When Sir Bob Geldof re-released the song ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas’ to raise money for Ebola victims, I decided against writing a blog about it. Bob does not need me to do his promotion, I thought, and sure enough the song jumped straight to number one in the U.K. charts and became the fastest selling single of 2014. But when Bob told a British nurse who contracted Ebola while working in Sierra Leone and other critics of the song to ‘f**k off’, I decided to come off my high horse and sink (almost) to the same level as Bob.
‘Do They Know It’s Christmas’ was a bad song when it was first released in 1984, and it is a bad song today. The haircuts might be better, but the slightly reworked text is still ‘cringeworthy,’ as the British nurse put it. Yet the song has raised some £1.5 million for Ebola victims, so what is the problem? In the words of Bob: ‘[I]t’s a pop song. Not a doctoral thesis. Relax!’
Well, with all due respect to Sir Bob, I don’t think we should relax! Raising money for a worthy cause should not give fading pop stars carte blanche to peddle stereotypes of Africa. So let me count the problems with the picture of Africa painted by ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas’:
Africa is not a country, but a continent of 55 states. In 1984 when the song was originally released, famine was savaging regions of Ethiopia. Today, Ebola is claiming thousands of lives in Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea. That is still not ‘Africa’, merely a small part of it. It is time we stop treating Africa as a country and instead appreciate its diversity. It is also time we stop treating Africa as simply a place of ‘doom and gloom.’ According to the lyrics, ‘there is a world outside your window, and it’s a world of dread and fear.’ And it gets worse: The only Christmas bells that ring in Africa ‘are the clanging chimes of doom,’ and there is ‘death in every tear.’ Even in the countries worst affected by the Ebola epidemic, life continues and people live, love and laugh. And of course, they do know it’s Christmas!
The video release of `Do They Know It`s Christmas’ begins with an Ebola victim being unceremoniously removed from a darkened room like a sack of potatoes. There is no dignity, no respect, just like the intrusive photos of starving babies during the Ethiopian famine. It was not okay then, and it is not okay now; Africa is not a continent of victims, passively waiting for others to solve its problems. It is a proud and rising continent, with some of the highest growth rates in the world. Its people, government and regional organizations are working hard under difficult circumstances to deal with their problems, although they would happily welcome help – as long as it comes without patronizing attitudes and demeaning imageries. That is perfectly possible: West African musicians recorded their own song to raise money and awareness of Ebola long before Bob’s re-release; it focuses on respect, tolerance, awareness and spreads a message of determination and resilience.
For most people, Africa is a far away continent, a place they only hear about in the context of war and disasters like Ebola. ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas’ might only be a pop song, but it is likely to have much more impact – and potentially do much more harm than a doctoral thesis as it reaches millions more people and reproduces the image of Africa as a continent of death and destruction. With global influence of the kind commanded by Bob Geldof comes responsibility. It remains the case that many African countries suffer from real, devastating problems, and of course it would be naïve to expect a pop song to unpack these, let alone solve them. But equally, Ebola and the continent’s other challenges are not going to be solved by soft-peddling age-old stereotypes. So, no let’s not relax…
I could go on, but, really, all I want for Christmas is for Bob to be quiet.