The man and the mission
Bob Geldof is like the Pied Piper of the modern world. The original Irish rockstar turned philanthropist, politician and outspoken anti-poverty activist, has been leading multitudes of the world’s youth, through pop music, to raise money for famine-ravaged African nations, cancel Third World debt and influence the agenda of the G8.
Born Robert Frederick Xenon Geldof in Dublin, Ireland, he worked a stint as a music journalist before forming the band The Boomtown Rats.
The Rats brought the world hits such as Rat Trap and I Don’t Like Mondays back in the late 1970s.
Sir Bob, as he’s been known ever since Queen Elizabeth II knighted him in 1987, also played the central character Pink in Pink Floyd’s cult film The Wall. Incidentally, many half-baked Pink Floyd fans still think he is the lead singer.
Despite his illustrious musical career, politics is where Geldof has had his greatest success, and left his mark for other philanthropic-leaning pop stars to emulate. He has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize on six occasions, but he does not have much of a following among South Africans—recognised only as that dodgy, grey-haired geezer with the dark rings under his eyes who is always hugging Madiba when he’s out doing his Make Poverty History thing. To remedy the situation, Geldof is scheduled for a two-gig tour of South Africa at the end of April.
It was Sir Bob who kickstarted the whole ‘pop music can end global suffering campaign” when he recorded the single Do They Know it’s Christmas, along with Midge Ure from 1980s synth-pop sensation Ultra Vox, in 1984. The single exploded and evolved into the massive Live Aid concerts in 1985 to raise funds for the victims of famine in Ethiopia. He went on to organise Band Aid, Band Aid II and Band Aid 20. In a world where everyone with a recording contract dreams of someday writing a song that will change the world, Geldof has effectively used the platform pop built to make a significant impact on the globe’s political agenda.
‘Hello!” He answers the phone in a husky Irish/Geordie accent.
‘Is that Bob Geldof?” I ask, feeling a bit silly.
‘Speaking,” he says. No shit, I’m thinking, it’s a scheduled interview.
Would you like to buy some household insurance? I want to chaff the rock’n'roll politico, but play it safe with, ‘Thank you for taking my call.”
‘You’re welcome, mate.”
‘Word is you’re coming to South Africa?”
‘Yeah.” He says, and kicks off. ‘Because I love it. And I’ve never played there. I’m off to Greece and the Middle East and Australia, but I’ve done those places for 30 years. And now, finally, I get to play in South Africa. I love it. It’s another flag on my personal map. But it’s also difficult. I obviously understand that people don’t know me well, and particularly don’t know me for the music. The Boomtown Rats wouldn’t let their records be released there during apartheid. And since the end of that, I’ve been doing my solo thing, and that’s been constantly interrupted by this other stuff I do. So I don’t think there’s much of a musical awareness of what I do. But I aim to alter that.”
‘Do you see yourself as a musician or a politician?” I jump in.
‘Uh, my passport says musician and, in my head, that’s what I do. Really, automatically, when I’m filling out visa forms when it says occupation, I say musician. It is the thing that is instinctive to me. Absolutely intuitive. When I walk out on stage it’s like having a warm bath after a hard day’s work. I’m just at home. I’m not nervous and I’m not thinking. That’s the great thing, you suspend that empirical thought process. When I’m doing the other stuff, whether it’s business or political stuff, you’re thinking clearly about what it is you want to say.
‘So that goes when I’m on stage. And it’s psychologically calming, it’s emotionally cathartic, it’s physically exhausting, it’s financially rewarding. So it’s a total experience. As a result, I sleep the sleep of the just after a good gig. Which is not normal for me. Normally I sleep, you know ... badly.
‘I’m absolutely relaxed in that milieu. So it’s a long answer, but a very important question. It works like this for me: I do politics for my head, I do business for my pocket, I do music for my soul and I do family for my heart. That’s kind of how it works.”
‘Did Live 8 achieve what it set out to do?” I ask, in the break he takes to catch his breath.
‘Yes, it did. Don’t forget, Live 8 was just the articulation of the Commission for Africa. Which is what I asked [Tony] Blair to do. To analyse the structures of poverty in Africa. With Live Aid we dealt with the symptoms of poverty. Death by hunger, which is caused by drought. We don’t die of drought in Britain, though we have drought. We don’t die of drought in Kansas or Queensland. Why do they die of drought in Africa? Because they are poor. Why do they die of ill health, when we don’t? Because they’re poor. Why do they die of lack of opportunity and education? Of conflict and corruption? Because they’re poor. But all we could deal with were the symptoms of that because politics was locked into the Cold War. As soon as that was over, a new political flux came into the situation. Africa remains the only continent in economic decline. Why? There must be a reason. So, at the beginning of the 21st century, can’t we analyse that? And Blair agreed to do that. He then bravely accepted it as the British position in the G8. He had to push through the radical conclusions of the Commission for Africa. And Live 8 was the pointy end of the coalitions that arose to push this agenda through the G8. So you had the Make Poverty History coalition, which was a coalition of 60 groups. But all over the world there were coalitions. So how do you coalesce those coalitions? Live 8 was the pointy end of that, driving it through the G8.
‘The G8 agreed to deal with the debt and the aid piece of the Commission for Africa, but not the trade piece, which is critical. They said they’d only deal with that at the Hong Kong World Trade Organisation trade talks, the Doha development round in December. Which, of course, they signally failed to do. Which is a fucking disgrace!
‘But they did deal with debt and aid. And the Commission for Africa called for the cancellation, not the relief, which was the wording, the verbage up until then. We called for cancellation and the G8 agreed to debt cancellation for the poorest 42 countries in the world. Today, the poorest 19 have had their debt cancelled. But that is 14 countries in Africa alone, that’s 290million Africans, now, today, who are free for the first time of debt slavery. That’s as a result of the G8 and Live 8. We’ll move on in the next 18 months to, I think, 32 countries. And then gradually up to the full 42. I think there are 23 countries in Africa, and we will get all of them out of debt slavery within a year and a half.
‘With regard to aid, it called for a doubling of aid to Africa in graduated steps by 2010. Now the difficulty with that is, where do you get the new money you have committed yourself to at Gleneagles? They can’t raise more taxes because people would object. So they have to find new ways to do this. Britain has got a plan called the international finance facility. The French passed into law an airport ticket levy, so that people in the rich world will be taxed on their air travel. So they are trying to raise the money they promised. My fear is that Italy will renege completely because their economy is in the toilet. They are in effect bankrupt. But [Silvio] Berlusconi came out and said that he would live up to it because we were going crazy that they were doing nothing. I don’t believe it. But you know, the fight is on to get that done by 2010. I’m not hugely optimistic. But I’m fairly optimistic. Would this have happened without Live 8? No. Would it have happened without the G8? No.”
‘But,” I interject. ‘Can large groups of rock fans around the globe influence the political agenda of the G8, considering they have no direct constituency?”
‘Well they do,” he corrects me. ‘Any large gathering of people is political, if it’s pointed towards a political end, if you have 3,4billion people around the electronic hearth of the television screen, simply because the lingua franca of the planet is not English, it’s pop music.”
Sir Bob Geldof will be performing at the Sandton Convention Centre on April 26 and at the Cape Town Convention Centre on April 28. Tickets cost R180 at Computicket