Jessica Howard-Johnston critiques the biggest selling single of the year
Earlier this month, Sir Bob Geldof re-released his supposedly altruistic pop song ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas?’ in order to help fight the Ebola outbreak. Originally written to help combat the Ethiopian famine of 1984, 30 years on, the updated version features pop-favourites such as Ed Sheeran, Sam Smith and One Direction. The song, however, has caused much controversy both for those involved and the song itself.
Band Aid 30 fulfills some kind of colonial ‘them’ and ‘us’ fantasy, where we are waiting to sweep in and help a continent filled with suffering victims. I can’t help but think that it reminds me of the tongue in cheek song from the hit musical The Book of Mormon, ‘I Am Africa’, where Mormon missionaries sing that:
“We are the winds of the Serengeti,
We are the sweat of the jungle man,
We are the tears of Nelson Mandela,
We are the lost boys of the Sudan.
I am Africa!
Just like Bono! I am Africa!
I flew in here, and became one with this land!”
MP Sir Malcolm Bruce highlights the way in which the song speaks of Africa as though it is one country, neglecting the diversity of the continent and suggesting that the outbreak is affecting Africa as a whole. The only part of the song that slightly narrows the sweeping ‘Africa’ they sing of, is during British singer-songwriter Seal’s solo where he quickens his line in order to fit in ‘West’ to what used to be just ‘Bring peace and joy this Christmas time to Africa’.
West Africa is home to a diverse range of cultures, many of which do not even celebrate Christmas. In Sierra Leone, for example, the largest religion is Islam, with only 27% of the population being Christian; in Guinea, 85% are Muslim and only 8% are Christian. Many also follow traditional and/or tribal cultures. The song, however, asks us to spare some time to think of those poor Ebola sufferers unable to celebrate Christmas, while we sit smugly by our Christmas trees opening presents and celebrating our good health. Using Christmas to help Africa seems thoroughly colonial. If it weren’t for the British Empire’s ‘righteous’ colonisation of Africa, it is doubtful that many Africans would even know what Christmas was, never mind Jesus or Christianity. But Christmas is a time when we come together so naturally Africa, our poorer brethren, should do too.
Sir Malcolm Bruce is not the only celebrity to criticise the patronising nature of the lyrics. Emeli Sandé, the soulful Glaswegian singer whose distinctive voice features in the single, has taken to Twitter to criticise the lyrics:
‘I agree the lyric needed changing. In fact I feel a whole new song is required. Angelique Kidjo and I made and sang our own edits. Unfortunately, none of these made the final cut’
Emeli Sandé goes on to say that the sole purpose of the song is to help raise awareness and funds for the very real medical crisis that is occurring in West Africa – nd she’s right. Bob Geldof has re-released the song in order to help those affected by Ebola and I cannot deny that the song has been effective in raising awareness. Within minutes, the song had made $1.5m and, according to the Official Charts Company, over 300,000 copies of the single have been sold, making it the fastest selling single of the year.
Instead of listening to a patronising pop song, I would encourage the watching of documentaries such as the BBC Panorama ‘Ebola Frontline’ that will give a real insight into the seriousness of the epidemic and hopefully trigger genuinely empathetic donations. Realistically, however, people are more likely to buy a single featuring their favourite pop star than watch a harrowing documentary. Althoug h I think the song perpetuates a condescending form of neo-colonialism, it is massively boosting the funds for the Ebola response, something that it cannot be criticised for. It is agreed that the response to the Ebola outbreak has thus far been ‘sluggish’ and if re-releasing a pop song is the best way to accelerate it and rapidly mobilise funds, then it must be treated as a means to an end.
Featured image credit: Alfred Weidinger