Haiti: an all-singing, all-dancing, celebrity disaster
How did Haiti so quickly become a conduit for celebrity emoting, celebrity gossip and even celebrity rescue operations?
There’s nothing like a disaster in a land populated by black people to bring out the rescue instinct in celebrities. In the two weeks since a 7.0-magnitude earthquake struck Haiti, celebs on both sides of the Atlantic have tweeted, sung, danced, signed cheques and even hand-delivered aid. The George Clooney-led Hope for Haiti Now telethon is estimated to have raised £35million in just two hours.
It is tempting to be cynical about heartstring-tugging fundraisers, especially when they include Alicia Keys performing her song ‘Prelude to a Kiss’ to a backdrop of weeping Haitian babies, and Beyoncé changing the lyrics of her hit ‘Halo’ to include the words ‘Haiti, we can see your halo, you know you’re my saving grace’.
It is easy to mock pop stars’ earnest remarks, like former X Factor winner Leona Lewis telling the Sun: ‘I want to go over there so badly. But I think the best way to help is by doing things like this [contributing to the Sun’s ‘Helping Haiti’ charity single]’. And when Pulp Fiction star John Travolta showed up in the Haitian capital Port-au-Prince, in a private jet packed with ready-to-eat military rations and medicines and accompanied by a bunch of Scientology ministers, it was tempting to snigger at American celebrities’ film-hero antics.
But, you might say, so what if it’s all a bit cheesy? At least these celebs are Doing Something. Isn’t the important thing now to get aid over to Haiti, where hundreds of thousands are reported to have died and one million are now homeless, as quickly as possible?
It is indeed heartening that people around the world have been moved to donate millions to help Haitians rebuild their lives, but it is also worth taking a hard look at just why Haiti has rocketed into the position of the top cause for celebrities, and what consequences this might have. To paraphrase an old saying, the road to hell is paved with crooning celebrities. Past experiences show that fundraising frenzies inspired by emergency situations tend to do little to improve the lives of people ‘over there’, but these earnest initiatives do a lot to lend some meaning to life over here.
Because, just like with past causes célèbres, such as Ethiopia and Darfur, the earthquake in Haiti has quickly become as much about well-to-do Westerners as about catastrophe-struck Caribbeans. It is a news story that allows celebrities and politicians alike to keep a flattering spotlight on themselves (always making sure they wear casual clothes and little makeup, of course). For politicians who are desperate to score some easy brownie points with their electorates, Haiti is the place to be. Who can disagree with them that the earthquake was a tragic and devastating event and that Haitians deserve help?
As for celebrities, over the past week they have been elevated into selfless heroes, and turned into intermediaries for our sympathy, as if we can only really care about Haitians if we know that movie stars and pop singers are personally affected and touched by their fates. We are encouraged to follow and interpret what is going on in Haiti through the shenanigans, concerns and emotions of stars. So when Haitian-born singer Wyclef Jean wrapped the flag of his native country around his neck, singing a Creole tune and telling telethon viewers that he had just returned from Haiti where he pulled his countrymen out of the rubble, carrying bodies of mothers and fathers to cemeteries, we were encouraged to feel for the former Fugees member as much as for his Haitian friends.
Amidst occasional good-news stories of people being pulled out alive from beneath the rubble in Haiti we have also learned over the past couple of weeks that the disaster is helping to bring some of our most popular celebrities back together. Reports on celebrity fundraisers like Hope for Haiti Now and the Sun’s ‘Helping Haiti’ single recording have been filled with celebrity gossip, with one of the biggest news tidbits being that some stars are leaving old quarrels aside in the name of helping Haitians. For instance, Robbie Williams is set to reunite with his former Take That bandmates on the charity single. As the Sun’s front cover had it on Tuesday, the band is ‘Back for good cause’. But the juiciest disaster gossip of all is that former A-list couple Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston were spotted chatting backstage at Clooney’s telethon. And this just as news spread that Pitt is separating from Angelina Jolie, for whom he left Aniston five years ago. Could it be? Will Brad and Jen really become an item again? Will Haiti bring them together?
Once the televised pity-fest is over, and the realities of delivering emergency relief set in, who will really have benefited from all this feelgood brouhaha? The pessimistic reaction of a restaurant owner in Port-au-Prince to Hope for Haiti Now is understandable: ‘It’s easy to do a telethon on behalf of the Haitian people’, he said, ‘but who will really get the money?’
In the world of celebrity humanitarianism, the Live Aid concerts of the 1980s, initiated by musicians Bob Geldof and Midge Ure after a series of BBC News reports on the Ethiopian famine, are seen as the hallmark for bombastic fundraisers. Geldof and Ure brought together pop megastars to record the hit single ‘Do they Know It’s Christmas?’ in 1984. The charity they created went on to raise $144million over the next 20 years and the single caused a tidal wave of sympathy for the emaciated Ethiopians who dominated our television screens and the front covers of newspapers in the mid-Eighties.
But not only did all the emoting around Ethiopia imprint an image in Westerners’ minds of Africans as perpetually fly-stalked, wide-eyed, helpless and childlike creatures. It also, as The Hunger Business, a Channel 4 documentary series about emergency aid in Africa, showed, did very little, if anything, to help. Few of those suffering Ethiopians caught a whiff of the cash, which instead, a string of critics claimed, mainly helped boost the coffers of the Mengistu-regime and prolong the war and the suffering in Ethiopia.
Just as Live Aid led to a mass descent of aid workers, diplomats, journalists and celebrities on Ethiopia, there is now a rush to rescue Haiti. As Andy Kershaw recently described in the Independent, self-important aid agencies may have the best of intentions, but they are actually contributing to the catastrophe thanks to an obsession with box-ticking procedures and their distrust of the Haitian people. One UN peacekeeper summed up the fear and loathing amongst rescue workers when he said of the Haitians he is meant to help: ‘Whatever we do, it doesn’t matter – they are animals.’
Media reports from the earthquake aftermath have oscillated between portraying Haitians as desperate, helpless victims and desperate, marauding savages who can only be saved or tamed by caring Westerners. Because Haiti is poor, lacking in infrastructure and has a political regime widely regarded as illegitimate, Western figures can easily portray themselves as a new hope for the country and can justify placing themselves in loco parentis. In this sense, Haiti is particularly well-suited as a place that celebrities and politicians can come together (or reunite) around.
Of course, as with the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, the suddenness, force and scale of the destruction in Haiti has meant the earthquake has become a global concern, and no doubt many celebrities, politicians and aid workers are sincere in their desire to help. But while celebrities have helped raise impressive sums of money in a short time, the message being sent out here is that those black, pitiful savages over there should be grateful that a who’s who list of global celebs are getting together to rescue them, not just from the rubble, but also from their own ineptness.
The last thing Haiti needs is being turned into a stage for limelight-hungry celebs.
Nathalie Rothschild is commissioning editor at spiked.