Interview: THE DAILY TELEGRAPH (1991)

June 02, 1991

The following article by Mick Brown appeared in a June 1991 issue of The Daily Telegraph newspaper...

Send for Sting...

When environmental groups want money, publicity or action, o a combination of all three, they are increasingly turning to one man: Sting. In an exclusive interview, he tells Mick Brown of the pressures of being a pop star turned reluctant politician.

On the the face of it, it was he perfect public relations exercise. The international pop star Sting was coming to the Emilio Romagna region in northern Italy to receive a $50,000 award from an environmental organisation in the seaside resort of Cervia, for his campaigning work on behalf of the endangered Brazilian rainforests.

North of Cervia, at the delta of the River Po, is an area which is to be turned into a national park. Birdlife will flourish; wild deer will run free. Tourists (it is earnestly hoped) will spend money. What could be better for the region and its government than for Sting to visit the Delta Park and give it his blessing?

The region would get some publicity; Sting would get his picture taken; the Italian journalists, bussed into the park to meet Sting, would get their story, and an Agreeable lunch. Everybody would be happy.

But there are few environment stories that are quite that simple. What Sting -did not know was that for the past two years there has been a fight between environmentalists who want the park left as it is and the regional government, which wants to encourage a measure of tourism "compatible with the environment".

On the bus to the park, a journalist for a Green magazine distributed a press release headed WHAT STING WILL NOT SEE FROM THE HELICOPTER: this included proposals to lay roads through the Delta Park; to allow the hunting of the wild birds, and to construct a theme park, designed by the creator of "E.T.", Carlo Lombardi, on the park's perimeters. "We are not against Sting," said the man from the Greens." "We love Sting. But we are against him being used by the region to promote its park."

Before Sting arrived in his helicopter for the press conference an official organising the event pleaded with the assembled journalists. "Questions must not concentrate on Sting's musical activities, or on his visit to the Delta Park, but on the Rainforest Foundation."

"What," the first questioner asked, "do you think of the Delta Park...?"

Beside me, a magazine writer raised an eyebrow and whispered conspiratorially: "This a circus... If Sting was not here, do you think anybody would get up in the morning to save a few birds?"

The answer is almost certainly no. But it is an interesting question nonetheless, begging, as it does, other more complicated and difficult questions about the power of celebrity, and its role in good causes.

"If you want to know the truth of it," said Sting with a sigh in his hotel later, having been revived by his masseur, "if it wasn't for the Foundation getting $50,000, I wouldn't have come at all. All of these groups are looking for platforms and keen to get their case across, and, of course, they'll use you to do that."

In the past six years, the image of the rock musician has undergone a seismic shift from hedonistic renaissance bandit to international philanthropist' and all-purpose global conscience. Pop music has aligned itself with all manner of charitable causes, from Live Aid and Amnesty International to the Prince's Trust and benefits for the Kurds. And few performers have been more assiduous in their efforts than Sting.

A former schoolteacher from Newcastle, Sting rose to prominence in the 1970s with the group Police. Monumentally successful, he enjoyed his moments of hubris and excess - the pop musician's obligatory dark night of the soul - emerging to write songs alluding to Jung and Koestler, and as a tire- less supporter of good causes.

He was a prime mover behind the Live Aid record and concert in 1985. He has campaigned on behalf of Friends of the Earth and Sane, the charity for schizophrenia, and played innumerable concerts for Amnesty International. Performing in Brazil in 1987, he met a Belgian photographer and film-maker, Jean-Pierre Dutilleux, who was documenting the razing of the rainforests and the threat it posed to the indigenous Indians. Dutilleux invited Sting to meet a Kayapo Indian chief, Raoni.

Sting's first response was one of "naive romanticism. I was appalled, at what I saw, and I was asked by Raoni to help. It's that simple."

He founded the Rainforest Foundation, and acted as chaperon for Chief Raoni on a peregrination around Europe, to argue the Indians case before the Prince of Wales, President Mitterrand of France, King Juan Carlos of Spain and the Pope. He received expressions of sympathy, pledges of support, promises of money. From the Pope he received a string of plastic rosary beads, which he gave to his grandmother. From the international media he received the usual mixed blessing of widespread publicity and accusations of being self-serving and pretentious.

This is what celebrity means. Had, let us say, an everyday Newcastle school-teacher found his way to the jungle and been similarly appalled by what he saw, we would have heard no more about it. But celebrity, as Sting well knows, confers a power to which few are immune. The door to President Sarney of Brazil, which might have remained firmly closed to an Indian chief, sprang open when that chief arrived with Sting, and a train of TV crews in his wake. "Well, in one sense," says Sting, "everyone wants to meet a pop star, and I think it's fair to use that. I was being pushed to say something by Chief Raoni - 'tell him that we want our land protected...'" It was very simple.

The Brazilian government's decision to shelve the building of the Altimera hydro-electric dam, which would have flooded huge tracts of Indian land, is one example, he believes, of what an effectively mobilised protest movement, with a pop star helping to generate publicity, can do.

"I never wanted to be a politician or a bureaucrat, but suddenly you find yourself faced with these people, and other people behind you pushing you saying 'say something...' I'm either stupid enough or arrogant enough to assume I can make an intelligent contribution."

When pop stars say things like this, journalists tend to reach for their pistols. Philanthropic pop stars are easy targets; accused of being callous and selfish if they do nothing; and of being dilettantish busy bodies, only in it for the self- publicity, if they do something. Sting has been criticised for holding a simplistic view of the problems, of meddling, and not very effectively at that.

"He is an indication of what naivety and arrogance can do when combined with a very little knowledge" is the opinion of one authority on the politics of the environment.

Sting's response is uttered with a sigh of resignation: no act of kindness goes unpunished. "It would be naive to think that when you focus all this attention everything will be positive. It's human nature that some of it will be negative. If you believed everything the reviewers said about your records you'd never make another one."

His best answer to the criticism is the Rainforest Foundation itself. "Naive romanticism" has given way to hard-headed professionalism. The foundation is now headed by a director experienced in fund-raising and politics, Larry Cox - a former chairman Of Amnesty International - and has set up an organisation in Brazil. Of the $1.2 million raised, more than $700,000 has been sent to Brazil, to be spent on "ground-floor projects": Organising meetings between various Indian chiefs, to consolidate a united defence of their lands; demarcating and negotiating over land rights and most recently, setting up the emergency medical fund to fight the cholera epidemic that is now sweeping through Amazonia.

"This whole idea of 'Save the Rainforest' is a very catchy phrase." says Sting. "Drawing attention to it, creating publicity, was easy. The hard part was creating the structure. What are your progammes? How do you get a result?

"There's been a vacuum of any kind of structure to help solve the problem. We had to set up the structure which was painful and difficult and boring. But having done it for three years and having begun to see some results, I do feel proud."

If the Rainforest Foundation has taught, Sting anything he says, it is that results come slowly and are hard won. No amount of pop concerts or photo opportunities will feed the world or stop deforestation of the Amazon. Naïve romanticism is not enough.

"We've had six or seven years of rock music and advocacy being linked very closely, and I think, it's time we started to ask questions about whether it's useful; does it actually serve a purpose? Has it been a fruitful partnership?

"On the positive side, it's a good way of raising money quickly for certain emergencies; it's also a way of getting a message across quickly to people about certain situations. But on the other hand, it does give, the impression of a miracle about to take place because of the media attention. And it also takes attention away from the real sources of power and money which are governments and corporations.

"In other words, if we have a concert for the Kurds or whatever, what are the governments of the world doing? The problem isn't solved by a concert, or even a lot of money; the problem is solved by a process. And unless we can be part of that long-term process then we have no business being involved."

So, it is important that an organisation "jump-started by celebrity", as he puts it, should be seen at the same time to be independent of celebrity, and in a sense untainted by it.

The solution to the problems of the rainforest, he believes, ultimately lies in the Indians' own hands. "One of their problems is that they've come to look on the white man as a resource. That's come out in Chief Raoni in the last couple of years. He wants a plane. Now a plane is only so useful to him; it's a status symbol. So I say, 'Raoni, I'm not here to give you a plane.' But he says he wants a plane because another chief has a plane. But I don't want to put in that position."

In this regard, Europeans are not much different from Amazonian Indians. People will use you in whatever way they can. The region of Emilio Romagna wanted to use Sting's celebrity to endorse the Delta Park; the local environmentalists wanted him to condemn it. "But then again, I kind of expect that now. I've been in the music business a long time..."

"I think," said Sting, "that everybody got what they wanted." And in a sense, he was right. The Rainforest Foundation collected $50,000. The regional authorities and their green protagonists got their publicity. And everybody got Sting's autograph.

© The Daily Telegraph



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