live 8, a Live Aid sequel, was staged in 2005 before the G8 summit and “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” has been re-recorded three times, including in 1989, 2004, and last year, when a version was made to benefit Ebola relief in West Africa. Thanks in part to young fans of the band One Direction, which participated in 2014’s “Band Aid 30” recording, the song went to number one on the U.K. charts, even if its message didn't fly with Millennials.
Ironically, Live Aid may have been to blame for the backlash: Today’s viral videos, online charity ads, and point-of-purchase donations are direct descendants of the marketing tactics used in the promotion of the original Band Aid record and the Live Aid concerts. Since 1985, joining causes has become as important as donating to them, and Millennials like to do both. In a 2014 report by the Case Foundation, 87 percent of Millennials who participated in a charitable-giving and corporate-volunteering survey contributed to charity the previous year, but 97 percent responded that they prefer to use their individual skills to help a cause.
“Millennials want the work to get done, and they want a piece of the action,” says 29-year-old Luvuyo Mandela, a South African activist who is the great-grandson of Nelson Mandela. Mandela says he feels that young Africans are largely uninterested in who takes credit for progress in reducing poverty or eliminating AIDS, regardless of whether they believe Africa wants or needs unsolicited aid from other continents. Whereas the Baby Boomers and Gen-Xers took on Live Aid’s mantle of “saving the world” with their armchairs, pocketbooks and telethons, Mandela believes his generation wants to be “the entrepreneurs that make lasting change happen through actions in everyday life.” In the wake of Invisible Children’s quick-burn viral campaign calling for the capture of the Ugandan warlord Joseph Kony, Millennials may be more skeptical about blindly joining new causes.
Hugh Evans, a 32-year-old Australian, said he believes that charity concerts are no longer staged for impoverished people they aim to help but “for the advocates who attend them.” The annual Global Citizen Festival he initiated four years ago brings 60,000 fans to New York’s Central Park every September to hear from performers like Stevie Wonder and Foo Fighters and leaders such as the World Bank president Jim Yong Kim and UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. For these concertgoers, who earn their entrance into the event by signing online petitions or posting charity content on social media, music is the mouthpiece, but not the motivator.
The deliberate planning that went into this year’s festival shows how far things have come since 30 years ago. Unlike the chaotic Live Aid press conference held in June 1985 to announce a lineup of artists Bob Geldof had scribbled on a sheet of paper, Evans’s affair uses the latest technology. Curtis has developed a short animated film to screen, and no images of poor children are shown. Instead, Beyoncé, this year's festival headliner, makes a guest appearance via video. But the end goal—improving living conditions for people global scale—remains the same.
Evans is too young to know how it felt to watch 70 musical acts play Live Aid on a hot July Saturday three decades ago. Yet, perhaps because of that concert, he and other advocates like him grew up believing that every person, rock star or not, has the ability to affect change, however slowly. If future generations live in a world where there’s less need to remember why Live Aid was held on July 13, 1985, then the concert’s legacy will surely be complete.