Singing for Change: Global Citizen Tribute to Mandela Resulted in $7 Billion Pledged

Beyonce and Jay-Z
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Beyonce and Jay-Z at the Global Citizen Festival: Mandela 100 on Dec. 2.

For the past several years, philanthropic organization Global Citizen has been battling poverty by using music as a draw to spur fans to action.

Since 2012, the anti-poverty organization Global Citizen has presented benefit concerts with a twist: Fans qualify for tickets by taking action to combat extreme poverty. On Dec. 2, the organization brought its latest festival closer to the frontline of that fight, with a concert in Johannesburg's 94,700-capacity FNB Stadium that featured Beyoncé, Jay-Z, Ed Sheeran and Eddie Vedder, among others, along with several major African artists.

Global Citizen said that the event, presented with House of Mandela to honor the 100th anniversary of Nelson Mandela's birth, led to fans taking 5.6 million actions that resulted in more than $7 billion in commitments toward goals aligned with the United Nations' "2030 Program" of ending extreme poverty by that year.

"Music has been this incredible unifier of movement-building, and we were so excited to bring incredible artists from across the continent like Tiwa Savage, Sho Madjozi, D'Banj, WizKid and Cassper Nyovest together with international performers to show the world the incredible artistry that exists here," Global Citizen spokesperson Andrew Kirk told Billboard. "What happens in India or Africa affects us all globally and the Global Citizen movement is about looking beyond our own borders."

Global Citizen, which may be best known for the festival it has put on every year since 2012 in Central Park in Manhattan, has deep roots in the music business: Its Board of Directors includes Universal Music Group executive vp Michele Anthony, Roc Nation CEO Jay Brown, Pearl Jam manager Kelly Curtis and Live Nation Entertainment CEO Michael Rapino. "Kelly said you might want to meet this kid Hugh Evans [who co-founded Global Citizen] -- his dream is the end of extreme poverty in his generation's lifetime, and he wants to do a concert in Central Park," Anthony told Billboard last year. "The first year we had the Black Keys and Neil Young, the second was Stevie Wonder and Alicia Keys and they quickly went from begging people to do it to getting Beyoncé."

The idea of using tickets not only to raise money but also to spur political action also appeals to artists and executives. Fans can send tweets, make phone calls or sign petitions in order to qualify for points that can be redeemed for tickets -- to both the major festivals and other events whose organizers donate tickets. This spurs companies and countries to announce actions to tackle poverty-related issues, from sanitation to women's rights. "There's a gamification of this that's created a whole new generation of activists around issues like clean water," Anthony says.

The range of anti-poverty projects also lines up with other organizations artists support. "These are some of the same issues I advocate for with my foundation," Usher, who performed with South African DJ Black Coffee, told Billboard. "You see how artists can fulfill their duty to give back, but also that there's power in numbers." Usher and Black Coffee, which whom he's working on new music, performed a special mash-up of Black Coffee's "We Dance Again" and  "Without You," Usher's hit with David Guetta, along with the South African Indigenous Dance Academy.

The event was also marred by tragedy: The day before the show, a rigger working for a production company fell to his death. In a statement, Global Citizen said that he was wearing the appropriate safety gear and that the incident was being investigated by local authorities. There have also been reports of a series of muggings that took place outside the stadium, after the concert ended.

The concert did fulfill its goals in terms of engagement and impact, however, surpassing seven-fold its goal of $1 billion in commitments. The festival "is really the beginning," Kirk says. "We've set up a full-time office here to work on our Rewards program, which offers free tickets to major music and sports events, so we'll be here for many years to come."

This article originally appeared in the Dec. 8 issue of Billboard.