A Call to Action
A few days before Christmas 1984, Harry Belafonte happens to be watching television. The news report is bleak with information about the African famine. So vast and complex is the tragedy that he feels powerless, like most of us, in its wake. But on this particular broadcast there is an interview with an Australian doctor who’d volunteered for service in Ethiopia. A line of sick, malnourished children stretches for thousands of yards outside his tent. The doctor is asked, “How can you handle working in these conditions, when the problem seems so massive, almost irreversible? How can you get up every day to face such an awesome task?” The doctor replies, “I take them one at a time.” It’s a simple answer, perhaps a cliché, but it switches on a light bulb in Harry Belafonte’s head.
The phone rings in Ken Kragen’s Los Angeles office. It’s Belafonte. Belafonte calls Kragen because he knows Ken had managed Harry Chapin—a former close friend and an artist deeply committed to the cause of world hunger before his death in 1981—and knows Kragen now manages Kenny Rogers, who’d picked up the anti-hunger torch from Chapin, and Lionel Richie, possibly the world’s hottest songwriter and vocalist. Kragen is thrilled to hear from Belafonte. He’d grown up on Harry’s music.
Belafonte tells Kragen he’s upset by the lack of action black American artists have taken in response to the famine. He tells Kragen he’d like to put on a fund-raising concert starring Lionel Richie, Stevie Wonder, and Michael Jackson. Kragen, with a background in concert promotion and a good memory for the fiscal fiasco that was the Bangladesh concert in 1971 and the quite limited success of the MUSE no-nukes concerts in 1978, tells Belafonte, “Harry, I think we’re making a mistake trying to do this as a concert. You know, there’s no copyright on the Band Aid idea.”
The “Band Aid idea,” of course, was the brainchild of Bob Geldof, the Irish leader of the Boomtown Rats, and cowriter of the smash hit song, “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” The record and all its related Band Aid merchandise, released in a rush during the holiday, have raised some $10 million for African famine relief. Belafonte agrees with Kragen—he’s been tremendously impressed with the British effort—and furthermore quickly decides not to limit the recording to black artists.
With this first phone conversation, the project is on its way. No artists have committed, no recording date has been set, no producer has been picked—but this much is assured: Bob Geldof will be the inspiration, Ken Kragen will be the organizer, and Harry Belafonte the spokesman. The “American Band Aid” is still only an idea, but it’s an idea that’s alive. It’s not an original idea, but that hardly matters when there’s so much at stake. It’s not even an idea whose time has come. Rather it is an idea whose time, regrettably, is long overdue.