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How Lasting Is the Legacy of the Live 8 Charity Concert?

A voyage to the bottom of a T-shirt drawer prompts a look back at a major event in the history of celebrity charity concerts, 2005's Live 8, Philadelphia.

The other day, needing something to break up the rotation of my T-shirt wardrobe, I reached for a souvenir I hadn't worn in years.

It's a tie-die shirt commemorating the Live 8 concerts, a series of performances by pop stars big and small across the globe, aiming to pressure governments and multinational corporations to enact debt relief for struggling African countries in advance of the upcoming Group of 8 (G8) conference. It was quite a massive undertaking, spearheaded by rocker-turned-activist Bob Geldof, who'd taken on using rock celebrity to shine a light on global issues as his calling. It fell almost 20 years to the day after Geldof staged Live Aid, a day of concerts in Philadelphia and London to help alleviate famine in Ethiopia. This was a cause Geldof first engaged by producing the charity single "Do They Know It's Christmas?" the previous year.

My T-shirt lists the acts performing at Philadelphia on the front; and the acts performing at Paris; London; Berlin; Rome; Edinburgh, Scotland (the site of the G8 conference); and Barrie, Canada (north of Toronto) on the back. Concerts were added in Japan, Moscow, and Johannesburg; either this happened after the shirts were printed or organizers didn't try to include all those other lineups on one back.

Album image from Pexels (modified) Pixabay License

Overall, the lineups were heavy on global rock superstars like Paul McCartney and U2, with popular national favorites filling out the slates. That was the better -- or so it was thought -- to attract global attention to an issue only global economic policy wonks, and Africans thought much about. Among those performing throughout the world that day were:

  • Pink Floyd (in a one-time-only reunion of the classic quartet lineup) and Elton John in London;
  • Andrea Bocelli and the Cure in Paris (my shirt lists Jamiroquai as the headliner there, but they canceled, claiming they had no idea they'd been booked for the performance);
  • Bryan Adams, Celine Dion, and DMC (without Run, but with the less-famous half of Aerosmith for "Walk This Way") in Canada (Tegan and Sara canceled due to illness; Neil Young closed the show with "O Canada");
  • Brian Wilson, Roxy Music, and Green Day in Berlin (Crosby, Stills & Nash and not-yet-Ms. Lauryn Hill are listed on my shirt, but both acts canceled);
  • Annie Lennox, Travis and James Brown (!) in Edinburgh;
  • Bjork and Good Charlotte in Japan;
  • The Pet Shop Boys in Moscow; and
  • Duran Duran and Faith Hill & Tim McGraw in, of all places, Rome (Hill and McGraw were listed on the shirt as headliners but performed towards the middle of the show; Duran Duran didn't make it to the shirt).

At the bottom of the shirt is the concert date: July 2, 2005. How convenient of me to excavate it just as the event is approaching its 15th anniversary.

I bought the shirt at the Philadelphia show, where I was living at the time. I wrote about the show, and the complicated local run-up, for this very magazine ("When I Say 'Debt' You Say 'Relief': Live 8 in Philadelphia", 6 July 2005); if I remembered more about that day I'd add it here, but I don't. You can check out the Wikipedia page for a basic history of the global event; there are also several videos of performances from the concerts on YouTube.

Destiny's Child at Live 8 Philadelphia in 2005. (CC BY-SA 2.0 / Wikimedia Commons)

Now 15 years on, Live 8 is pretty much a memory that lives on, most likely, in the bottom of T-shirt drawers across the world. Many of the performers that day are still doing their things (Keith Urban, Madonna, Coldplay), others are stuck in your '00s time capsule (Dido, Robbie Williams, the Kaiser Chiefs). Destiny's Child is no longer a regularly working group, but its lead singer has done okay for herself in the years since. South Africa's Lucky Dube, Canada's Gordon Downie, and France's Johnny Hallyday are among those who have passed. You might be able to name Willow Smith's last record more quickly than her dad's.

The most glaring thing about the lineups is that only one Africa-based act, Senegal legend Youssou N'Dour, was scheduled at the time of that T-shirt's printing to perform at any of the shows. (The shirt said he'd be in Edinburgh, but he ended up closing out the Paris show with his international hit "7 Seconds".)

Otherwise, the African presence on Live 8 stages that day was scant. Among the meager number were South Africa's Mahotella Queens in Edinburgh; the African Guitar Summit, a group of nine African expats living in Canada; Cote D'Ivoire's Alpha Blondy in Paris; and the African Children's Choir, who backed up Mariah Carey on one song in London.

Considering the concert was supposed to focus on making life better in Africa, Geldof and other organizers were rightly called out for the absence of performers from the continent, or anywhere else in the African diaspora for that matter (outside of the Philly show, all the headliners on the initial bills were white). That's how Snoop Dogg and British rapper Ms. Dynamite got tacked onto the London show, and why they added the Johannesburg concert. It's also why Peter Gabriel, a champion of African issues and musicians for longer than Geldof had been and with far more street cred, organized a counter-concert in England with an all-African lineup (hosted, it seems, by Gabriel and Angelina Jolie), Africa Calling.

Was Live 8 a success? Depends on whom you ask. Geldof was proud of the G8's pledge to increase aid to Africa by $25 billion. Still, there does not seem to have been any lasting effort from any Live 8-related entity to ensure that money happened. But they did sell an awful lot of CDs, DVDs, and T-shirts; it's not immediately clear to what specific ends that money went, since no one much bothered to independently track that revenue. Ten years after the event, Forbes magazine concluded the results were decidedly mixed.

Its greatest legacy might be as a signature event in the long history of music celebrity charity efforts. It contains multitudes, starting in earnest with The Concert for Bangladesh, produced by George Harrison in 1971. There's the epic "check your egos at the door" recording session Quincy Jones convened to make " We Are the World;" the Farm Aid concerts spearheaded by Willie Nelson, John Mellencamp and Neil Young; high-profile events after the 9/11 attacks; a 2010 telethon after earthquakes ravaged Haiti; concerts after the 2015 Paris nightclub bombing; the One Love Manchester concert in 2017; and even more than I can quickly list here. It also includes numerous charity albums, including the series of Red Hot albums produced in the fight against AIDS.

"Live 8s" Today

Of course, we've seen a new round of such efforts lately, responding to the COVID-19 pandemic and protests against police brutality and racial inequality. They've ranged from the inspired to the tone-deaf (the aforementioned "Do They Know It's Christmas?" still ranks high on that dishonor roll), as has much celebrity activism in recent years, especially on social media. The ubiquitous presence of celebrities weighing in on the issues of the day, to whatever good it accomplishes (or not), is a theme of Dave Chappelle's most recent Netflix special, 8:46 and was amplified by Allison Herman at The Ringer.

Have all these high-profile events made a difference? Probably for the better, if the money raised went properly to agencies best disposed to use it effectively. Have they shifted the level of awareness about their causes? Yes, at least in the moment of the event, but what happens after everyone leaves is anyone's guess. Do they move the needle towards lasting change, and if so, how far? The cynic in me says "not much, if at all", but I wouldn't know how to quantify that. The larger question might be: what kind of shape are we in to begin with, if we need a mega-star to tell us Africa is suffering, or to wear a mask in the middle of a pandemic, or that Black lives really do matter?

Interestingly, Geldof himself thinks the moment for such large-scale, live charity concerts has passed. "…That instrument of change is no longer plausible. Rock and roll was the central spine of our culture for 50 years. The web has broken down the world into individualism and that's easy for authoritarians to use," he lamented to the Daily Mail back in March 2020, just before the pandemic took hold in America.

Although live concerts by worldwide stars may no longer be the best way to generate mass support for a cause (whenever such concerts could conceivably happen again post-pandemic), the practice of musicians raising their voices isn't ending anytime soon. Recently was "Black Power Live", an online benefit concert this past weekend for organizations supporting the Movement for Black Lives, featuring progressive young Black artists such as Miguel, Blood Orange and Doja Cat. Again, it might be worth some curious journalist's time to follow the money from these current efforts to gauge their true effectiveness, if the organizers themselves don't provide such disclosure.

As it happened, Live 8 -- and the urgency of African debt relief -- faded from the American limelight as soon as Philly picked up the trash. Eight weeks later, it was superseded by a catastrophe far closer to home: Hurricane Katrina, and the devastation it brought upon both New Orleans' already-fragile infrastructure and its people (and yes, that devastation lingers on, 15 years later). You might remember there was a celebrity concert then too. This one had the good sense to feature actual Big Easy performers singing about their hometown. Still, it's probably best known as the first time Kanye West decided he had something to say.

But while the world of celebrity charity concerts has changed markedly since July 2, 2005, one thing hasn't changed: a Stevie Wonder performance is still a resplendent, beatific event.

And with that, happy 15th anniversary, Live 8. Keep up the struggle. And thanks for the shirt.

* * *

Works Cited

Chapelle, Dave. 8:46. Promotional. YouTube. Accessed 29 June 2020.

D'Agostino, Ryan. "We Are the World: Inside Pop Music's Most Famous All-Nighter". Esquire. 24 June 2020.

Edmunds, Chantalle. "Bob Geldof claims Live Aid wouldn't happen again today because the internet has made the world 'too individualistic'". Daily Mail. 10 March 2020.

Forrest, Adam. "Did Live 8 Work? 10 Years On, The Debt Burden Returns". Forbes. 13 July 2015

Herman, Allison. "The Celebrities Are Not All Right". The Ringer. 23 June 2020.

Kantor, Jacqueline. "Gun Violence Is Devastating New Orleans. Big Freedia Wants to End It". The Ringer. 25 June 2020.

Reynolds, Mark. "When I Say 'Debt' You Say 'Relief': Live 8 in Philadelphia". PopMatters. 6 July 2005.

Spangler, Todd. "Beyoncé Visual Album 'Black Is King' Coming to Disney Plus". Variety. 28 June 2020.

West, Kanya. "Kanye West Hurricane Katrina". YouTube. 3 March 2006.

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