In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, beloved blue-eyed soul crooner and New Orleans-native Harry Connick Jr. called NBCUniversal. Together, the broadcasting company and musician organized “A Concert for Hurricane Relief.”
The turnout was impressive — Tim McGraw and Faith Hill both sang, and Brian Williams performed a spoken piece. The event auctioned off a Gibson guitar for more than $30,000. Leonardo diCaprio, Claire Danes, Lindsay Lohan and others presented. Even Connick himself performed, his voice still hoarse after a week of press appearances raising awareness about relief efforts.
And then, before an audience of 8.5 million viewers, Kanye West declared, “George Bush doesn’t care about Black people.”
Hurricane Katrina struck the shores of the Gulf Coast in 2005 and claimed more than 1,800 lives. Its dramatic impacts were widespread but hardly indiscriminate. In one Gallup poll, when looking at 7 out of 10 metrics for hardship induced by the hurricane, there was a significantly greater likelihood that the hardship was experienced by a Black person rather than a white person. The federal, state and local governments were harshly condemned for their lack of an effective, organized response, and most of the burden was placed on the back of the Red Cross, which was unable to fully support the monumental relief effort.
The hourlong special went on to raise a reported $50 million for disaster relief, but the West controversy is all that most people remember. George Bush would go on to say it was an “all time low” in his presidency.
Unfortunately, that’s really the only history-making moment to come out years of benefit music, whether in the form of concerts or albums. As is turns out, West’s remarks galvanized considerable action; in the immediate period after West’s appearance, other rappers organized their own benefit concerts for victims and filmmakers and celebrities alike began contributing to relief efforts and asking their fans to do the same. This time, they specifically focused on the Black victims West had called for us to support.
The West controversy brought in aid that likely would not have otherwise arrived, particularly for Black folks. It speaks to a powerful truth when considering the importance of celebrities’ roles in crises: Media relevancy is often the only way impacted communities can continue to fund their own recovery.
Where the government utterly failed and where Red Cross lacked resources, in stepped the donors — including wealthy celebrities, who began making multiple press appearances calling for their fans to contribute to relief.
Musicians, in particular, stepped up to the plate. More than 40 songs were recorded in an effort to motivate fans to donate. Specifically, a huge number of songs were released to critique the relief effort, particularly the government’s role.
Most artists would go on the record to say that their songs were “inspired” by the events along the Gulf of Mexico, but far fewer explicitly stated that the songs’ profits would actually be donated to charity. That’s not to say that these artists never donated any money whatsoever, but it does make the data particularly hard to track. From an economic perspective, it’s easier to look at live concerts organized to raise money for charities.
Some of these concerts were televised, and others weren’t — but each raised much more than a pretty penny. “From the Big Apple to the Big Easy,” which featured Jimmy Buffett, Elton John, Lenny Kravitz and others, reportedly raised $9 million for the Bush Clinton Katrina Fund, Habitat for Humanity, MusiCares and the Children’s Health Fund.
At a telethon produced by the BET Network, Jay-Z and Sean “Diddy” Combs showed up with a check in hand for $1 million to go the Red Cross.
VH1, CMT and MTV combined forces and recruited the Rolling Stones, Kelly Clarkson, Maroon 5, Sheryl Crow and perhaps a dozen other household names and raised something to the tune of $30 million for various charitable organizations that aided Hurricane Katrina victims.
All of this money, of course, makes a huge difference. But these events achieved something equally monumental — putting the victims of Hurricane Katrina at the forefront of almost every media conversation in the weeks that followed the hurricane.
Every album, concert and TV appearance drives change, insofar that it gets one more person to pay attention. The problem is, when celebrities stop pushing for action, the inflow of funds often slows to an aching drip. Haiti, for example, has still not recovered from its earthquake in 2010, but there’s considerably less money attached to the relief effort than the $13 billion raised eight years ago.
This, of course, begs the question — is it problematic and dangerous for the media to wield so much power over relief efforts? Well, yes and no.
These factors of awareness and relevance, especially as they factor into the music industry’s role, come into play each time a natural disaster of this scale strikes. Last year, Jennifer Lopez, DJ Khaled and Bruno Mars all made appearances in concert that raised more than $35 million for the victims of Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico. “Hand in Hand: A Benefit for Hurricane Harvey Relief” raised more than $44 million in the same year for victims of Hurricane Harvey.
With numbers like these, one thing is abundantly clear — the music industry wields tremendous power. While lip service is a familiar behavior in celebrity circles, there are more than a few artists who are willing to put their money (or, in some ways, your money) where their mouth is.
But it can be frightening to consider the impact when celebrities choose not to wield that power. For victims of natural disasters, silence can be damning. If a third party — namely, the government — isn’t continuously supporting recovery, tragedy-stricken regions will likely prove unable to support themselves, and additional lives can be lost because of it.
This leaves us with a few things to keep in mind. We should expect our governments to care, regardless of social pressure. The media has a responsibility to remind us to care, too. And we owe it to ourselves to keep track of recovery efforts long after they stop appearing on our TV screens. We owe it to ourselves to check nonprofits’ websites, read continuing reports from news outlets and pay attention to updates from impacted communities on social media or similar platforms.
Shannon O’Hara is the special issues editor. Contact her at [email protected].