The Perils and Pitfalls of Singing for Gaza: A Review of 2 Unite All

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2 unite all gaza relief album

Credit: 2 Unite All

I was asked to write a review of the new benefit album for the people of Gaza. During the violence of last summer more than 2,000 Palestinian were killed, the vast majority civilians and the casualties included more than 500 children. Many more people were left permanently injured, physically, mentally or both, and thousands lost their homes.

I’d already downloaded all twenty-six tracks of 2 Unite All (126 minutes of music from more than thirty artists) before I realized that the task was impossible.

Writing about a project motivated by peace and love is a complete minefield. What’s the point of saying anything about the music when the real aim is not artistic but humanitarian. In such circumstances, is it ethical to be critical?

But then it occurred to me how much else there was to say about this particular endeavor, even before a single song is considered.

What should the relationship be between the artist and the recipient of the aid that they raise? Is it possible to separate out the humanitarian need from the causes that created it? Is it enough to just sing about peace and love?

Many of these questions have been debated in Britain in recent weeks following the latest re-working of “Do They Know it’s Christmas” – the song that Sir Bob Geldof wrote with Midge Ure to raise money for Ethiopian famine relief in 1984. This year it has been dusted off for a new cause: stopping the spread of Ebola in West Africa.

The lyrics have been tweaked a little. “Heal the world” has been added to the “feed the world” chorus, and the line Bono sang with such cringe-worthy passion thirty years ago, “and tonight thank God it’s them instead of us” has, thank God, dropped.

Just as he was in the 1980s, Geldof has been ‘robustly dismissive’ of critics of the work. So what if 85 percent of Liberia is Christian and they probably know quite well that Christmas is around the corner? So what if a bunch of rich Western musicians, calling themselves ‘Band Aid’, portray the whole of Africa as one huge begging bowl? “That’s not the point,” Geldof notes in interviews. “These people need our help, I don’t care whether you like it or not. Just buy the f#$€ing record!”

The Band Aid comparison to the Gaza 2 Unite All project has its limits though. The politics of giving aid to Africa are certainly complex but the issues surrounding Ebola are far less acute and toxic than those of the Israel/Palestine conflict.

So back to my original editorial commission, 2 Unite All is not aiming for the mainstream Band Aid demographic. The kids will not be humming any of these tunes on the school bus in the near future. However, it has gathered up a collection of award winning artists that collectively cover a wide range of musical genres including Celtic, Native American, Ambient, New World, Opera, Jazz, and even a spoken word Buddhist meditation. Most of the tracks were not written or recorded especially for the project but donated, in double quick time, by the artists to get the appeal off the ground while the memories were still raw and the need was still urgent.

There some well known names in the mix. Peter Gabriel (ex-Genesis lead singer) Stewart Copeland (ex-drummer with The Police), Rick Allen (drummer with Def Leppard) and Beth Nielsen Chapman, the Nashville based singer-songwriter. Most of the album’s musicians haven’t made it onto my musical radar before now but they have considerable followings.

Fans of pop, rock, heavy metal, punk, rap, hip-hop, dub and bass, or disco will feel a little underrepresented here. There are few rough edges to the music and nobody tackles directly the issues or the experience of life in Gaza or the wider background to the situation. However, the quality of the musicianship is undeniable throughout, so too is the theme of love, peace, and understanding. And as Nick Lowe once sang, “What’s so funny about that?” Well, nothing of course, except a little light relief wouldn’t go amiss amongst the inevitable overdose of earnestness.

But there I go being critical of a good cause! Immediately I start sounding cynical and mean spirited. Better to get back to the humanitarian purpose.

So where is the money raised by 2 Unite All going?

More than 3,000 children were injured as a result of Israel’s operation Protective Edge during July and August this year. Over 370,000 Palestinian children in Gaza are said to have been left traumatized to some degree by the events. The proceeds of 2 Unite All will go to support the surgical and medical teams of Palestine Children’s Relief Fund (PCRF) and the psychological counseling supported by UNRWA USA.

Steve Robertson, Executive Producer for the 2 Unite All project says he was inspired to act after seeing a report about a young Palestinian girl who was in a coma from the bombing. “The doctors weren’t sure if she would survive, but said if she did regain consciousness, she would learn that her mother, father and sister had all been killed,” says Robertson. “My tears wouldn’t stop and I said to myself, ‘That’s enough. I have to do something now and offer some sort of healing support to the people of Gaza and this Middle East crisis.'”

There’s no questioning the sincerity of 2 Unite All or the emotional commitment of all the artists involved. But is that enough in these circumstances? Is it enough to call for love, peace, and understanding or is that actually a bit of a moral cop-out?

I found a TV clip of Stewart Copeland talking to ABC News in America about the project. Copeland put forward the classic Geldof position that wants to cut through all of the politics and concentrate on the people’s immediate needs:

“It’s aid without commentary. It’s not a shout-out. It’s aid. It’s people who are desperate. They need help. And let’s get some help going to them and separate the aid from the argument about who’s to blame.”

Aid without commentary? It’s a good sound bite for the evening news, so why should I quibble with it? I can hear Sir Bob screaming at me even now to “shut the f&@k up.”

But can you really offer aid to Palestinians without comment? Even if you are trying to avoid taking sides, saying that Palestinians in Gaza are worthy of our compassion appears to be a political statement these days. In August, Britain’s Jewish Chronicle newspaper ran into trouble with some of its readers who were outraged at the paper accepting an advert on its pages placed by the Disasters Emergency Committee, a coalition of British NGOs, to raise emergency aid money for Gaza. The editors agreed to placate their critics by giving space in the following weeks to Jewish charities raising funds for the IDF and Israeli medical agencies.

So there are plenty of people happy to say that the Gazans have brought their troubles on themselves by electing Hamas and allowing rockets to be placed in or near their homes, schools, hospitals, and mosques. In which case, so the propaganda goes, they do not deserve our sympathy (or our cash).

No doubt these same voices will ask why 2 Unite All is not raising funds for more rocket shelters to protect the Israeli children in Ashkelon or Sderot or to provide trauma counseling for their children too. Or is their concern not really ‘United at ‘All’?

So the reality is that merely caring is already commentary. I’m quite sure that Copeland knows he is, at some level, taking sides in the conflict however much he wants to raise things above politics.

In reading other media reports of the album, I was pleased to see Peter Gabriel more open in talking about the conflict and willing to point an accusing finger in the relevant direction. Gabriel has a track record of politicized commitment. Remember the brilliant ‘Biko’ from 1980, telling of the 1977 police murder of the black civil rights activist Steve Biko. Gabriel was ahead of the public opinion curve by several years, just as he is today.

“Although I am sure both the Palestinian and Israeli people would benefit enormously from a just and fair two-state agreement based around the ’67 borders, we have watched the Palestinians subjected to more and more suffering for far too long, especially in Gaza.”

And then he gets to the heart of the matter.

“Meanwhile their long held land is repeatedly stolen by force for illegal settlements. I am not and have never been anti-Israeli or anti-Semitic; I am anti-Israeli government policy, anti-injustice, anti-oppression and anti-occupation. There is clearly a growing movement around the world willing to speak out, including my own country’s Parliament. I am happy to be one of these voices now asking the Israeli government, ‘Where is that two state solution you have so long said you wanted?’ and more simply, saying, ‘Enough.'”

Nice one Peter! That’s more like it. If you are going to go to the trouble of producing an album in aid of Palestinians, you might as well say something meaningful, especially when the songs themselves tread so lightly, if at all, on the subject matter.

At the end of the day I’m with Geldof in that we shouldn’t let our reaction to the music get in the way of giving to the cause or let it provide an excuse not to give at all. I downloaded the album without hearing a single track in advance. I knew it didn’t matter what I thought of the music, I just wanted to support their action. As it happens, I will be widening my musical radar having heard some of these artists for the first time.

In an ideal world I would have liked some of the songs to have reflected the human reality and the politics of the conflict. That would have done even more to raise consciousness and awareness as well as money. A few Palestinian artists would have been a very welcome addition too. But now I’m asking for the perfect benefit album rather than welcoming the art of the possible.

If you want to find some songs that deal more directly with the conflict you can try the list I compiled in an earlier post I called Soundtrack to a Paradigm Shift.

In the meantime, just buy this album because the need is very real and still urgent. But pass around the quote from Peter Gabriel too.