By Leo Henges and Kwezi Tabaro
For those outside the UK
Today, the latest version of Band Aid’s famous charity song Do they know it’s Christmas? is being released as a CD.
First recorded in 1984 to raise awareness to the famine in Ethiopia, the song went on to become one of the bestselling singles of all time in the United Kingdom. A second version was released in 2004, and now we have a third for 2014.
Organised by Irish musician Bob Geldof, Band Aid revolutionised the way charities raise money, inspired later initiatives including We Are The World and Live 8, and had a sizable impact on the perception of Africa by the British public.
The lyrics of the song have always sparked controversy, but this new version has rewritten parts the song to focus on the current Ebola crisis, for which it is raising money.
“Your time is up, go away.”
Bob Geldof never has been one to mince his words. He addressed this particular tirade to Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni back in 2005 – it caused a riot in Kampala. But now approaching a decade later, those same words should be echoing back to haunt him like a drizzly Monday morning.
It’s 2014. Band Aid’s time is up. Go Away.
We’re not questioning your good intentions – although we might question some of your singers who have never actually given money to charity and seek every opportunity to avoid tax – or your impact. In fact, we are inspired by your irreverent questioning of the status quo and individual action in the face of disaster, institutional failure, and general stasis. Band Aid raised some good money and attention to crises in its time. It’s probably fair to say that it revolutionised celebrity engagement with charity – maybe even that it made the development sector cool.
But it was also ignorant, patronising, and, if not racist, falsely generalised a continent.
Today, the lyrics, which were anachronistic in 1984, are offensive: “And there won’t be snow in Africa this Christmas time/ The greatest gift they’ll get this year is life/ Oh, where nothing ever grows, no rain or rivers flow”.
Let’s set the facts straight before moving to the real problems. 1) It does snow in some parts of Africa, 2) Africa has, amongst other things, the Nile, the Congo, and the Zambezi rivers, and (massive) tropical rains, and 3) the majority of Africans work in agriculture, which generally requires things to grow every-so-often.
Geldof and co. know this now – they’ve even rewritten the lyrics this time (they didn’t bother in 2004). That’s not the point.
The problem is that Band Aid perpetuates a myth of Africa. The “burning sun” myth that survival is as much as an African can aspire to. And tweaking the lyrics a little isn’t going to do anything to stop this being emblazoned in the consciousness of most listeners.
Myths are powerful. The American Dream fuels an optimism that seems to have endured two major financial crashes unabashed. The Aryan myth led to the murder of 6 million people. A common theme running throughout them is that they take a half-truth and run with it into a place which benefits their narrators.
In the case of Band Aid, the half-truth is that things are appallingly bad for some people. Everyone loves a bit of melodrama – “where the only water flowing is the bitter sting of tears”. And the idea that things are so bad that you don’t even know it’s Christmas is a beautifully tragic sentiment. Christmas does always seem to have an unfathomable melancholy attached.
But, when the subject is another human being – not Romeo or Juliet – the narrator must attempt to be objective out of respect for the individual concerned, which means providing some context to the situation.
Band Aid doesn’t even clarify who the subject is.
In 1984, it was northern Ethiopia – except for Band Aid it was “Africa”. In 2004, it was apparently Darfur (we had to look that up). Today, it’s Ebola-struck Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Guinea – or “West Africa” for Band Aid 30. They might be interested to learn that West Africa has 18 countries. But don’t worry – it’s Christmas for all of them as well! Context is out the window. As is, apparently, “a world of dread and fear” – one of the lyrics to have been kept the 2014 cut – which patently shows the wish to evoke horror amongst listeners.
Put simply, Band Aid is, by failing to provide any context, manipulating the people it is portraying (Africans in general or those in whichever particular crisis – we’re still not sure) to draw a response from its audience.
Now, you might want to argue that context isn’t a top priority in a 4 minute pop song. After all, they’re just trying to raise a bit of money to help some people who are in a great deal of need. And in 1984, we’d have been inclined to agree with you (if we had been alive).
But Band Aid isn’t just a pop song any more. It has become a cultural icon, one of the first reference points for many Britons’ (and beyond) awareness of the continent of Africa.
At the first hint of this, everyone should have been horrified. Geldof should have given one of his “how dare we let that happen?” oratory specialities. And African leaders should have combined to challenge the pervasive negativity surrounding the perception their continent.
Instead, we have Band Aid 30. And a generation of Britons either avoiding Africa altogether, or turning up with an expectation of mud huts, malaria, and messianic posturing. And maybe some lions – under that mythical burning sun. Merry Christmas.
“Feel the World”
Not only has the significance of this song taken on an alarming cultural meaning, but over the last 30 years the global landscape has also changed dramatically. Funnily enough, Band Aid may have actually hit upon it in their new lyrics: “Feel the world”.
How? We first mused. We preferred it when Geldof was ordering us to do tangible things like “Pick up the phone and give us your fucking money!”
Yet, the more we thought about it, the more it makes sense. 30 years ago, we would have reached down and touched the soil at that command. Now, we reach into our pockets, unlock our smartphones, and tweet about #BandAid30 or whatever’s breaking the internet this morning.
We can Tweet. Whatsapp. Facebook. Skype. Snapchat. Whatever. Wherever. With whoever. Instantaneously. Feeling the world.
And, marvellously, it is in this that the solution to the horrors that Geldof has fought so belligerently for the last 30 years lies – not simply giving money. From famine and climate change to Ebola and transnational financial injustices, these are problems that don’t go away with a few tens-of-millions raised by some gallant musicians. These are complex issues with simply awful consequence. They need much more than money. In fact, money on its own can do more harm than good – propping up dictatorships purposefully starving some of their people. What we really need is sustained and competent global governance.
Right now, that global governance looks to have progressed about at much since 1984 as British Christmas music. But it needn’t be that way. The more we “feel the world” – relate with people across oceans on a basis on equality – the more our leaders will be inclined to work for humanity, rather than simply their national tribe. And the more our leaders represent global interests, not national interests, the sooner we’ll be about to take the international collective action to tackle the problems facing us all.
Yet, paradoxically, the more we “feel the world”, the more “Do They Know Its Christmas?” becomes inappropriate. We can’t feel the world whilst buying into the Myth of the Burning Sun. They’re incompatible. The more we relate with others, the more we realise the lies behind the stereotypes. The more we repeat stereotypes, the less we relate to the real people. You don’t need to ask banal (and culturally questionable) rhetorical questions about ‘them’ – you can flick your fingers and ask one of the 50+ million Africans on Facebook.
Bottom line: we’ll never get the sort of collective action we need until we start working with each other, and we’ll never begin to work together until we stop thinking, and singing, about “them” and “us”. You can’t both be saviours and friends. Christmas isn’t about you – you do know that, right?!
“Let Africa Breath.”
So said Geldof in the same speech in 2005. We agree. Let Africa not have to spend more money on reversing the Burning Sun Mythology than Band Aid will raise perpetuating it. Let Africa delight in its beauty and diversity. Let Africa revel in its youthful potential.
But we want to go further: Let Africa speak as equals. Acknowledge that Africans are combating Ebola, not just the emaciated beneficiaries. Recognise the heroes, like Dr Matthew Lukwiya who led efforts to stem an Ebola outbreak in Uganda in the early 2000s – lessons from which are today being applied in West Africa – but later contracted the disease from his patients and died. Give the health professionals who travel from around Africa to fight this outbreak the same attention you do to the American and British ones.
And if you really want to make a fundraising song, don’t sing about Africa, sing with Africans. Invite them to your jamming session. Take a leaf out of these writers collaboration. Write a new song together. Create something beautiful.
Let Africa Sing.
Leo Henges is director of UNITED – a global community of students uniting for effective social action. Kwezi Tabaro is a student at Makerere University and co-founder at Vote Issues – a student civic action group.