Celebrity Colonialism

From Madonna to Kate Moss, buying Africa is the latest trend among the famous.

By Adam Elkus Mar 01, 2007

A version of this article was originally published in the online edition of CounterPunch (www.counterpunch.org). 

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. However, 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 the current interest in African culture.

Is the celebrity fascination with Africa genuine or shallow? Are the efforts of well-meaning celebrities to alleviate Africa’s poverty and disease the continent’s salvation or a recipe for disaster? 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.

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. There is no doubt that Jolie and Madonna love their children, but they inevitably become exotic props and grist for the likes of Us Weekly.

The most troubling aspect of the celebrity adoptions concerns Western privilege, with Madonna and Jolie swooping into impoverished countries to essentially buy babies from families too poor to care for them. In Madonna’s case, she technically abducted the baby, as her men took the child before a Malawian court could rule against her. But 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. Brendan O’Neill in the online magazine spiked put it this way:

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. . . 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 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’s 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 mimics 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 the economies of Bolivia, Poland and Russia. 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.

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 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 fetishization 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’s 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 International Monetary Fund, World Bank and multinational corporations continue their profiteering unchallenged by these neo-missionaries.

If celebrities really want to help Africa, perhaps they can start closer to home–by taking the difficult and unpopular step of lobbying their own governments and financial institutions to stop making Africa’s pain worse. This will not win them any friends in the government, nor is it glamorous. It does not involve traveling to far-flung locations, staging star-studded rock concerts or building village hospitals in front of TV cameras. Talking to a largely apathetic public about arms control treaties, neoliberal "shock therapy" economics, corporate subsidies, resource exploitation, generic AIDs drugs and other serious issues is difficult even for politicians and newsmen. But celebrities have the potential to do what politicians cannot–spreading awareness among a political constituency that can hold Western governments to task for their actions in Africa.

Adam Elkus lives in Pacific Palisades, California. He can be reached at adam.elkus@gmail.com.