Hunger Strike

Can a non-9/11 benefit album make any noise?

"Mr. Human Rights," they once called him, and though his was never the most famous name on the bill--that was Bono or Bruce Springsteen, Sting or Peter Gabriel--as the organizer of the Conspiracy of Hope concerts in 1986 and the Human Rights Now! world tour two years later, Jack Healey was very much the public face of Amnesty International. He was executive director of that organization from 1981 to 1993, back when musicians were eager to enlist in the battle against human-rights violations and world hunger, back when they wore their hearts on rolled-up shirt sleeves and raised millions for millions on the other side of the planet who were too hungry and beaten-down to defend themselves. It feels like that was a million years ago, those good ol' days before, as Healey says, rock stars "forgot that music is to be a weapon against oppression and injustice."

In the mid-1990s, Healey, a former member of the Peace Corps and a one-time Franciscan monk, had become suddenly very disillusioned and disappointed. He believed musicians had become their own cause; they lined their own pockets, not the coffers of human-rights groups. They made millions and, if they gave at all, donated mere pennies on the dollar. The rich got richer; the poor got forgotten.

"You meet people who are billionaires, and you just wonder, 'Do you know for $3,000, you could help refugees in a whole camp for an entire year?'" Healey says from his Washington, D.C., home. "Give me a break here. They say, 'I wanna do some good.' Well, damn, look out in the world. You can do it."

No food, no peace: Daniel Lanois, Emmylou Harris and Dave Matthews perform in Seattle at the October 14 Groundwork concert.
No food, no peace: Daniel Lanois, Emmylou Harris and Dave Matthews perform in Seattle at the October 14 Groundwork concert.

And so Healey stepped out of the spotlight and disappeared--in Bosnian factories, which he helped rebuild for the widows of that war; in Bangkok, where he organized a benefit concert for imprisoned Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi; in Haiti, where he worked with the Center for the Victims of Torture. If he couldn't make progress on the grand scale, perhaps he could do some good in little ways. Never again did he expect to once more stand onstage with rock stars, hoping to make so much noise about injustice that the world would once more be forced to take notice.

But there he was on Seattle concert stages in October, introducing Dave Matthews and Pearl Jam and R.E.M. and Rahat Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and Alanis Morissette and dozens more music-makers, who had heeded the call to raise cash and consciousness in an effort to eradicate world hunger. Healey vehemently fought against being drafted into yet another cause, but he couldn't resist. So, once more, he is out there organizing, this time for Groundwork, part of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization's efforts to eradicate world hunger by giving small farmers in impoverished countries their own tools and teaching them how to grow their own crops.

For years, the FAO has been holding global TeleFood events, created during the 1996 World Food Summit in Rome, which pledged to cut in half the number of 800 million hungry and malnourished people worldwide by 2015. The TeleFood concerts and worldwide broadcasts always featured an impressive array of world-music stars, among them Jimmy Cliff and Miriam Makeba, but rarely did they receive much attention in the United States. Healey, FAO liaison officer Bob Patterson and talent recruiter Melanie Ciccone sought to change that by staging a TeleFood event on American soil with a lineup of well-known American and international artists. Their efforts raised a million dollars--a drop in the desert, yes, but as Healey often reminds, this isn't just about charity as much as it's about "justice." Besides, the concerts in Seattle were intended to raise awareness about Groundwork and the FAO; the money was just an added, necessary bonus.

But the din from Seattle didn't carry too far, despite the involvement of Ciccone's sister Madonna as honorary chairwoman and the impressive lineup of artists involved. The concerts and the cause were overshadowed by the monstrous dusk cast by the September 11 terrorist attacks. In the time it took for four hijacked airplanes to kill thousands on U.S. soil, all momentum was lost; Groundwork had all the impact of a rain shower in the Sahara. And though news footage of starving Afghans has reminded us once more of the desperate need for relief in faraway places, Americans give and give to our own--to the countless relief funds set up for victims of the attacks. For now, it appears, they will have to wait.

Groundwork's organizers fear as much: Ciccone, a former Warner Bros. record exec, helped assemble an amazing collection of musicians and music for a benefit disc, Groundwork--Act to Reduce Hunger, which is being sold through Starbucks locations nationwide. The disc features rare and unreleased tracks by Madonna, Tom Waits, Emmylou Harris, Sheryl Crow, Moby and Ciccone's husband, Joe Henry; $12 from every $16 disc sold will go to Groundwork. But the organizers worry that Americans are, quite simply, tapped out after handing over more than $150 million to September 11 relief funds. Theirs are the same fears of local and regional charities, which find their coffers and cupboards, normally flush at the holidays, nearly bare this year.

"We would have been like Live Aid if the attacks hadn't happened," Healey says. "There was nothing else slated for those months, and our shows were really good. Melanie had done a great job. Her sister was involved. All the pieces were there. We had backing. We weren't scrambling for day-to-day bucks. We were ready, and it hurt the country and hurt us, too. You get more out of courage than you do out of fear, and I just hope Americans don't give in to fear. We were moving forward until this tremendous hit on New York and Washington. People were looking out into the world, and I hope this fear factor after September 11 doesn't bring people back into isolation."

Their disc must also compete with the dozens of benefit albums released after the attacks, compilations as diverse as The Concert for New York City (from the October 20 Madison Square Garden concert that featured, among so many others, The Who, Elton John, Billy Joel, David Bowie and Paul McCartney), the flag-waving God Bless America CD, the star-studded EP redo of Marvin Gaye's "What's Going On," new-age pianist George Winston's Remembrance--A Memorial Benefit and other collections. This week, Interscope is also releasing America: A Tribute to Heroes--one more double-disc fund-raiser, just in time for the holidays.

Upon its release a few weeks ago, Sony's God Bless America, with Celine Dion crooning "God Bless America" and Bob Dylan croaking "Blowin' in the Wind" and Mariah Carey moaning "Hero," debuted at No. 2 on the Billboard charts; to date, it has sold more than 700,000 copies--though not all the money goes to the Twin Towers Fund. (The back of the disc says that only "a substantial portion of the proceeds" goes to relief efforts.) And the "What's Going On" disc, which features the likes of Bono and Michael Stipe and 'N Sync and P. Diddy spread out over nine versions, was originally meant to be a benefit for Artists Against AIDS Worldwide; after the terrorist attacks, it was decided to split the proceeds with the United Way's September 11 Fund.

How can Groundwork compete for dollars and airtime in such an environment? How can it hope to make any noise amid so many benefit concerts and fund-raising albums meant to assist victims on the home front? On October 20, VH1 gave six hours to The Concert for New York City; on December 14, the network will air but a single hour from the Groundwork concerts, featuring only performers who fit its demographic--meaning no Femi Kuti, but plenty of Dave Matthews and Alanis Morissette and R.E.M. Ciccone says that a longer broadcast will be available through the organization's Web site (www.groundwork2001.org, which is also selling the CD), but there are no plans to release an album culled from the shows.

"We had hoped we'd get a little more network time, but it's hard to compete," says Ciccone, who had worked in the barrios of South America while studying international economics in college. "There are 800 million people starving, and I'm just afraid people are getting burned out on benefits. I think we all ought to be afraid of that. In a way, yeah, September 11 was an awakening, but it also caused a certain amount of myopia."

"That's why our broadcast is important at this time," Healey adds. "It says to the world, 'We're not just concerned about ourselves. We're still concerned about the world,' and that's the right message to send to the world. I'm deathly afraid of the drive toward automatic isolationism...For us who have traveled the world and luckily have had good jobs that have allowed us to do wonderful things, when you see a million people on the move in Rwanda and another half-million killed, you get a sense of proportion to the evils that occur in the world. All evils are wrong and heinous, but when you lose 5,000, it's not like losing 500,000...and I think we Americans sometimes lose sight of that."

But Healey is undaunted. No matter the hurdles, Healey, speaking with an evangelist's fervor, imagines utopia nonetheless--a world in which American farmers advise and instruct their Third World counterparts via e-mail, a world in which American families send money directly to the needy and keep in touch over the Internet. "That's the world that brought me back," he says. But Healey's Eden is a far-off dream: Right now, the impoverished in Afghanistan and elsewhere devour their seeds before they're ever planted, so frightened are they of not living till the next rain, much less the next harvest.

"That's why we need to understand each other's hearts and the difficulty of the situation," he insists. "Then, people will quit saying, 'Well, I'm wasting money,' or, 'Jesus, that's such a hard situation. What can I really do?' You become part of the problem and the solution. You understand it better. You have a feeling for it. That's the world I'm looking for."

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