Celebrities have always identified with underdogs. Playing a victim or otherwise disadvantaged character is a sure route to an Oscar, and everyone from Bruce Springsteen to Eminem has celebrated the underdog in song. It’s not surprising that models, actors, and popular musicians have focused on impoverished Africa, raising money and awareness for debt relief and famine. While admirable, these efforts have done relatively little to address the structural causes of African misery. There is also an uncomfortable element of colonialism that runs through celebrities’ interactions with Africans and identification with African culture.
Is the celebrity fascination with Africa genuine or shallow? Are the efforts of well-meaning celebrities to liberate Africa from poverty and disease the continent’s salvation or a recipe for disaster? Unfortunately, the answer is that the recent spate of celebrity adoptions, Angelina Jolie’s much-hyped birth in Namibia, and Kate Moss’s infamous blackface modeling in the Independent reveal cultural colonialism masquerading as liberal multiculturalism. And despite their good intentions, Bob Geldof and Bono are being led around by the nose by technocrats and multinational corporations who bear responsibility for much of Africa’s problems.
Madonna’s “adoption” of a Malawian baby epitomizes the worst of the celebrity adoption trend. Malawi’s stringent adoption laws force foreigners to stay 18 months in the country to be assessed as prospective parents. After concerted lobbying, a Malawian court issued an interim order allowing Madonna to take the child out of the country for a year, triggering court challenges from human rights groups and charities who felt Madonna had “bought” the ruling through her extravagant patronage of Malawian orphanages. Unwilling to wait, the pop singer deployed a team to spirit the child back to England. Madonna follows a celebrity trend started by Angelina Jolie, who adopted children from Cambodia and Ethiopia in deals of similarly dubious legality.
A naysayer might point out that the babies will lead better lives in the West. However, growing up in an alien culture separated from one’s own ethnic traditions is a recipe for psychological problems. It has disturbing echoes of the Spanish, American, and Australian colonial practice of kidnapping aboriginal children in order to raise them with white Christian values; such kidnappings were justified by a similar desire to rescue the children from what was perceived as a poverty both literal and spiritual. These issues are compounded by the objectification of celebrity adoptees by the media, which publicize them as exotic objects rather than human beings.
One also has to wonder about celebrities’ real motivations. There certainly are plenty of babies of all races in their home countries who would benefit from their attentions. Why did these celebrities travel halfway around the world and go through a long and often frustrating process of international adoption? Was it because they wanted an “exotic” baby, appropriating a symbol of Africa to give literal weight to their oft-stated solidarity with the oppressed? There is no doubt that Madonna and Jolie love their children, but on a subconscious level, the babies are props that serve certain psychological needs. The babies demonstrate the celebrities’ chic internationalism and make them feel like they have made a difference in the fight against poverty. For dilettante celebrities who believe they are serious crusaders against injustice, an “exotic” baby is an ego-boosting accessory akin to a Kabala red string bracelet, which similarly gives religious status to secular stars searching for “deep” meaning.
The most troubling aspect of the celebrity adoptions deal with elements of Western privilege, with Madonna and Angelina Jolie swooping into impoverished countries to essentially buy babies off families too poor to care for them. In Madonna’s case, she technically abducted the baby, as her men took the baby before a Malawian court could rule against her. The most grotesque manifestation of colonial privilege occurred when Jolie turned a small corner of Namibia into an armed camp so she could give birth unmolested:
Over the past six weeks a Western security force has effectively taken over the small African nation of Namibia. A beach resort in Langstrand in Western Namibia has been sealed off with security cordons, and armed security personnel have been keeping both local residents and visiting foreigners at bay. A no-fly zone has been enforced over part of the country. The Westerners have also demanded that the Namibian government severely restrict the movement of journalists into and out of Namibia. The government agreed and, in a move described by one human rights organization as ‘heavy-handed and brutal’, banned certain reporters from crossing its borders.
Jolie essentially dictated security measures to a sovereign country, taking advantage of its poverty in order to have a “special” experience giving birth in Africa. She decided who entered and left the country, and carved out an exclusive space where she commanded a small army of private security officers. This favoritism is reminiscent of the behavior of colonial elites catalogued in Albert Memmi’s classic text The Colonizer and the Colonized:
If he is in trouble with the law, the police and even justice will be more lenient toward him. If he needs assistance from the government, it will not be difficult; red tape will be cut; a window will be reserved for him where there is a shorter line so he will have a shorter wait. Does he need a job? Must he take an examination for it? Jobs and positions will be reserved for him in advance; the tests will be given in his language, causing disqualifying difficulties for the colonized. . . . From the time of his birth, he possesses a qualification independent of his personal merits or his actual class. He is part of the group of colonizers whose values are sovereign.
When one views the now familiar scene of a western movie star and a television crew arriving to a god’s welcome in a dusty African village, one cannot help but be reminded of the film The Man Who Would Be King, in which two British soldiers on the run are mistaken by Afghani villagers to be actual deities. Madonna and Angelina Jolie may have great respect for the orphans they advocate for, but their special treatment warps the power dynamics of the countries they visit. It is symbolic of a larger problem: Jolie is not the only Westerner with a private army allowed to operate as a sovereign force on foreign soil: oil and diamond companies maintain unaccountable private security forces in many impoverished regions.
While Jolie and Madonna’s celebrity colonialism takes a physical form, Kate Moss’s hits on a deeper level. In a high-tech update of the blackface vaudeville entertainers, Moss was digitally altered to look like a black woman for a special Independent issue on women in Africa. This is symbolic of the trendy celebrities’ trendy Africanism. Moss can claim solidarity with African women and appropriate their identity via Photoshop, but at the end of the day she also can return to a safe home and a lucrative modeling career. Needless to say, the suffering women she identifies with cannot.
The devout Christian Bono is in many ways a modern version of the starry-eyed missionaries that went to Africa to save souls alongside the imperialists who strived for riches. Unlike his forbearers, Bono is not out to spread the cross, but its modern equivalent, liberal capitalism. He preaches from the stage about saving Africa’s suffering masses while promoting economist Jeffrey Sachs, whose neoliberal “austerity” measures helped wreck Bolivia, Poland, and Russia’s economies. As a consultant, Sachs mechanically applied orthodox free-market theories to radically restructure underdeveloped countries, exacerbating already formidable problems. This is the remedy Bono intends for Africa.
Sachs and his colleague Thomas Friedman are part of a group of centrist technocrats who live in a dream world where anyone, no matter how poor, can get out of poverty with a computer, and the solution to all development problems is opening markets. Bono also is a friend of President George W. Bush, whom Bono considers an ally in the fight for Africa.
Perhaps Bono might want to ask his friend George the next time they meet why the United States plans to spend $8 billion a month in Iraq when the five-year $3 billion U.S. AIDS contribution in 2003 will only be 14% of the total world AIDs expenditure in 2008?
While he’s at it, perhaps he could get his pal Sachs to tell the International Monetary Fund to stop making impoverished countries like Ghana double the price of water and electricity in return for a loan? If Bob Geldof was serious about reducing hunger in Africa, he would have tried to prevent the World Bank from forcing Mali to privatize its cotton sector. Then prices wouldn’t have dropped 24% in one year in a desperately poor country where one in four people grow cotton for a living.
Instead of confronting the genuine causes of African poverty, Bob Geldof and Bono have allowed multinational corporations to continue to profit from African misery. While Geldof was putting on a show at Live8, George Monbiot noted that the G8’s “primary instrument of US policy towards Africa,” the African Growth and Opportunity Act, required African countries to bring about a “a market-based economy that protects private property rights,” “the elimination of barriers to United States trade and investment,” and a favorable environment for United States foreign policy interests. In return African countries would receive “preferential treatment” for some of their products, if they use fabrics “wholly formed and cut in the United States” and avoid direct competition with American products.
It isn’t surprising that this “preferential” treatment can be terminated if it “results in a surge in imports” or that implementation of the agreement has been contracted to a lobby group representing Halliburton, Exxon Mobil, Coca-Cola, General Motors, Starbucks, Raytheon, Microsoft, Boeing, Citigroup, and other multinational corporations. Desperately poor countries will break their backs trying to privatize while the United States and Europe keep their massive subsidies.
The thread that links all of these cases is that Africa is being used as a blank space on which these celebrities can project their own fantasies of “saving” Africans. For celebrities like Bob Geldof and Bono, Africa is also a vehicle for a grand moral struggle. As Brandon ‘O Neill of Spiked writes,
This brand of moral grandstanding suggests that Africa has become a kind of plaything for some campaigners, a backdrop against which they can make themselves feel good and ‘special’. They are searching for personal meaning and purpose in the deserts and grasslands of Africa, not kickstarting a meaningful debate about how to take Africa forward.
There is little new about this. The 19th century missionaries and explorers who established European control over the continent saw it as an exotic and forbidding land in which a similar kind of personal meaning could be found (or lost). The actual thoughts and desires of the inhabitants mattered little.
Celebrities see Africa in a similar way. Jolie, Madonna, and Moss have convinced themselves that they have some kind of connection to the suffering African masses, despite their immense wealth and fame, and they search for public ways of proving that connection. They confuse this wish-fulfillment and festishization of the exotic for meaningful measures that are actually helping Africans. Similarly, Bono and Geldof may think they are reducing human misery, when they are really just preaching the gospel of free-market wealth to suffering Africans. That’s the most obscene part about the celebrity crusade for Africa: Jolie and Madonna’s antics take public attention off the continent’s real problems, and do-gooders like Bono and Geldof give rhetorical cover to those who bear responsibility for a substantial portion of those problems.
When it comes down to it, colonialism is still colonialism, even if it poses in a fashion magazine, plays a Tomb Raider in the multiplex, or strums a guitar. One cannot ascribe malicious motives to the celebrities-they sincerely believe they are making a positive difference. But they are not. While celebrities “find themselves” in Africa’s plains, the IMF, World Bank, and multinational corporations are out to find profit.
ADAM ELKUS lives in Pacific Palisades, California. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org