“What’s Going On?” A Song to Fight AIDS: Artists Raise their voices for Africa

USA Today by Mark Memmott (2001-09-06)

NEW YORK — In one corner of the recording studio, Irish rocker Bono quietly talked with rapper Ja Rule and Michelle Williams of Destiny’s Child.

Standing at the control board, producer Jermaine Dupri, known for his collaborations with Janet Jackson and Mariah Carey, listened as Wyclef Jean worked out a guitar solo.

Sitting on a chair to one side, Nona Gaye watched as a young generation of pop stars — drawn in large part by Bono’s passion and by the organizational efforts of longtime British activist Leigh Blake, who conceived the idea just four weeks ago — came together to record a new version of “What’s Going On,” her father Marvin’s classic protest song.

That was the unusual scene Wednesday afternoon at Battery Studios in lower Manhattan. In an effort that recalls the mid-‘80s rock all-star recordings of “We Are the World” and “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” some of today’s top rock, pop and rap artists are spending the better part of three days here putting together what they hope will be a recording that raises awareness about the AIDS epidemic in Africa and several other connected issues. They say their goal is not so much to raise money by selling copies of the single, which will be released Dec. 1 in a bid for holiday sales. Rather, they want to remind Americans that AIDS is still a crushing problem — especially in Africa, where it’s estimated the disease will kill 3 million people next year. And they want to push their call for a series of steps they believe will help Africa’s poorest nations tackle the AIDS epidemic, including the wiping away of those nations’ Cold War-era debts owed to the World Bank, International Monetary Fund and Western governments.

“We want to take this issue to the everyday American. To the shopping malls. To the high school kids,” Bono said in an interview Wednesday during a break in the recording sessions. And, the U2 frontman adds, by calling on some of today’s younger, most popular stars to take part, organizers also hope they make the point that it’s not just the same “right-on group of fellas you’d normally expect” who are getting behind the movements known as Artists Against AIDS Worldwide and the Global Aids Alliance.

Tonight, MTV plans to air a short video about the recording and the chronic, tragic nature of AIDS in Africa before the broadcast of its annual Video Music Awards. So many artists were able to take part in the recording (others including Britney Spears, Mary J. Blige, Jennifer Lopez, ‘N Sync and Christina Aguilera are expected to add their voices by Friday) because they were in New York for those awards.

Politics, social causes and rock ‘n’ roll have long mixed. The first of the major fundraisers for Third World relief were the Concerts for Bangladesh staged by George Harrison at Madison Square Garden in 1971; 1979 saw the No Nukes concerts, spearheaded by Jackson Browne. Elton John’s 1997 recording of a reworked “Candle in the Wind” sold 11 million copies in the USA. Profits benefited the Diana, Princess of Wales Memorial Fund.

In 1984, Irish singer Bob Geldof masterminded the British all-star recording of “Do They Know It’s Christmas?/Feed the World,” which raised money for famine-stricken Ethiopians. That inspired American pop stars — led by Michael Jackson, Lionel Richie and producer Quincy Jones — to record We Are the World in 1985. Three million copies of the single were sold in the USA. That year, Live Aid concerts in London and Philadelphia eventually raised $ 200 million for African famine relief.

The ‘compassion fatigue’ factor

The run of events and recordings of the mid-‘80s led some experts to caution that average people could soon suffer from “compassion fatigue” and tune out charitable appeals. Bono himself said Wednesday that people do “go numb” at some point if they’re deluged with too many “boring” appeals for help.

But Rini Cobey, a Gordon College communications professor who has studied what she calls the “Christmas albums” that mix music with social causes, says compassion fatigue really isn’t much of an issue. “You don’t see any polls showing that average Joe or Jane is worn out by all this,” she says.

Sociology professor Myron Orleans of California State University-Fullerton said in an e-mail interview: “Rather than experience ‘compassion fatigue,’ I suspect people feel bonded in a common purpose and identify personally with their celebrity as sharing a humanitarian concern.”

What’s more important to an “issue” song’s success, Cobey says, are the basics: popularity of the artists, quality of the song, and the timing of its release. In America, she says, the holidays are the obvious choice for when to put a song out.

“People are going to spend money during the holidays,” Cobey says, “and if they think some of it’s going to a good cause, that’s all the better.”

If a lot of money is going to be spent, how do consumers know whether much of it will actually help the people who are being sung about? Consumer watchdogs say the organizations releasing the songs need to state clearly just how much money from each sale is going to the cause. “There should be a disclaimer that clearly states what percentage of the purchase price is going to the charity,” says Bennett Weiner, chief operating officer of the Better Business Bureau Wise Giving Alliance.

Details of the marketing of the record, including whether it might also be released as part of an album with other material by the participating artists, were still being worked out Wednesday. While the organizers say they’ll release the single on Dec. 1, global AIDS Awareness Day, they have yet to enlist a record company. Blake expects a deal to be reached shortly, however. She says all profits from sale of the single will go to organizations that do research on AIDS or assist African nations in their fight against the disease.

The scene at Battery Studios on Wednesday was a mix of laid-back music and impassioned activism.

The day started with Bono, Destiny’s Child and Dupri holding a press conference in a small studio. Cameras and reporters from several TV entertainment shows were there. USA Today was the only newspaper represented. Then the media were ushered out, and the artists went to work.

Pain into beauty

Wyclef Jean’s work on his guitar solo, a haunting refrain for the soulful song, took up much of the day’s first session. Bono was particularly impressed that Jean even came. The musician’s father had been killed in an accident Monday.

“He’s turning his pain into something of beauty,” Bono said as Jean played.

Meanwhile, in the halls outside the studio, activists were urgently talking about the “fusion” of two causes: raising awareness about AIDS in Africa and the movement to “forgive” Third World debt that Bono has been championing for several years. And about the relevance of the song being recorded.

“ ‘What’s Going On’ is really the theme song for this whole campaign,” said Paul Zeitz, co-director of the Global AIDS Alliance. “The song is a question, and it’s a question that we want everyone to be asking about this issue.” He touted his organization’s Web site (www .globalaidsalliance.org) as a valuable information source.

Nearby, activist Jamie Drummond was talking cryptically about future possibilities. A concert? “Obviously, we’ll do all we can to get our message out,” said Drummond, a longtime debt-relief activist who has worked closely with Bono for several years.

Soon after, some of the artists emerged from the studio for another session before the TV entertainment shows’ cameras. Bono repeated one message from earlier in the day: that this isn’t supposed to be a “happy, clappy thing,” like “We Are the World,” which generated a video of stars singing together. Instead, he says, the artists gathered here are people who normally would never work together but have been drawn together by a critical issue.

Beside him, singer Beyonce Knowles of Destiny’s Child said she’s taking part “because it’s just terrible to see what’s happening in Africa.”

And in a whisper of a voice almost too faint to hear, Spears said she had “no idea all these people would be here. It’s inspiring…I just want to do the best I can.”

Then the artists returned to the studio, expecting to be joined shortly by the young men of ‘N Sync.

Is this recording something of a passing of the torch from one generation of politically inspired rock stars to another? While he’s only 41, Bono concedes there’s a germ of truth to that point. And he’s willing to step aside.

“I’ve told Jermaine I’d be happy not to be on the record,” Bono said during a break. “I’d be happy for a younger pop star to take my place. Part of the energy to this is getting a new mix of people.”

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