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The humanitarian legacy of War Child Records is still being written

Since 1993, the charity War Child has been helping improve the lives of children affected by conflict.

From giving instant support on the ground to providing long-term educational programmes, their work and its impact can be seen and felt in the likes of Gaza, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ukraine, Bosnia, and anywhere in the world where conflict breaks out. Free from states and governments, they are driven by a single goal – a safe future for every child living through war.

Those familiar with their work, or perhaps their name at least, might not recall where they heard first the name ‘War Child.’ For the Head of War Child Records Rich Clarke, it was as a teenager, listening to his beloved Radiohead – one of many household names to donate music and more to the War Child cause via the historic compilation album Help.

‘Music has always been ingrained in the DNA of the organisation,’ says Rich, whose job description sits on the unique cross-section of the music industry and humanitariansim. From the big stage of Royal Albert Hall to the use of music as psycho-social support for children dealing with trauma, the remit of War Child and it’s record label is almost as big as its impact.

A collaboration with BUILDHOLLYWOOD will see War Child continue to effectively spread their important message across posters and billboards across the country – a message that has always been shared by whatever means necessary.


Words by Greg Stanley

Help poster (1995)

Founded in the nineties by filmmakers David Wilson and Bill Leeson, along with social entrepreneur Willemijn Verloop, the project was a reaction to what they had seen first-hand unfolding during the Yugoslav Wars. Organising artists for recordings and releases, booking fundraising gigs and exhibitions ever since, War Child’s story is tied with the Zeitgeist of Britpop, the guitar revival of the mid-2000s and most recently, the founding of its own record label.

The charity has not just raised awareness but has leveraged the cultural capital of music to raise funds for theirs and their partners’ work with communities torn apart by unimaginable circumstances. And despite being over 30 years deep, the organisation’s work and message is just as important as ever.

Introduce yourself in your own words…

I’m the head of War Child Records at War Child UK. I’d previously worked at Warner for years and then at Emi when it was a major label before that, so my background was in music even before I joined War Child in 2016 to work on their music team. By the end of 2020, we had the idea to set up the label – and we’re a small team so we do a lot of live events on behalf of War Child as well.

The work War Child does is so varied, so how would you describe it to someone for the first time?

The official way to define War Child is that it’s a Child Protection Agency and the only child protection agency that works specifically with children affected by conflict. It’s a broad remit, but also a niche remit as well.

When it comes to the music side of things, the organisation’s reputation has been built from the entertainment and music industry, so there’s a very good resonance. Although there is a lot of nuance to our work, I think the name War Child kind of speaks for itself as well.

Day of the Girl, celebrating remarkable girls and women around the world
Day of the Girl, celebrating remarkable girls and women around the world

Whilst conflicts and crises differ from case to case, what are the pillars of War Child that stays the same no matter what the circumstances?

War Child’s belief is that no child should be affected by war ever. The mission is to reach children quickly when a conflict breaks out and stay long after the cameras have gone to help them recover for a safer, brighter future. One of the pillars of the work is protection, which is about creating safe spaces and helping children who have been separated from their families. And that work is carried out with lots of other agencies who do amazing work in areas that they specialise in, like shelter, food, and water.

The second pillar is education. We try to get children back into education as quickly as we can, which could be anything from setting up informal learning centres to training teachers.

And the third pillar is what we call psycho-social support. Basic psychological first-aid and mental health support. I think that’s often where War Child makes the biggest impact and specialises in the most. Because the sooner you can reach a child who has experienced the brutality and horrors of war, the sooner they can process that trauma, the less long-term impact on their livelihood and their ability to claim their childhood back, is improved exponentially.

We also have a pillar of livelihood as well, which could be anything like business training or giving micro-loans to help the local economy recover.

Considering the long-term impacts of war, how important is that factor of longevity in War Child’s work?

The longevity is absolutely vital. Ever since War Child was started by David Wilson and Bill Leeson in 1993 after visiting Bonsia during the Yugoslavian war, there has been an emphasis on understanding the impacts of trauma. One analogy I always use to describe the stages of work is that you can give a child a bed, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that they will be able to sleep at night.

And every place affected by conflict is different. For example, in the Central African Republic and the Democratic Republic of Congo, a large proportion of our work is concerned with helping children affected by armed groups – child soldiers. This could involve identifying them, getting them out of militias, helping them deal with trauma experienced, and also getting them back into their communities because once they have been taken or volunteered themselves, they can face a lot of stigma.

Whereas in Yemen, a lot of War Child’s work is cash grants. It’s a country where a vast majority is at risk of severe malnutrition. We want to be working in education and psychosocial support there – and we are to an extent – but the most acute lead is survival. So, it’s simply about granting money for families to spend. There’s often a bit of stigma attached to this too – “you’re sending cash, you don’t know where it goes” – but that cash goes into the local ecosystem and dignifies people to buy what they want. Sometimes it’s no good sending people 5 litres of oil or 2kg of rice when they’ve got a teenage daughter who desperately needs some tampons. It empowers them to make their own decisions and the money goes back into the local community. So, our work is very nuanced and long-term.

Democratic Republic of Congo

The charity is independent of governments and states. What does that mean in practical terms and what effect does it have on the work that War Child do?

It means that we will work with any child affected by conflict. It’s the basic humanitarian principle. Any child affected by any conflict regardless of political ideologies or religious creeds. That’s super-duper important. And that means as an organisation, we tread a neutral political line. Anything we say to be critical of any regime could impact our ability to work with children. And that’s fundamental to our success.

We have a lot of people come to us who want to do things to support us. We’ve had musicians come to us and say we want to put on a Free Palestine gig. We can’t necessarily do that, but we can say we’re supporting the children in Gaza, and we can make sure all the funds raised go directly there to support children in horrendous situations. There’s a real acute need for that kind of support at the moment.

Is it fair to say that the independence from states is then both an advantage and a challenge to the work?

Yeah absolutely. We can’t do anything to endanger the safety of our staff and their ability, or our local partners. We work with a lot of different partner agencies around the world. We can’t do anything to impair their ability to work with children. We’re working in active war zones, so safety is paramount.

Tell us about how War Child has worked with the music industry throughout its history?

It comes from day one. The history is that two filmmakers went out to Yugoslavia to make a documentary about musicians out there, and they went to Sarajevo and Mostar, and they witnessed the kind of horror and violence towards children and families. They saw snipers murdering children just to create shock and fear to keep people hemmed in behind the lines. It deeply affected them, and they came back to North London where they lived and didn’t know exactly what they wanted to do, but they wanted to do something. And so, they set up War Child and then figured all the rest of it out on the job, basically.

They were well-respected documentary makers and writers, and they had a network in the entertainment industry. They put on some shows down at the Festival Hall of South Bank, they held an art exhibition with pieces from big stars like Paul McCartney and Kate Bush. At this point, the British music industry was in absolutely rude health. Britpop is rising up and you’ve got Oasis, Blur etc.

War Child said, “Let’s make an album” and Help, released in 1995, captured the Zeitgeist. The inspiration Tony had behind it was how John Lennon recorded Instant Karma! I think Lennon said something like, the best music is “Written for breakfast, recorded for lunch and released for dinner.” And they took that idea of that immediacy to the artists and said, “We want you to record it in a single day and then we’re going to mix it in master it and get it in the shops.”

That was one hell of an achievement in the nineties. These days you could write and release music in an hour, but not then when everything was recorded and mixed and mastered on tapes.

The list of artists involved in that compilation is incredible. Radiohead, Oasis, Blur, the late Sinead O’Connor…

There are some incredible moments captured in the album. Oasis did a lot for it, recording a version of Fade Away as Oasis and Friends. The friends were Jonny Depp on guitar and Kate Moss on tambourine. Manic Street Preachers did a cover of Raindrops Keep Fallin’ On My Head which they always used to play at soundchecks. Radiohead donated the track Lucky to the album before they used it on their own record two years later. As a 14-year-old obsessed with Radiohead, that was how I first heard about War Child.

Oh, and the whole thing was mixed and mastered by Brian Eno.

Paul McCartney, Oasis and Paul Weller come together for the album Help (1995)
NME, Help (1995)

What does the legacy of a momentous project like Help mean for War Child as a charity?

It changed the direction of War Child completely. Suddenly they had money, they had funds to make a difference. It was not originally released on vinyl either since the vinyl market was failing then. It’s since returned so we’ve pressed it on vinyl and been able to raise funds from the release that way too. I think almost £50,000 was raised from that reissue – and that’s alongside the passive income stream from having this and other War Child music releases on digital streaming sites.

What are some other music projects and highlights that War Child and War Child Records have been a part of?

In 2005, during that great resurgence of British guitar music, we did a similar concept to celebrate 10 years since Help. Again, the idea was to create the music quickly, with the likes of Razrolight and Babyshambles involved. In 2009 there was Heroes, which saw young artists at the time do covers by iconic bands. You had Lily Allen doing a song by The Clash and Franz Ferdinand covering Blondie, again with proceeds going to the charity.

There have been so many great gigs and live performances, like Arctic Monkeys Live at the Albert Hall, raising over £800,000 as a gig and a recorded album. Working with the Brit Awards and having shows the same week as the ceremony – Chris Martin and Gary Barlow being excited backstage playing the piano.

The history of the organisation and each project spreads awareness of our work and makes more things happen. More recently, we released Katherine Jenkins’ single with Jack Savoretti What The World Needs Now Is Love on War Child Records. And there are plans to do more. 2025 will be 30 years since Help, so we are planning on doing something big for that landmark.

Arctic Monkeys live at the Royal Albert Hall
Brits (2009), Coldplay, Killers and Bono

What is it about music that allows it to be a tool for social change / raising awareness of issues?

Music is the great unifier. Maybe not every single one of us, but the vast majority of people on the planet have an experience of music that has affected them or changed them. I guess going back, as an angsty 14-year-old, probably Radiohead and Blur were my therapy. I’d lock the door and turn my JBC CD player up to maximum volume and my parents would keep their distance. That’s how you process things and deal with things. I think it’s the emotion of it. A song can make you smile, a song can make you cry. A song can change you forever. And there’s not any other art form that can do that. I think musicality has been intrinsic in the human race since our inception.

I think music has always provided a safe space for people in the sense that way people can come together. Whether that’s the Queer scene in Chicago or a tribal community in rural Africa. It’s just powerful. It’s unifying. That’s where this deep connection with War Child and music comes from. It is really important and it’s something that makes me very proud to work here. I’m proud of the way that we as an organisation, continue to use music as a fundraising tool and as a way to reach people.

People around the country will be able to see War Child’s messaging across posters and billboards thanks to a collaboration with BUILDHOLLYWOOD. Did this offline, in-person way of communicating make it an appealing proposition for War Child?

For me, it’s the immediacy of it. When you see a billboard or poster you’re in that little bit of headspace where you’re more receptive. You’re away from the office or away from your laptop, so the impact of having these visuals out is amazing. For us it’s about spreading awareness however we can. We like the creative element of it, too, it’s like an artist having a massive canvas. We’ve run a project called Secret 7” which is where 7 artists each make a track. The 7 tracks are pressed 100 times onto 7” vinyl and artists from around the world will create the unique sleeve designs for the 700 records. So, you’re left with 700 pieces of art and we display these as exhibitions and sell them at auction to raise funds. That project will look incredible across cities.

And finally, what is your favourite part of the work?

That’s a tough one to answer. So, if you’re not working directly on the programs in countries, it’s very hard to visit and see our work first-hand because it’s in conflict zones. So not all of our staff go, but I was lucky enough to go to Ukraine in September and visit one of our Play Hubs. These are informal learning spaces for children where they can go after school and play music, learn and just do normal child things. There was this activity, which was about creating rhythms, clapping together and singing as one. And it’s almost like a light turning on to see the work in action. It was amazing to see.

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