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Saving Africa, yet again, with a song

Bob Geldof’s Band Aid project was embarrassingly racist 30 years ago; the updated Ebola version still offends

November 18, 2014 2:00AM ET

The words “Do they know it’s Christmas?” no longer appear in the updated version of Bob Geldof and Band Aid’s 1984 recording of that name. It’s not hard to understand why the lyric has been expunged, though it survives as the title of the song. It’s an embarrassingly bad line in an embarrassingly bad song.

Despite the best efforts of Geldof, Bono and the many other musicians and promoters who have participated in the various iterations and revivals of Band Aid over the last 30 years — most recently, in the “Live8” concerts, which pledged in 2005 to “Make poverty history” — this song should leave a bad taste in your mouth. It’s patronizing and simplistic, and its aggressive moralism has all the sensitivity and geopolitical nuance of urging your daughter to clean her plate because children are starving in North Korea. Or Africa. Or Appalachia. Or wherever.

The song isn’t really about Africa. “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” produces a single image of abjection, the fantasy of an “Africa” filled with victims waiting to be saved, the perfect site for white saviors to perform their selfless virtue. It’s a song that divides the world quite sharply between “us” and “them.” Thirty years ago, Bono was upset about singing the words “tonight thank God it’s them instead of you,” and it’s easy to see why he balked (though he did sing the line). And today, too, those words have been replaced by the more inclusive “tonight we’re reaching out and touching you.” But the song’s racism lives on in the banal way it reminds us how different they are from us, erecting an unbridgeable gulf between the “you” of the song’s audience — white Britons who celebrate Christmas — and “they,” who know only suffering, tears and death. The video for the song draws the contrast with a painful obtuseness: First we see an emaciated, half-naked African woman being lifted from her bed in her underwear and then a cavalcade of glittering British pop stars arrive at the studio, lit up by the press’ flashbulbs and adulation.

The updated version of the song, which Geldof unveiled Sunday on Simon Cowell’s televised amateur-music competition “The X Factor,” is supposed to be about West Africa’s Ebola epidemic rather than Ethiopia’s famine. Apropos, lines such as “Where the only water flowing is the bitter sting of tears” have been replaced with “Where a kiss of love can kill you, and there’s death in every tear.” It’s not much of an improvement. Africans might cry for different reasons, but the important thing still seems to be that they cry. But more pointedly, what does the 2014 outbreak of Ebola in West Africa have to do with the famine that struck Ethiopia in the early 1980s? Other than “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” and the fact that they happened on the same continent — a continent that has 20 times the population of Great Britain and 130 times its size — there is not much to connect the two. Liberia is about as far from Ethiopia as it is from London. For all the good intentions that might be buried under what Morrissey called “the most self-righteous platform ever in the history of popular music,” there is no better word than “racism” that describes the blunt, unreflective assertion that Africans are Africans, united by their African misery, which keeps them at arm’s length from us by our pity for their plight. Changing a few lines doesn’t change what the song is, at its core: an appeal to pity them and to feel good about us for spending the price of a pint on this piece of pop treacle.

Maybe it’s beside the point that the song is terrible if it’s raising money for a good cause. “It really doesn’t matter if you don’t like this song. It really doesn’t matter if you hate all the artists,” Geldof has been quoted as saying. “What you have to do is buy this thing.” Kudos for honesty. 

Even Jesus was more realistic about the persistence of poverty; the idea that a few songs can solve world hunger expresses a greater messianism than even the Messiah’s.

But what is this thing you have to buy? Why must we buy this song? Band Aid’s website proclaims that “The Band Aid Charitable Trust will receive 100 percent” — presumably of all proceeds — but Band Aid does not, itself, actually do anything with the money, except funnel it to other organizations. Which is to say, at best, Band Aid is just an intermediary. Ideally, it gives away 100 percent of its proceeds, though it’s hard to imagine it’s quite that efficient. Any value it might add to the process has to be paid for. And if you want to donate dollars or pounds to fighting Ebola, you don’t need Bob Geldof as your middleman. You can send the money directly to Africa Responds or Doctors Without Borders. There’s even a musically superior song, with all West African musicians, called “Africa Stop Ebola,” that donates all proceeds to Doctors Without Borders.

What’s most troubling about “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” is not the music per se but the way it insinuates itself — and “us” — into a story about “them” and yet can’t be bothered to get even the most basic facts right. The problem goes far beyond the fact that it does, in fact, sometimes snow in Ethiopia or the fact that Ethiopian Christians know exactly when it’s Christmas. (Since they use the Julian calendar, Christmas is on the Gregorian Jan. 7.) In the 1980s, it wasn’t really the flow of water that was responsible for hundreds of thousands of deaths in Ethiopia’s northwestern region. As Nobel laureate Amartya Sen has pointed out, famines are always man-made, and this one was no exception. Food was flowing out of the famine-struck regions because Ethiopian farmers were being forced, on pain of imprisonment, to sell a fixed and arbitrary amount of their harvests to the government, at significantly lower prices than the market would have given them. In some cases, farmers were buying food at higher prices, only to sell it back to the government. Africa Watch’s “Evil Days: 30 Years of War and Famine in Ethiopia” tells this story, a very different story from Geldof’s.

By the same token, the Ebola crisis is also made by human beings. In countries where the infrastructure exists to maintain public health, the outbreak has been short-lived. In Nigeria and Senegal, for example, the outbreak has been stopped in its tracks. There has been a simultaneous outbreak of the virus in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (though an unrelated strain), and after three months and fewer than a hundred cases, it has been declared over. That hasn’t made the news, however, because this is what normally happens. Africans know how to deal with Ebola. When they have the infrastructure and resources, they do so quite effectively. In fact, as Paul Farmer recently observed, the fatality rate of Ebola is mostly the result of the disease going untreated. “Weak health systems, not unprecedented virulence or a previously unknown mode of transmission, are to blame for Ebola’s rapid spread,” in his judgment. “If patients are promptly diagnosed and receive aggressive supportive care — including fluid resuscitation, electrolyte replacement and blood products — the great majority, as many as 90 percent, should survive.”

The outbreak in Liberia and Sierra Leone, by contrast, has been exponentially and catastrophically more deadly because health services in those countries are virtually nonexistent, the result of civil war and governmental neglect. Patients have not gotten the kind of care that could save them because there were fewer than 50 doctors in Liberia when the outbreak began and there are even fewer now. But when this outbreak burns itself out and the attention of the world moves on to the next simple story, there will still be fewer than 50 doctors in a country of 4 million people. Liberians will still be dying of untreated diseases; it just won’t be Ebola that’s killing them. It will be malaria, pneumonia, typhoid or even more banal killers such as diarrhea.

Focusing our attention on the “filthy little virus” itself allows us to tell a sentimental story about an exotic killer that can turn kisses and tears into death sentences. But untreated malaria kills Liberians just as dead as Ebola and has racked up a much larger body count. If we in the West just wanted to save lives, we would send doctors. Or better yet, we would train and support Liberian medical professionals. We would build infrastructure, not awareness. But that’s much too simple, too obvious and not nearly glamorous enough. Especially since songs like “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” encourage us to look for simple morality tales and barely updated Victorian fables about white men taking up the burden of saving Africa. They teach us to want infantile carols that flatter the imagination of consumers who like to pretend that purchasing a song or going to a concert can painlessly make poverty history. Even Jesus was more realistic about the persistence of poverty; the idea that a few songs can solve world hunger expresses a greater messianism than even the Messiah’s — but apparently not greater than Bono’s and Geldof’s.



Editor's note: A previous version of the article misidentified the song "Africa Stop Ebola." We regret the error.

Aaron Bady is a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Texas and formerly a doctoral candidate at the University of California at Berkeley. He is an editor and blogger at The New Inquiry.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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