Hunger Strike

Can a non-9/11 benefit album make any noise?

"Mr. Human Rights," they once called him, and though his was never the most famous name on the bill--that was Bono or Bruce Springsteen, Sting or Peter Gabriel--as the organizer of the Conspiracy of Hope concerts in 1986 and the Human Rights Now! world tour two years later, Jack Healey was very much the public face of Amnesty International. He was executive director of that organization from 1981 to 1993, back when musicians were eager to enlist in the battle against human-rights violations and world hunger, back when they wore their hearts on rolled-up shirt sleeves and raised millions for millions on the other side of the planet who were too hungry and beaten-down to defend themselves. It feels like that was a million years ago, those good ol' days before, as Healey says, rock stars "forgot that music is to be a weapon against oppression and injustice."

In the mid-1990s, Healey, a former member of the Peace Corps and a one-time Franciscan monk, had become suddenly very disillusioned and disappointed. He believed musicians had become their own cause; they lined their own pockets, not the coffers of human-rights groups. They made millions and, if they gave at all, donated mere pennies on the dollar. The rich got richer; the poor got forgotten.

"You meet people who are billionaires, and you just wonder, "Do you know for $3,000, you could help refugees in a whole camp for an entire year?'" Healey says from his Washington, D.C., home. "Give me a break here. They say, "I wanna do some good.' Well, damn, look out in the world. You can do it."

No food, no peace: Daniel Lanois, Emmylou Harris and Dave Matthews perform in Seattle at the October 14 Groundwork concert.
No food, no peace: Daniel Lanois, Emmylou Harris and Dave Matthews perform in Seattle at the October 14 Groundwork concert.

And so Healey stepped out of the spotlight and disappeared--in Bosnian factories, which he helped rebuild for the widows of that war; in Bangkok, where he organized a benefit concert for imprisoned Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi; in Haiti, where he worked with the Center for the Victims of Torture. If he couldn't make progress on the grand scale, perhaps he could do some good in little ways. Never again did he expect to once more stand onstage with rock stars, hoping to make so much noise about injustice that the world would once more be forced to take notice.

But there he was on Seattle concert stages in October, introducing Dave Matthews and Pearl Jam and R.E.M. and Rahat Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and Alanis Morissette and dozens more music-makers, who had heeded the call to raise cash and consciousness in an effort to eradicate world hunger. Healey vehemently fought against being drafted into yet another cause, but he couldn't resist. So, once more, he is out there organizing, this time for Groundwork, part of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization's efforts to eradicate world hunger by giving small farmers in impoverished countries their own tools and teaching them how to grow their own crops.

For years, the FAO has been holding global TeleFood events, created during the 1996 World Food Summit in Rome, which pledged to cut in half the number of 800 million hungry and malnourished people worldwide by 2015. The TeleFood concerts and worldwide broadcasts always featured an impressive array of world-music stars, among them Jimmy Cliff and Miriam Makeba, but rarely did they receive much attention in the United States. Healey, FAO liaison officer Bob Patterson and talent recruiter Melanie Ciccone sought to change that by staging a TeleFood event on American soil with a lineup of well-known American and international artists. Their efforts raised a million dollars--a drop in the desert, yes, but as Healey often reminds, this isn't just about charity as much as it's about "justice." Besides, the concerts in Seattle were intended to raise awareness about Groundwork and the FAO; the money was just an added, necessary bonus.

But the din from Seattle didn't carry too far, despite the involvement of Ciccone's sister Madonna as honorary chairwoman and the impressive lineup of artists involved. The concerts and the cause were overshadowed by the monstrous dusk cast by the September 11 terrorist attacks. In the time it took for four hijacked airplanes to kill thousands on U.S. soil, all momentum was lost; Groundwork had all the impact of a rain shower in the Sahara. And though news footage of starving Afghans has reminded us once more of the desperate need for relief in faraway places, Americans give and give to our own--to the countless relief funds set up for victims of the attacks. For now, it appears, they will have to wait.

Groundwork's organizers fear as much: Ciccone, a former Warner Bros. record exec, helped assemble an amazing collection of musicians and music for a benefit disc, Groundwork--Act to Reduce Hunger, which is being sold through Starbucks locations nationwide. The disc features rare and unreleased tracks by Madonna, Tom Waits, Emmylou Harris, Sheryl Crow, Moby and Ciccone's husband, Joe Henry; $12 from every $16 disc sold will go to Groundwork. But the organizers worry that Americans are, quite simply, tapped out after handing over more than $150 million to September 11 relief funds. Theirs are the same fears of local and regional charities, which find their coffers and cupboards, normally flush at the holidays, nearly bare this year.

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