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Bob Geldof: the Pied Piper of celebrity activists

The Irish rocker helped spark celebrity interest in Africa in the 1980s.

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Celebrity involvement in Africa is typically traced back to the mid-1980s, when rocker Bob Geldof, moved by the plight of starving Ethiopians, put out a single with his musician friends as "Band Aid."

Most Ethiopians – as Mr. Geldof, Sting, Paul Young, and others crooned – were too hungry and miserable to know it was Christmas. Likewise, most non-Africans were too busy with Christmas (or with everything else going on in their lives) to know so many Africans were starving.

The song reminded everyone what the holiday season was supposed to be about. Moreover, the tune was catchy, and the whole project fed the British tabloids for weeks: Was Annie Lennox happy with only having one line? Did Kool & the Gang feel they were being bigfooted by Phil Collins? Is it true Geldof had to wake Boy George up and fly him from New York to record his solo part?

"Do they know it's Christmas?" went straight to No. 1 that December 1984, becoming the fastest-selling single in British history, with a million copies sold in the first week. It raised millions of dollars for food aid to Ethiopia.

The following July, Geldof held Live Aid, a rock concert staged simultaneously in London and Philadelphia, which raised another $100 million for famine aid. By 1991, the Band Aid project had raised more than $140 million for six African nations, with about half spent on emergency aid and half on long-term projects. Geldof, at age 34, was subsequently knighted for the efforts.

"The experts will tell you it's hopeless," he wrote in a letter to contributors in 1992. "It is not a hopeless thing for one individual to care for another, to extend the hand of sympathy and shared humanity.... Ask those people if it's hopeless. Ask especially the poorest of the poor ... ask them ... why they do not just give in and succumb to what seems to be their inevitable fate? Because they too don't believe in a world without hope."

Since then, despite "competition" from the likes of global warming and the antifur movement, "Africa" remains a popular celebrity cause. From rock star Bono's efforts to get Western governments to forgive African debts (Time magazine put the U2 frontman on its cover last year, declaring him – along with Microsoft billionaire Bill Gates – "person of the year," for having "persuaded the world's leaders to take on global poverty") to pop star Madonna's orphanage in Malawi, to talk show diva Oprah Winfrey's new $40 million leadership academy for poor girls in South Africa – everyone who is anyone seems to care about Africa.

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