In May, WWOZ, Rehage Entertainment, SDT Waste & Debris Services and Blaine Kern's Mardi Gras World put together a concert in six days to benefit the Louisiana coast. Titled "Gulf Aid," the impromptu day of music raised $300,000 for the families whose world was upended by the BP Gulf oil catastrophe. A single by Lenny Kravitz, Mos Def and the Preservation Hall Brass Band promises to raise more. Kravitz and Ani DiFranco held an hour-long concert June 22 for the cause, featuring New Orleans musicians. And in July, the local independent record label Park the Van is planning to release a compilation of songs, the proceeds from which will benefit the Gulf Restoration Network.
Americans have responded well to celebrity-driven charities in the past. The all-star "We Are the World" single, performed by dozens of popular singers, raised millions for USA For Africa in 1985. Since then, Farm Aid, Live Aid and telethons to help victims of Hurricane Katrina and the earthquake in Haiti have, through music, shone a light on the needy and inspired people to give tens of millions of dollars in relief.
That's why it's puzzling to see the greatest environmental disaster in American history, now entering its third month along the Gulf Coast with no good news in sight, receive almost no response from the international music community — particularly from those who have in the past shouted their commitments to the environment, green causes and working people. Where are the Bonos and the Stings? Why have we heard not a word from the Springsteens and the Mellencamps, the platinum-selling artists who have been so generous in the past for so many other causes?
Gambit spoke to Amy Makowiecki of the Green Music Group (GMG), which describes itself as "a large-scale, high-profile environmental coalition of musicians, industry leaders and music fans using our collective power to bring about widespread environmental change within the music industry and around the globe." Among its founders are several Jazz Fest stalwarts, including Bonnie Raitt, Willie Nelson and Dave Matthews, as well as one of the music industry's most visible "green" activists, Sheryl Crow. Yet neither GMG nor its founders have any plans for a large-scale concert, Makowiecki says, though several of its artists are planning to erect educational "eco-villages" at stops on their summer tours. "We recognize that this obviously is a disaster of catastrophic proportions," Makowiecki says, "and we are working through our well-established artist relationships to raise awareness about the disaster in the Gulf Coast."
With all due respect, we don't need to raise awareness; we need to raise money. If dead and dying animals were washing ashore in Malibu or Martha's Vineyard, we know the response would be different.
Is the international music community suffering from "charity fatigue"? Have they conflated the tragedy on the rural Gulf Coast with the urban floods after Hurricane Katrina and concluded they've already done enough for us?
If so, they're mistaken. While New Orleans will suffer, our suffering will pale in comparison to the misery of people who are taking it in the throat: Louisianans of Cajun, Isleño, Yugoslavian, Croatian, Cambodian, Vietnamese, African-American and Native American descent who have spent their lives putting food on the table for America — and who are seeing their culture and livelihoods vanish with each drop of oil that reaches Barataria Bay, south Terrebonne, or the marshes of Plaquemines Parish. Along with seafood and petroleum, this state has given the country a cornucopia of music, so it's time for musicians, many of whom are quick to state their Louisiana bona fides in interviews — often on stages at the New Orleans Fair Grounds every spring — to give back.
Homegrown relief efforts have been fantastic, and there's probably not a musician in south Louisiana who wouldn't pitch in again if asked. But the need is so great on the coast (see Alex Woodward's story, "First Line," p. 9), and looks to be so far-reaching and long-lasting, that we need a Gulf Aid of international proportions. Now is the time for ecology-minded musicians and celebrities to put their time and their talents where their collective mouth is.