It was the holiday season thirty years ago when Band Aid penned the now-ubiquitous "Do They Know It's Christmas?" to draw attention to the ongoing famine in Ethiopia. Celebrity activism over Africa has elicited both praise and controversy: On the praise side, Queen Elizabeth knighted Boomtown Rats frontman Bob Geldof--he who doesn't like Mondays--for this well-meaning effort. Two decades later, U2 frontman Bono was also knighted for his humanitarian work. All the same, controversy has dogged these celebrity-led efforts for not only being superficial but also stereotyping Africans as helpless folks reliant on aid from Westerners. For a characteristic critique along these lines, see Dambisa Moyo's Dead Aid.
All these memories and all these controversies are coming back with the announcement that Sir Bob Geldof and Midge Ure of Band Aid fame are now recording a 30th anniversary iteration of the hit single featuring today's top acts like the boy band One Direction (OK, so I'm not into boy bands but it's the thought that counts, right?) Reportedly, the United Nations called Sir Bob and urged him to record a new single:
Geldof said the younger members of Band Aid 30 had told him they had sung the song in nativity plays, such is its standing as a modern-day Christmas carol. However Geldof and his musical collaborator Midge Ure have tweaked the lyrics to remove references to hunger. The new version, which will be recorded on Saturday and released as a download on Monday, will no longer hymn those “underneath that burning sun” where “no rain nor rivers flow”...To no one's surprise, the inevitable barrage of criticism accompanying celebrity activism has returned, too. Witness:
The campaigner [Geldof] said that he decided to revive Band Aid, not out of “nostalgia” but after getting a call from the UN that the Ebola virus was “getting out of control”.
There is a humourless danger in taking song lyrics too literally, but I can’t help it: yes, they do know it’s Christmas time in Africa because huge swaths of that vast continent are Christian; the greatest gift anyone can have is life; and actually, it is more likely to be water, not just “bitter tears”, flowing across Africa’s 54 nations...Ouch. There's also the recurrent criticism that the aid appeal does nothing to inform listeners of the political-economic complexity of the situations in the worst-affected countries of Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea, wracked as they have been by years of civil war and corruption. Before going on a hardcore leftist critique, this other Guardian commentary makes this point:
There exists a paternalistic way of thinking about Africa, likely exacerbated by the original (and the second, and the third) Band Aid singles, in which it must be “saved”, and usually from itself. We say “Africa” in a way that we would never say “Europe”, or “Asia”...
It is interesting that Geldof says he received a call from the UN to say that Ebola was “getting out of control”. Why does the red emergency telephone go for charity, over joined-up inter-govermental action? Thirty years after the original, and lineups that include the great and the good as well as a turning carousel of opportunists, how is it still incumbent on pop stars to rise up to sing a song that manages to also gently dehumanise the people it is helping? Even the logo – an outline of Africa (no Madagascar) with BAND AID written across it, along with a hashtag “#E30LA” – feels cheap and insulting.
Band Aid’s simple message erased all political complexity from the Ethiopian famine – not a natural disaster pure and simple, but a catastrophe used and exacerbated by a brutal government to destroy rebel fighters challenging its authority. Today, Ebola also exists in a political context, and while agencies dealing with the crisis do need funds, Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea also need political solutions to challenge the exploitation that bred Ebola.The inevitable posing by entertainers aside, it's always hard to criticize those who are well-intentioned. However, you have to wonder if years of portraying "Africa" being a helpless entity has conditioned us to view the continent as a large, undifferentiated mass in which Ethiopia is roughly the same place as the Western African countries being ravaged by the disease. That is, it reduces the vast cultural and geographic diversity of a continent to "the 'Africans' are dying again; let's give lots of money to help"! An unwelcome side effect of portraying these problems as pan-African ones is that tourists are staying away in droves from destinations which are very far from Western Africa afflicted by the virus.
The honest truth is that most Westerners do not have a sufficient understanding of the continent, but what can be done? The trend in our sound bite-saturated age is to pack complex issues into ever-shorter, more readily digestible forms. How much relevant information can you pack into a three-minute song? For better or worse, that is the media environment you have to deliver your message in.