The original Band Aid was a ‘charity supergroup’ organised by Sir Bob Geldof and Midge Ure in 1984 as a response to the Ethiopian famine of 1983-5. So moved was Geldof by the plight of the famine’s victims that the former lead singer of the Boomtown Rats penned and organised a charity single, ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas?’, to be sung by a variety of the most famous pop musicians possible. On 7 November this year, Geldof re-released a re-written version of the song to raise money in aid of the Ebola crisis efforts in West Africa.
But this single is absolutely abhorrent. It typifies all the worst things about attitudes to charity both in the West and many other parts of the world; it is patronising, egotistical and a horrifically corrupting influence on Western perceptions of Africa. The track, featuring the fame-imbibed likes of Bono, One Direction, Emeli Sande and 26 others, has so much wrong with it that it is difficult to know where to start.
The lyrics themselves send out an indirectly negative image of the countries the song is aiming to help. Lines such as “Where a kiss of love can kill you/ And there’s death in every tear” serve to perpetuate the intolerable legacy of the original band aid, which have left a scar on European perceptions of Ethiopia. The suggestion is that Africa as a whole is dangerous and hopelessly lost in a quagmire of poverty and disease, when in fact this is not the case. Solome Lemma, co-founder of the Africa Responds initiative, said of the original 1984 version that “it left Africa and Ethiopia with a very negative legacy… Even though it’s one of the six fastest growing economies in the world.” She added that “the song is patronising and negative and it is sad they haven’t worked with and included African musicians.” Although you might have been fooled by Seal, the R&B singer, who misleadingly belts out ‘West Africa—!’, when in fact he is from Paddington.
What Band Aid 30 is is an exercise in exploitative cultural relativism; it relies on a repulsively insensitive stereotype, and the emphasis is on the egotism of celebrity, which unfortunately has been seen as necessary in encouraging people to buy the single. Certainly it makes logical sense – any track with Ed Sheeran and Bastille alone would attract a lot of attention – but it is off-putting, particularly when the single’s video begins with a clip of an anonymous Ebola-stricken body being carried from a house before a seamless transition to the stars arriving at the recording studio. Part of what makes the track quite so hateful is this reliance on stereotypes as opposed to the well-known egos of the celebrities that sing it – and these celebrities are far from clean. They have collectively all been accused of dodging tax, an immorality in itself, and yet Bono, for example, possibly the most notorious tax-dodger of them all, still sees no hypocrisy in urging the Irish governments to spend more on international aid.
The backlash against the track has been increasingly violent, and increasingly from the song’s own participants. Emeli Sande, for example, had offered an alternative version of the lyrics, which Geldof cut. After recording, she said, “I apologise if the lyrics have caused offence. I wish the changes had been kept but that is out of my control.” Two famous singers, Adele and Lily Allen, refused straight out to take part on the grounds that it was “smug”, and rapper Fuse ODG claimed he was “shocked and appalled” by the lyrics and “sick of the whole concept of Africa… always being seen as diseased, infested and poverty-stricken.”
The problem with Band Aid 30 is related to our European notions of charity as a patronising act. This attitude is elusive but present, a subterranean prejudice that is hard to shake. One thing is certain however: whether or not our attitudes to charity are egotistically compromised, things like Band Aid 30, although well-meant, do not help. It will raise a comparative pittance and spread an appallingly tactless image of the affected countries, which according to Geldof’s logo are as good as the entirety of the African continent. Buy it and donate by all means, as of course it is important to – but don’t listen to it.