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Celebrities sing out for Haiti, but how long will public listen?
More than three weeks after the earthquake that devastated Haiti on Jan. 12, musicians continue to channel their concern into a range of relief projects.
The evening after the Grammy Awards, a bevy of stars gathered to record an updated, Haiti-themed version of the 1985 anthem We Are the World. The benefit concert SOS Saving Ourselves ó Help for Haiti airs live Thursday night from Miami on BET, MTV, VH1 and Centric. A new Haiti-relief remix of The Who’s My Generation will premiere Sunday during the Super Bowl.
But while artists remain galvanized by the disaster, some are questioning how long their endeavors can sustain the public’s attention ó not to mention its financial support.
“Everyone’s hearts are in the right place,” says Billboard senior charts manager Keith Caulfield. “But as we’ve seen in the past, when something like this happens, the first charitable efforts out of the gate tend to do the best. After a while, the novelty of artists coming together on behalf of a good cause is gone.”
Caulfield points to 2001’s telethon America: A Tribute to Heroes, which was broadcast just 10 days after 9/11. Packed with music and film icons, the program raised more than $100 million for relief, “and the musical performances are well-remembered.” Jan. 22’s Hope for Haiti Now was similar in timing, structure and star power, and has drawn $66 million in donations.
A collection of performances from Hope became the first digital-only release to make its debut atop Billboard’s album chart (selling 171,000 copies, according to Nielsen SoundScan), but Caulfield attributes that feat to “the instantaneous delivery and distribution of the music, which was recorded on a Friday night and released Saturday. Had they waited a month and a half for a physical CD, it probably wouldn’t have had the same impact.”
Yet new benefit shows and charity recordings keep cropping up, from local and independent efforts to high-profile outings such as Andrea Bocelli and Mary J. Blige’s performance of Bridge Over Troubled Water at the Grammys, made available at iTunes. This Monday, Blige, Wyclef Jean and Whoopi Goldberg will appear in New York with other personalities to launch the initiative Hope Help & Relief Haiti.
A remake of R.E.M.’s Everybody Hurts, which will be downloadable Sunday, brought best-selling Brits Susan Boyle and Leona Lewis together with American icons such as Rod Stewart and Mariah Carey. We Are the World: 25 for Haiti showcases an even larger and more eclectic lineup.
“I can only hope this can have the impact that the original had,” says one participant, Josh Groban. (The first World has raised more than $63 million from discs, downloads and merchandise.) Granted, music sales aren’t what they were 25 years ago ó or in the Sept. 11 era, for that matter. But Celine Dion, another voice in the new World, echoes Groban’s goal: “We have to react and act and make a difference.”
Some music consumers are skeptical. Danny Gillane, 44, of Lafayette, La., and his wife, Jenna, contribute to organizations that “have responded to the Haiti tragedy,” but he feels less confident that musicians are positioned to deliver such assistance. “I do not always trust the recording industry’s or the artists’ abilities to optimize the use of the funds, or even to guarantee the delivery of the funds,” he says.
BET programming co-president Stephen Hill acknowledges that it’s “always a challenge to maintain the public’s attention, especially as the media focuses on other stories.” Hill hopes to put together an album from SOS, but more generally plans to provide BET viewers “with constant reminders, as the weeks go on, that this crisis is not yet over. That’s what we did with Katrina: We kept making it clear that New Orleans still needed our help.”
Celebrities play a role in maintaining awareness, particularly outside the country, says Francis Ghesquiere, the World Bank’s regional coordinator for disaster risk management.
“People tend to get tired of one issue and start talking about the next crisis, but the truth is we’ll just be starting reconstruction of Haiti in about a year,” he says. “We’ll need the long-term engagement of the international community, and this is an opportunity to enlist its support.”