The rush by celebrities to provide support for Haiti holds our attention by the sheer extent of the mobilization by star power. But after the show is over, what should we make of this phenomenon?
Is it an act that we have seen before in other crises, that follows an increasingly well-worn script?
Or does it contain some fresh trends that signal some major refinement about how we witness disasters, and to whom we look to be out ahead in funding relief efforts?
Equally, does the crisis transform our view of celebrities, or at least a significant component of celebrity culture? The traditional image of icons in popular culture is as hyper-individualists, big on personal ego but small on team play. Yet what we see, especially in the U.S. effort "Hope for Haiti Now," is a vivid demonstration of the power of networking in and beyond the world of entertainment.
In many ways, the gala event last Friday night served as a repeat performance during a time of crisis. In 1971 George Harrison assembled an all-star group of musicians to raise money for Bangladesh (to be administrated by UNICEF) at a time of turmoil brought on by the struggle for independence and natural disasters. Live Aid in 1985, attending to the Ethiopian famine, ratcheted up the script. Taking full advantage of the introduction of satellite technology, these trans-Atlantic concerts were conducted in real time for 15 hours with a near global audience of some 1.5 billion and 1.7 billion people and what was estimated to be 93 per cent of all TV sets. Donations raised via the concert (and parallel recordings) were strikingly large for the era.
Nor is the Haiti relief effort novel in the speed with which it took shape. The "Tribute to Heroes" telethon in the wake of the tragedy of 9/11 aired 10 days after the event. "Hope for Haiti Now" played out in a similar time line.
Yet, if the Haiti relief effort needs to be put into context about how it stacks up historically, there are features about it that endorse the image of originality. The first big sign of change is the explicit handover in terms of the international leadership role from the largely U.K.-based music industry to Hollywood. Big "charitainment" events of the past possessing a global reach have been dominated by British/Irish rock stars. Bob Geldof served as the mastermind both for the Live Aid and (20 years on) the Live 8 concerts. Paul McCartney, Pink Floyd and U2 among other bands provided the music. Some Hollywood stars (including George Clooney) appeared at the Live 8 concerts but they did not grab the spotlight.
On Haiti the roles have been reversed. Bono of U2 remains a unique hub in the world of celebrity networking, with a specific mentoring function. The main spotlight, however, has shifted to Hollywood. Clooney has built on his reputation not only as the organizer of the "Tribute to Heroes" telethon but as an accredited UN Messenger of Peace and a campaigner on Darfur to take centre stage. With him is clustered a host of other Hollywood notables. Moreover, Hollywood stars not only offered time but their own money. In a significant illustration about the manner by which the celebrity network stretches beyond the West Coast, a day before the "Hope for Haiti Now" concert, Leonardo DiCaprio donated $1 million to the bipartisan Haiti fund headed by former presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush.
The second sign of change is the elevated position given to African Americans, not just in the world of Hollywood but through a vital musical presence. Headliners in the "Hope for Haiti Now" event included Wyclef Jean, Alicia Keys, Beyoncé, Jennifer Hudson, Mary J. Blige and Jay-Z alongside Madonna and Sting, to name only a few of the performers. In the age of Obama this move should be expected. Nonetheless it is worthy of note that his form of embrace is very different from the image of exclusion to non-white entertainers in the U.K. segment of the Live 8 concert in 2005.
That being said, the mention of Wyclef Jean highlights both the opportunities and the traps before this type of extension of celebrity activism. Wyclef has deep roots in Haiti. Before the recent devastating earthquake, Wyclef did more than any other celebrity to draw attention to the plight of Haiti through the work of his Yéle Haiti Foundation.
Yet Wyclef also attracts an abundance of negative commentary. He has been linked to the political forces that twice deposed democratically elected Jean-Bertrand Aristide from the presidency. And his foundation has come under criticism for accounting irregularities.
The third measure of change is located in the shift in the relationship between celebrities and NGOs. In the U.K., this relationship has been marred by tensions over "ownership" of the disaster relief domain, both in terms of profile and resources. With Oxfam U.K. as an outlier, British NGOs shunned Geldof and the events around Live 8 in 2005. By way of contrast, all the core NGOs worked hand-in-hand with the "Hope for Haiti Now" celebrity initiative.
It is always tempting to see celebrity activism as an attractive but superficial add-on to the "real" work of aid relief. In instrumental terms, it is a big leap from the front stage in Hollywood to the front lines dealing with emergency relief. Yet the Haiti disaster reveals again the salience of celebrities as significant go-betweens – not only in providing a source of spectacle but also in constituting a link between the manner by which elites (through organization) and society at large (via a generosity of spirit) address a crisis such as the one suffered by Haiti.