Beyoncé’s charity project, Ed Sheeran, has gotten into the global aid business himself, with naturally disastrous results.
An annual event crowning the “most offensive” charity campaigns of the year has narrowed the competition down to three celebrity-fronted appeals, including Sheeran’s. The Rusty Radiator Awards, a contest created by the Norwegian Students’ and Academics’ International Assistance Fund (SAIH), aspires to “change the way fundraising campaigns communicate, and to engage people in issues of poverty and development.” This year, the three videos singled out for your consideration are Tom Hardy’s campaign for the Yemen crisis, Ed Sheeran’s spotlight on homeless youth in Liberia, and an “Africa Famine Appeal” featuring Eddie Redmayne. And for once in his life, Ed Sheeran is the obvious frontrunner.
Even in the oddest corners of the internet, you would be hard pressed to find a genre stranger than the designed-to-go-viral, celebrity-fronted charity video. In the weird world of A-list appeals, filling a room to maximum capacity with celebrities and handing them some lyrics about HIV/AIDs is seen as a totally normal way to raise awareness. These stars (and the charity groups corralling them) probably have great intentions. But issues arise when aid campaigns and charity singles oversimplify complicated, nuanced issues, leaving confused audiences with little more than de-contextualized images of starving children and/or audio of Fred Durst freestyling.
No one is trying to say that celebrities are bad people for agreeing to do some light on-camera altruism. The real question is how, after so many decades of bad, un-informative, borderline cruel portrayals of poverty, illness, violence, and famine, do these campaigns continue to get it so wrong? In 2017, why did anyone think sending Ed Sheeran to Liberia was a good idea?
Sheeran’s video, which was first released in March, is literally titled “Ed Sheeran Meets a Little Boy Who Lives on the Streets.” The Rusty Radiator jury describes this appeal as “a video about Ed Sheeran.” In the five-minute clip, Sheeran fails to properly contextualize the crisis he’s ostensibly traveled to Liberia to showcase. Instead, he shares some feelings.
“It’s quite odd, because I’m on a beach, and you can hear the waves crashing, and you would assume that hot weather beach would be paradise, but this is far from it,” he says in the video. “I’ve never felt so on edge anywhere that I’ve been, my entire life.”
Sheeran meets JD, a young boy who lost his mother and grandfather to the Ebola virus and was deserted by his father. JD tells Sheeran a little bit about his daily existence and his desire to go to school. In an emblematic excerpt, JD tells the “Shape of You” singer that he wants to be president when he grows up, to which Sheeran responds, “You want to be the president? Sick. I love that.”
But it’s what Sheeran does next that ultimately merited Rusty Radiator consideration. In a kind gesture, Sheeran, who says that his “natural instinct is to just put them in a car and we’ll just take them,” asks if he can pay for JD and “his five mates…to stay in a house until we can get them into school.” While Sheeran acknowledges that the point of the Comic Relief campaign is to garner awareness and donations from viewers, he insists, “We can’t leave this place without sorting these kids out.”
The problem here isn’t the pop singer’s generosity, but the message the video sends by focusing on Sheeran’s small-scale intervention. The Rusty Radiator jury explains, “The video should be less about Ed shouldering the burden alone but rather appealing to the wider world to step in…Is Ed Sheeran willing to pay for the boy's housing forever? What an irresponsible thing to do, and for this video to glorify that is terrible.”
Instead of centering the story of boys like JD, the Comic Relief campaign has inspired headlines like “Liberian boy rescued by Ed Sheeran during Comic Relief speaks out,” in which JD becomes an anonymous object of Sheeran’s heroism. Beathe Øgård, the president of SAIH, explained, “The problem is the video is focused on Ed Sheeran as the main character. He is portrayed as the only one coming down and being able to help.” We knew the world was fucked, but we didn’t know it was Ed-Sheeran-is-the-only-one-who-can-save-us fucked.
Comic Relief CEO Liz Warner said in a statement that SAIH’s critical nomination serves as a “constant reminder of the need to stay as relevant as possible going forward and to give a voice to the people affected by the issues we care about.”
“If we do win this award,” she continued, “I would still like to say thank you to the artists whose support means we have reached mass audiences and raised vital funds for life-changing projects in the UK and around the world.” But Sheeran is hardly a shoo-in—the other two nominated appeals, both courtesy of the Disasters Emergencies Committee (DEC), make for stiff competition. The Rusty Radiator jury describes Tom Hardy’s Yemen appeal as “devoid of dignity to those suffering,” and categorized the Africa famine campaign as “poverty porn,” explaining, “the video offers no political context,” but instead shows “people waiting to be saved.”
“We have been presented with these kind of images since the 1980s,” Øgård said. “They are horrible to watch. People are so used to them that for many they reinforce that feeling of hopelessness and apathy – and even a negative view of development in that nothing is going in the right direction.”
In contrast, the Golden Radiator category of the annual competition highlights positive campaigns, and praises “effective humanitarian crisis imagery.” Unfortunately Sheeran, who has won multiple prestigious awards for his music, probably won’t have a Golden Radiator on his mantle any time soon.