Bob Geldof and his struggle for Africa

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Live Aid at JFK Stadium, Philadelphia, 1985. Photo credit: By Squelle - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0

IO – I am not a very musical person and growing up, the pop music of my youth never interested me much. There was really only one song that truly caught my attention and moved me to the bottom of my heart. In 1984, I was in my late twenties living at Crosby Hall, a lady’s hall of residence in Chelsea which belonged to the London University Women’s Association – and this song moved me to tears as it always does, even today. I went from room to room at Crosby Hall asking the ladies to donate their spare change and afterwards went to the bank with bags filled with coins for Africa. The song was Bob Geldof’s ‘Do They Know Its Christmas?’ which till today still plays at Christmas time.

Geldof was born on the 5th of October 1951 in Dún Laoghaire, County Dublin, Ireland as Robert Frederick Zenon Geldof. He was of Belgian and German descent and was the son of Robert and Evelyn Geldof. Geldof had, what I think most people would regard as a traumatic childhood. His mother suddenly died of a cerebral haemorrhage when he was only 6 years old. A quiet and happy life became a very lonely one with a father who had no time for him. At home, his days were filled with sadness at the loss of his mother and thoughts about death. At school, things were not much better with Geldof bullied for not being good at football. Each day, he returned to an empty house where he stayed for hours on his own until his older sister returned from school or his father from work.

In Geldof’s later autobiography “Is That It?” he tells the story of once standing on a railway bridge when he saw an old man below crossing the railway line. Apparently, the old man had a stroke or heart attack or some sort of medical emergency for he suddenly collapsed on the lines just as a train roared across the tracks slicing him in half.  The young Geldof was a witness to this and then saw the old man’s dog eat his liver.

It would have been horrifying and deeply troubling to have witnessed this. Later, in his youth when Geldof was with a friend who had joined the army and who was showing him his gun, Geldof asked the friend to hold it as he put the end of the gun into his mouth gazing at his friend and writing that it must have felt extremely tempting to the friend to simply pull the trigger. Obviously, his friend did no such thing and the thought was probably more a reflection of Geldof’s own obsession with death than his friend’s thoughts The scene provides the reader with another a glimpse into Geldof’s preoccupation with death. I remember thinking at the time that had his life continued along this path, Geldof might well have ended up committing suicide.

Later, as an adult Geldof moved for a while to Canada where he worked as a music journalist and then for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation in a children’s program. In 1975 he returned to Ireland and became the lead singer of a rock group known as the Boomtown Rats which had links to the punk movement. The band was started during one of the most turbulent times in Irish history. It was when Bob Geldof became an Irish rock star.

In the late 1970s, New Wave music emerged on the music scene and continued into the 1980s. It consisted of many pop-oriented styles and has been described as quirky, light-hearted and humorous in tone. It came after punk rock and originated in Britain, then became popular in the United States after channels like MTV broadcasted British New Wave music videos. The golden age of New Wave music was represented by bands such as Duran Duran, Spandau Ballet, the Human League and ABC – and this was the music of the Boomtown Rats.

Bob Geldof performing as a solo artist. Photo credit: 'ElLo57 at German Wikipedia. – Transferred from de.wikipedia to Commons.

The Boomtown Rats produced the first New Wave chart topper in Britain in 1978 with ‘Rat Trap’. The following year they won their second UK number one singles with, ‘I Don’t Like Mondays.’ The song proved to be quite controversial as it was written in the aftermath of the Cleveland Elementary School shooting in 1979 where the president and a custodian of the school were killed and 8 pupils and a policeman were injured. When the Boomtown Rats were interviewed on the Late, Late Show with Gay Byrne, Geldof attacked Irish politicians and the Catholic Church. This caused such an uproar that the Boomtown Rats could not perform in Ireland again. It was only in 2013 that they came together again and performed at the Isle of Wright Festivals. After 1986, Geldof began a successful solo musical career and wrote his autobiography, ‘Is That It?’ which became a best-seller in Britain.

In 1984 Ethiopia was in the grips of civil war, when it was hit by a great drought bringing famine to its lands in particular the regions of Tigray, Wollo, and Eritrea. These regions lacked infrastructure, making transportation difficult and had long been involved in anti-government rebellions. The famine lasted from 1983 until 1985 and non-government organizations such as Oxfam UK and Human Rights Watch hold that the government’s anti-insurrection measures were another major cause of the famine. At the time Mengistu Haile Mariam led a military dictatorship in Ethiopia, after he had deposed Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie and later had him executed. After Mengistu himself was deposed and fled to Zimbabwe, he was found guilty by an Ethiopian court and sentenced to death for crimes committed by his government that multiplied the effects of the famine. During the famine it has been estimated that nearly 8 million people were victims of the famine and between 300,000 and 1,200.000 people died, leaving nearly 200,000 orphans.

In 1984 news began to appear in the media in the UK, of the great famine threatening Ethiopia. The photographs were harrowing. Heartrending pictures of tiny children emaciated with bloated stomachs and people who were nothing but skin and bones frequently too weak to even beg for food, appeared in the news. The first to report the famine was a BBC film crew with correspondent Michael Buerk describing it as ‘Hell on earth’ and ‘A famine of Biblical proportions’.

Midge Ure who created the music for ‘Do They Know Its Christmas?’ in 2005. Photo credit: Thomas Siebenpfeiffer, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

That year Geldof heard Michael Buerk’s BBC report about the famine and it moved him deeply pushing him into action to send humanitarian aid to help the thousands of starving people of Ethiopia. Together with Midge Ure of Ultravox, he created the song ‘Do They Know Its Christmas?’ in order to raise money for the starving. Ure wrote the music and Geldof the lyrics for the 1984 single whose proceeds went entirely to famine relief in Ethiopia. They also brought together the supergroup Band Aid which mainly consisted of British and Irish musicians and recording artists who were outstanding solo artists or members of highly successful music groups. This included artists such as Bono, Phil Collins, George Michael and numerous others. At the time Geldof thought ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas?’ would raise about £100,000. Since its release in 1984, it has in fact raised more than £200 million which has been used to fight famine in Africa.

This was followed-up in America in 1985 with ‘We are the World’ and Geldof also helped organize the July 1985 concert Live Aid, which increased international awareness of the famine and helped bring in more aid. The concert was held in London and Philadelphia with performances by Queen, U2, Led Zeppelin, Madonna, and dozens of others. It was also the most ambitious television event of its time. In total Live Aid was to raise over, £150 million for famine relief.

In 1989, ‘Do They Know Its Christmas’ was updated with the inclusion of Banarama, Kylie Minogue and Cliff Richard and again in 2004, with The Darkness, Robbie Williams and Busted. In 2014, the United Nations approached Geldof and told him that there needed to be a 20 percent increase in aid in order to fight the Ebola virus in Africa. So, Geldof released Band Aid 30 for a fourth update featuring Chris Martin, One Direction, Seal and Olly Murs. A video of Band Aid 30 featuring One Direction was projected on to the side of the British Houses of Parliament.

In 2004, Geldof inspired the creation of the British Government’s Commission for Africa and was appointed a member of it. Together with 16 other members who were mostly African political leaders, Geldof conducted a study of Africa’s main problems and the Commission concluded that Africa needed to make major changes including improving its governance and combatting corruption and that wealthy nations need to reform trade regulations with Africa, substantially increase aid to Africa as well as provide debt cancelation for Africa. The Commission provided a plan for solving Africa’s main problems in 2005. Geldof then created an international lobby to pressure the G8 for this, via eight concerts around the world called Live 8 and succeeded in persuading the industrialized nations to pledge billions more in increased aid to Africa. Later, the G8’s Gleneagles African debt and aid packages were based on the Commission’s recommendations. Geldof meanwhile, also became a member of the Africa Progress Panel (APP) which lobbies for equitable and sustainable development in Africa and produces an annual report providing the most important issues for Africa and suggested policies to solve these issues.

Bob Geldof in 1981 performing in Oslo, Norway. Photo credit: Helge Øverås – Own work, CC BY 3.0

Through the years Geldof has not been free of criticism from various people and media. Perhaps, the most serious were several BBC reports in 2010 that funds from Band Aid had been diverted into buying arms for the civil war in Ethiopia. However, the BBC published a formal apology later that year after Geldof challenged it to provide evidence of such use of funds and were unable to do so.

There was also the accusation by Medecins Sans Frontieres or MSF that during the 1983-85 famine in Ethiopia, the government of Mengistu Haile Mariam was able to divert Band Aid funds to his enforced resettlement programs which were a part of his anti-insurrectionist policies during the Ethiopian civil war at the time, and which caused the deaths of between 50,000 and 100,000 people. MSF argued that all aid agencies should have left Ethiopia at the time. Other aid agencies such as CONCERN did not agree with the MSF. Most people can accept that it is virtually impossible for aid agencies working in a war zone not to have any of their aid, diverted to the war.  It is a matter for discussion where the line needs to be drawn. It was calculated that not more than 10-20% of the aid was diverted which means that the remaining 80% would have been used for the aid agencies’ intended aims and helped to save hundreds of thousands of lives.

When I was staying at Crosby Hall in London in the 1980s, I saw Bob Geldof several times walking along the road in Chelsea. He seemed to me a tall figure and each time he was wearing a long brown fur coat. In the distance, he looked like a big brown bear. The first time I saw him, I remember saying to the friend I was walking with, “There he goes, the great man!”

“Who?”

“St Bob Geldof.”

Through his many songs and concerts with fellow musicians, Bob Geldof helped reduce famine in Africa and made people really aware of the poorest nations in the world. The Live 8 concerts also persuaded industrialized nations to increase their aid to Africa by $25 billion. However, it all took a large toll on Geldof’s personal life and he always disliked the moniker ‘St Bob Geldof’. “I became Saint Bob and I hated it. It became impossible,” Geldof said. “For a while I was bewildered. I didn’t have much money at the time. It impinged entirely on my private life. It probably ended up costing me my marriage.”

In 1986 Geldorf had married Paula Yates. She had been a follower of the Boomtown Rats and later became a rock music journalist and presenter of the music show The Tube and later an interviewer on The Big Breakfast.  They had three daughters Fifi Trixibelle, Peaches Honeyblossom and Little Pixie. Yates left Geldof in 1995 for Michael Hutchence who was the lead singer in the Australian band INXS. Geldof and Yates divorced in 1996. A month after the divorce, Yates gave birth to a child with Hutchence, Heavenly Hiraani Tiger Lily Hutchence. It was a marriage destined for tragedy. The following year Hutchence committed suicide in Sydney. Three years later, Yates died of a heroin overdose. Geldof not only had custody of his three children but after the death of Paula Yates also obtained custody of Tiger Lily Hitchence and in 2007 legally adopted her. Twelve years later, Tiger Lily petitioned the courts to change her family name to Hutchence Geldof.

1984: food distribution organized by Ethiopian Red Cross volunteers. Photo credit: British Red Cross., CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Bob Geldof’s life has not been an easy one. When one looks at his experiences with death especially in his early life (and again in his later life), he could well have also ended up committing suicide but then the famine in Ethiopia occurred and he galvanized first the music world and then the world at large to try to prevent it… and perhaps in doing so he saved not only hundreds of thousands of lives in Africa, but also in a way his own. (Tamalia Alisjahbana)