For some of music's biggest stars, supplying us the soundtracks of our lives just isn't enough. We've compiled a list of 10 music icons who have also given back via a wealth of philanthropic pursuits, from helping Asian elephants to funding AIDS charities.
1. Dolly Parton
Beloved country star Dolly Parton has always been generous with her assets, putting millions of dollars into charitable causes. After launching her Dollywood theme park in Tennessee in the ‘80s, the "9 To 5" singer established the Dollywood Foundation to assist Sevier County students “achieve educational success”. The foundation has expanded its goals over the past 30 years, providing scholarships to students pursuing college dreams, bestowing the Chasing Rainbows Award on teachers who have “overcome obstacles in his/her life and is making a difference in the lives of children” and, as part of Parton’s Imagination Library literacy project, shipping more than a million books across the globe each month to underprivileged children. Beyond her education philanthropy, Parton has also gifted a great deal of money to medical endeavours. After the performer raised more than $1 million dollars for the LeConte Medical Center, the cancer hospital unveiled a women’s health ward named after Parton in 2010. In 2017, Parton bestowed $1 million dollars to the Vanderbilt University Medical Center’s children’s hospital, with the country superstar writing another $1 million cheques for Vanderbilt in 2020 to help fund COVID-19 research.
With careers spanning more than 50 years on stage and including award-winning detours into film, Dolly Parton and Cher also share a passion for helping the less fortunate. As well as appearing alongside Dolly on Cyndi Lauper’s 20th annual charity event Home For The Holidays in December 2020, last year saw Cher ramping up her campaigning against exotic animals in captivity. A co-founder of Free The Wild, an organisation formed with the ultimate aim of “eliminating animal trafficking”, Cher assisted in the 2020 rescue of the “world’s loneliest elephant” Kaavan from the Islamabad Zoo. The relocation of the Pakistani pachyderm to a Cambodian sanctuary was documented in the April 2021 documentary Cher and The Loneliest Elephant. Among her other animal advocacy efforts, Cher has been working to save Billy the elephant from Los Angeles Zoo and Thailand gorilla Bua Noi from a Bangkok shopping mall. Away from the animals, in 2020 Cher launched the CherCares Pandemic Resource And Response Initiative, has donated large amounts of money towards HIV/AIDS research and became involved in the Children’s Craniofacial Association after starring in Mask, a 1985 film about the condition.
In spite of the world being pretty well locked down due to COVID-19, January 2021 saw Madonna travelling to her beloved African nation of Malawi to check in on the specialised children’s hospital she funded and opened in 2017. Named after one of her adopted children, the Mercy James Institute for Pediatric Surgery and Intensive Care was funded by Raising Malawi, an organisation founded by Madonna after her first visit to the country in 2006. As well as holding fundraisers featuring celebrity pals such as Tom Cruise, Jennifer Lopez and Gwyneth Paltrow, in 2009 Madonna vowed to dollar match donations to Raising Malawi projects. Her more recent musical output might be hit and miss, but it’s undeniable Madonna’s contributions to Malawi’s health system (a country with just five paediatric surgeons before the Mercy James Institute opened) has saved lives.
4. Elton John
Elton John has fallen in and out of favour with Madonna over the years, but he’s never abandoned his commitment to charity. In the wake of losing many friends and associates to AIDS, the songwriter established the Elton John AIDS Foundation in 1992. The foundation is now the sixth largest independent AIDS funder globally, having raised more than $450 million. One of Elton’s big earners for the cause has been his annual Academy Award party, which has seen the cream of the entertainment industry donating millions of dollars to his foundation. A big fan of ambitious spring cleans, Elton’s auctions of possessions such as paintings, clothes and even his instruments have also filled charity coffers. The generous chap behind award-winning albums such as Goodbye Yellow Brick Road and Too Low For Zero has also earned honours for his commitment to charity, including a knighthood from Queen Elizabeth II in 1998 and the Legion d’Honneur from French President Emmanuel Macron in 2019.
5. Tori Amos
After releasing her harrowing a cappella account of a sexual assault on the 1991 single "Me And A Gun", Tori Amos would regularly be approached by fellow rape survivors during the ensuing Little Earthquakes and Under The Pink tours. Amos was struck by the sense these assault victims had few support networks to turn to, with the musician playing an important role in the formation of the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN) in 1994. The inaugural national spokesperson for the US organisation answered the first ceremonial call to the organisation’s National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline upon its launch, with her label Atlantic Records RAINN’s first major donor. Amos’ 1997 Madison Square Garden show for RAINN raised around $300,000 for the charity. As well as publicising the important cause, the evening was notable for Tori being joined on her piano stool during "Muhammad My Friend" by Maynard James Keenan of Tool. Amos continues to be involved in promoting the cause, stopping by RAINN’s Washington office in 2019 with her daughter Natashya. “My daughter and I walked out and said to each other, “This gave us hope that people dedicate their lives to this,” Amos told the RAINN website.
6. Roger Daltrey
The Who were banned from Royal Albert Hall in 1972, so it’s rather ironic frontman Roger Daltrey’s annual charity events at the famous venue have raised more than £3 million for the Teenage Cancer Trust. Since 1990, Daltrey has been the driving force behind star-studded events featuring the cream of British rock: Paul McCartney, Noel Gallagher, The Cure, Coldplay, Muse, Robert Plant and, of course, The Who themselves. “Over the years I’ve been lucky enough to be part of many very memorable moments in the show’s history,” Daltrey has said of his work on the Teenage Cancer Trust events. “I have met many young people with cancer and, like Teenage Cancer Trust, I believe that they shouldn’t have to stop being teenagers just because they have this disease.” In 2005, Daltrey collected a CBE for his services to both music and charity.
Blame Bob Geldof. In the wake of U2’s breakthrough appearance at the Geldof-organised Live Aid in 1985, singer Bono took off to Ethiopia to see what was happening on Africa’s famine frontline. Not happy to simply take the lift in record sales many artists enjoyed in the wake of the international music event, Bono and wife Ali Hewson spent almost a month working in an Ethiopian relief camp engaging with families caught in the crisis. "It seemed he wanted to hold every child and comfort every mother," World Vision staffer Steve Reynolds recalled 30 years later. Bono’s 1985 trip ignited a fire that still burns in the 61-year-old. While some live goodwill projects (Net Aid, Self Aid, 46664) and charity single appearances ("New Day" with Wyclef Jean, "Don’t Give Up (Africa)" with Alicia Keys and "The Ballad Of Ronnie Drew") have proved unmemorable, his decades of campaigning on behalf of African AIDS causes, debt relief and Amnesty have seen him cross paths with popes, presidents and political prisoners. And to all any cynics still doubting Bono’s humanitarian accreditation after 40 years in the public eye, when was the last time you donated AU$20 million to COVID causes?
8. Chris Martin
Given Coldplay members openly talked about their U2 aspirations early in their career, it seems appropriate frontman Chris Martin once joked to Rolling Stone how his focus on noble causes had led to some waggish friends dubbing him ‘Crono’. Coldplay not only donates 10 per cent of their annual earnings to a selection of charities (a yearly sum in the millions), Martin has also raised awareness on causes including Make Trade Fair, Amnesty International and Red Nose Day (who could forget Coldplay's hilarious Game Of Thrones parody). More recently, last year Martin popped up on the BBC’s COVID charity cover of Foo Fighters’ "Times Like These" alongside acts including Dave Grohl and UK pop queens Dua Lipa and Rita Ora.
Those who’ve read Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Flea’s autobiography Acid For The Children will be across how music saved the Australian bassist born Michael Balzary from a directionless life of petty crime. In an effort to preach the wonders of music to a new generation of wayward Californian kids, Flea co-founded the Silverlake Conservatory of Music in 2001. In the past 20 years, Flea and his Red Hot Chili Peppers bandmates have donated time, money and special appearances to the school, with one particular performance in 2011 (featuring a guest appearance by Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder) raising more than $1 million for Silverlake. Flea told Forbes in 2019 seeing the results of his philanthropic investment was the biggest thrill for him. "Every little triumph that any kid has in there; any time I see a scared to death kid walk up at a recital and play a song and acquit themselves well and you see their hearts are full. Some of the kids I know their stories and they come from difficult backgrounds and stuff, kids that have grown up institutionalised in different ways, then they find the beauty of playing music and collectively with other kids as well, it's the most profound feeling." Flea isn’t the only rock star whose music investments are helping wayward souls: Billy Bragg’s Jail Guitar Doors charity has distributed thousands of instruments to prisoners to aid in their rehabilitation, calling on stars including Rage Against The Machine’s Tom Morello, Jackson Browne, The Clash’s Mick Jones and MC5’s Wayne Kramer for benefit shows.
10. Stevie Nicks
Fleetwood Mac’s gypsy queen Stevie Nicks has taken a hands-on approach to one of her charitable causes. After first visiting wounded soldiers at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington DC in 2004, she found herself drawn to hearing the patients’ stories. “You put on a gown and gloves and they say, ‘Well, this guy’s name is John Jones and he was injured in a blast and lost both legs. He’s had a bad day, but he’s very excited to see you.’,” Nicks told the San Francisco Chronicle in 2007. “And you go in and I just say, ‘My name’s Stevie Nicks. What happened?’ Because they would like to talk about it. I was there from 2 in the afternoon until almost 1 o’clock that night. When I walked out of that hospital, after having seen about 40 guys and girls who’ve lost arms and legs, I was completely blown away by it all, and by how these kids’ lives had been completely changed. I’m not a mother, but I feel incredibly motherly to all these kids.” Not only did Nicks make regular appointments to keep in touch with Walter Reed patients, the songwriter also took it upon herself to share music with them to assist in their rehabilitation. Launching the Stevie Nicks Soldier’s Angel Foundation, Nicks provided iPods to injured troops she’d loaded with favourite songs. “I call it a soldiers’ iPod,” Nicks explained to the Arizona Republic. “It has all the crazy stuff that I listen to, and my collections I’ve been making since the ’70s for going on the road. I’ll take the iPods with me every time I go back and the music will help them with their rehabilitation. It makes them happy.” A song titled "Soldier’s Angel", inspired by her charity work, appeared on Nicks’ most recent studio album, 2011’s In Your Dreams.
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