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Do-Gooders Do Good

The most commendable political compilation of a watershed year for official liberalism

For the privilege of releasing Unity: The Official ATHENS Olympic Games Album, "EMI Music will make a donation to UNICEF's work with young people, with a minimum of US$180,000 guaranteed for HIV/AIDS programmes in sub-Saharan Africa." The booklet describes AIDS-fighting music projects in Zimbabwe, Botswana, and Ghana--"promote community action," "stimulate youth participation and meaningful dialogue," "behaviour change and the promotion of healthy living." The well-wisher admires the goal of such bureaucratic do-gooderese while distrusting its efficacy--and assuming that the musical bait is a sententious afterthought. But it's not.

Beyond Destiny's Child and in theory Avril Lavigne, none of the 35 artists could currently be called a blockbuster: no U2, Springsteen, Nelly, Jay-Z. All but two of the 16 tracks are collaborations, and 10 cross boundaries among what I calculate, after sorting out dual citizenships and residencies, as 13 nations. Only Les Nubians, French sisters of Cameroonian heritage who spent a patch of girlhood in Chad, and Nigerian-born ex-busker Keziah Jones are in any way sub-Saharan. Yet more than half the artists, including eight of the 11 Americans and four of the seven Brits, are black, and all three of the French-identified acts are also African-identified once you count Algerians Cheb Mami and Rachid Taha. Mix in five reggae singers. Then compare the horrible album for the 1984 Los Angeles games (the ones the Soviets skipped after Jimmy Carter boycotted Moscow 1980 over, how time flies, Afghanistan), featuring Loverboy, Toto, Christopher Cross, and for zat European touch, Foreigner (oops, forgot Giorgio Moroder--and John Williams). I would never be essentialist, oh no. There's plenty of bad black pop. But Unity is such an improvement.

Conscious compilations are the musical equivalent of left documentaries, and we're swamped with them--anti-Bush punk and indie, useless Fahrenheit 9/11 soundtrack and pointed Songs and Artists That Inspired Fahrenheit 9/11 (half its profits, Michael Moore is such a card, to sports mogul Mark Cuban's Fallen Patriot Fund for the families of American Iraq war casualties), Tell Us the Truth concert smoked by the Coup's Boots Riley, two star-sodden CDs for imprisoned Burmese Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi, others. Needless to say, Unity is softer than any of them--but less than you think, and seldom to ill effect. One way these songs avoid sententiousness is by varying the lite reggae/funk that has replaced both AOR thwock-and-thud and big-ballad swell-and-meander as pop's dominant medium of international exchange. Without trucking in inspirational triumphalism--until neo-schlagermeister Herbert Groenemeyer and anthemic Trevor Horn at the end, anyway--the groove's flexible propulsion provides a positive environment for the promotion of healthy living.

The adversity acknowledged in almost every track isn't remotely subversive in a pop world sustained by tiny romantic quest narratives--on the Timbaland track, in fact, break-up-to-make-up is played as a metaphor for "unity." That's early on, after Lavigne has established theme--"put my guns in the ground," "long black cloud is coming down"--with an eloquently unadorned "Knockin' on Heaven's Door." Destiny's Child advise a young woman pushing a stroller to keep her head up (with rapping a rousing coda) before Timbaland brings on his white protégée, former Britney backup Kiley Dean, the first of several corporate ringers who acquit themselves impressively. A similar tack is pursued by two EMI hitmakers unknown in the U.S.: Italian gospel fan Tiziano Ferro and U.K. r&b star Jamelia, whose co-written "Universal Prayer" inflects unity with romantic nuance and holds its own with Timbo.

None of these tracks is utterly indelible, but all are top-drawer, and quality slips only slightly as the project's official liberalism becomes more overt. In this context, such also-rans and has-beens as Beres Hammond, Neneh Cherry, and Sting outdo themselves. Earth, Wind & Fire return from limbo; EMI reggae hopeful Mr G refers undisparagingly to "sexuality" from a U.K. where gay activists are waging a just war on dancehall homophobia. Then the groove hardens and the rhetoric escalates: '60s diehard Lenny Kravitz and Iraqi pop fixture Kadim Al Sahir team up on the rock-anchored, Middle Eastern–flavored "We Want Peace," powering an anti-war passion they unquestionably share however pro forma their music usually seems; the most telling lyrics are Al Sahir's Arabic ones, which include the word "salaam." And then, after a utopian party-up by Macy Gray and Keziah Jones, Moby and Public Enemy go indelible.

These two exceptionally political artists are a matched set--few have rocked the funk aesthetic harder. So out of this feel-good project, consistently pro-peace but mild about it, pops one of 2004's angriest songs, "MKLVFKWR"--Chuck D preaching and accusing over high-bpm drums and a sidelong synth bray from the Bomb Squad playbook as the long-AWOL Flavor Flav chants "Mo-B-P-E" behind him. "MKLVFKWR" doesn't advocate taking up arms against the oppressor, but its sound is take-no-prisoners, like moonlighting Bushie Alice Cooper's partner Xzibit shouting, "Get your damn hands up/If they're not shackled to your feet" right after. Even the Euro-rock finale is saved by the inspired "Still Standing," in which Brian Eno fuels Skunk Anansie provocateur Skin and cocky battler Rachid Taha: "We will not roll over," the Jamaican-European and the Berber-European shout at all the vaunting heralds of "sanctity" and "victory," and after Herbert Groenemeyer's mealy-mouthed "the only strategy is love," their desperate resolve sounds so real.

Unity is well conceived, well constructed, engaged, and apt. It's living proof that Africans have vitalized Europe, that musical internationalism is viable and political internationalism essential, that there's corporate and then there's corporate. Unfortunately, it stiffed, Soundscanning a big fat 11,000 in the States and not exactly overrunning Europe, where its mastermind, music-oriented CEO Emmanuel de Buretel, was ousted for all-business CEO Jean-François Cecillon a few months preceding its release. Cynics may gloat over that failure, but I trust the music. In this historical moment, when the U.N.'s liberal elitism is so clearly a progressive force that not even Ralph Nader is too holy for it. Most musicians intuit this no matter how "commercial" they are. And they definitely haven't rolled over.

Village Voice, Oct. 26, 2004