Rock star Gavin Degraw was in Uganda recently on a charity mission. He was here to help distribute mosquito nets. Insert reaction.
You may have said, “What a nice man Rock Star Gavin Degraw is.” Or, if you know who Gavin Degraw is, you might have said, “OmgomgomgGavindegrawomg!!!!1111one!!”
Some people would have felt a twitching in the back left corner of their cheek. A slight sense of discomfort. And then wondered why this sort of thing would make them feel uneasy.
This may be what Tumwi referred to in her post on the subject. I know Tumwi well enough to never take it for granted that I fully understand what she is thinking, so please, I am not speaking to Tumwi here. I mostly speaking to myself, actually, because I also felt that unease when I saw American celebrities do this type of thing in Africa.
We do know that there is a huge problem. Malaria, refugee camps and poverty are words that spring out of the Reuters story and buzz around your poor head like, well, a swarm of mosquitoes. We do know that something needs to be done. Certainly, by someone. But who and what? Him and This? A popstar And a People Magazine photo op?
It cheapens it somehow, don’t you think? It mocks the massive suffering of thousands of human beings when it is converted into a gold star on the shirt of a practitioner of the most trivial, most superficial, most hollow artform of the modern age—pop music.
And you could be offended by that—the idea that refugees are being used to boost a pop star’s ego.
Of course that kind of depends on who Gavin Degraw is. If he is a self-centred egomaniac whose publicist tricked him into doing this, and he was shocked to find out that he was not going to be living in a Marriot suite in Nakivale, and he swears when he gets back into the States he is going to throttle that publicist, then some outrage might be justified.
But I have heard the songs Gavin Degraw has written, however, and I am inclined to think otherwise. I think Gavin Degraw is a person like everyone else, who on hearing that there were people in need of help, was glad to do whatever he could. He is a regular guy who had the time, money and opportunity to lend a hand, and so he did what any of us would do.
So I can’t be mad at Degraw. Or the UNHCR. The rationale behind their act is unimpeachable. 4,000 kids in this camp are treated for malaria every month. And in refugee camps malaria is different. It doesn’t just mean a couple of days off work. People die from it. If only they had enough nets in the camps. Can you imagine? A net costs like ten dollars. Do you know how many Americans just blow ten dollars every day on junk? They just live their lives, buying cokes and big macs, watching MTV and adoring pop stars and never giving a thought to the kids in Nakivale mu nsili.
Now, if we could turn their attention from the pop stars to the camps for just a bit, they would know that for just ten bucks… wait. What if we ask Gavin to come to the camps. He could… he could RAISE AWARENESS.
It’s like a cunning trick to dupe American teenagers out of their cash.
But if it works, then why not do it?
Is that feeling still there? Yes it is. Because what happens after the star goes to the camps is not a sudden awareness of the profound suffering of the people there followed by a corresponding commitment to do something, even if it is just posting ten bucks to Nothing But Nets. What follows is a sickening spectacle.
Salma Hayek visited a maternity project in Sierra Leone, where she found a lady who could not breastfeed her own child. Hayek asked if she could take over, given the fact that she, Hayek, was still lactating herself.
The point of the programme was to make Hayek’s fans aware of the plight of Sierra Leone mothers. Instead the news hullabaloo that resulted spoke of Hayek’s boob, Hayek’s motherliness, Hayek’s grandparents in Mexico who also breastfed other people’s babies, the gall of Hayek to just take someone else’s baby just like that. And in all that noise I couldn’t even find a mention of the baby’s name, let alone the mother’s.
Now, once again, I chose to believe Hayek did it for the same reason I believe DeGraw did it—the same reason you and I would—to help. But I can understand if when scenes of your people’s suffering are turned into a footnote in a celebrity trivia story it bothers you.
Is that it? Is that the feeling? It’s the tabloids, the silliness of the whole concept of the entertainer as a hero, the whole notion of celebrity. Blame TMZ and Perez Hilton, but hey, Degraw brought nets, so big ups to him, right?
But there is something else.
Degraw is the one who brought the nets. A bunch of Americans connived with Degraw to seduce his fans to part with ten dollars each and the nets arrived.
Degraw fans in Uganda were not consulted. Utterly ignored. It’s as if they didn’t even know we existed. Could it be that we feel slighted? Or that we feel guilty that 4,000 kids got malaria last month when we were blowing our ten dollar bills at Effendy’s drinking Alvaros while listening to I Don’t Wanna Be over the speakers, and we didn’t even know. There is something wrong with this system. It’s our own country right here. We should not need American pop stars to help our awareness of the refugees in our own country rise; we should know about it already. Sympathy, education, patriotism, reading the news should be enough to get us informed.
Maybe we are offended that Nothing But Nets didn’t call us, or maybe we are guilty that we sat here waiting to be called. But there is something there that doesn’t feel good.
I don’t know what conclusions to draw here. I’ll just echo Tumwi. Something doesn’t feel right.