It’s that time of year again, and in the festive spirit of giving, the aging Bob Geldof has rallied together another juvenile band of celebrities to raise their sagging profiles and profit from another crisis. Band Aid 30’s re-release of the patronising “Do they know it’s Christmas” reportedly raised more than £1mn in the first five minutes since its release to help tackle the Ebola outbreak in West Africa. Although this is an important campaign, and a problem that requires a concerted effort to solve, there are serious issues surrounding Band Aid. Primarily, the song is patronising and offensive (yes, I’m fairly certain many people in Africa are aware that it is Christmas, especially those that celebrate it as a religious holiday) and cultivates the archaic image of Africa as ‘backwards’, and of Africans as ‘savages’; unable to fend for themselves and requiring the intervention of ‘white saviours’ to rescue the situation. This neo-colonialist attitude entrenches negative assumptions about Africa, and encourages broad and largely incorrect generalisations about Africans.
Emeli Sande, one of the artists who sang on the record, has criticised the lyrics, acknowledging that they could be perceived as offensive and disrespectful, but highlighting that the intention of the single is to raise money where governments have responded woefully slowly. Rapper Fuse ODG pulled out of the single at the last minute, claiming he felt “awkward” about some of the lyrics, adding that that the track “is quite detrimental to the continent [Africa]” and is a “quick fix” solution to a wider problem. Others have gone further in their criticism. Solome Lemma, who co-founded Africans in the Diaspora as well as the Africa Responds initiative on Ebola, emphasised the lack of inclusiveness of the Band Aid modus operandi, which propagates a “white saviour” narrative. She said: “the song is patronising and negative and it is sad that they haven’t worked with and included African musicians, especially from the countries affected. You have very well-known, mainstream singers, talking about Africa with very little inclusion of Africans.”
Indeed, many African artists have heaped criticism on the song for its negative portrayal of Africa to the rest of the world. Carlos Chirinos, producer of an alternative charity single, “Africa Stop Ebola”, which has been written by African artists in response to the Ebola outbreak, juxtaposed the need for funding to prevent the spread of the disease with the negative outcomes of the Geldof model: “it’s worth doing it for the money and the money is needed, however it comes at a cost and the cost is the way in which Africa is being portrayed to the rest of the world.” Many of these criticisms have been around since the first release of the song in the 1980s – some of these have been humorously conveyed, such as the spoof charity song by ‘Radi-Aid’ to provide Norwegians dying of frostbite with radiators. Methods like this stress the ignorance of many people in developed countries about the inspiring and progressive things going on in Africa following years of negative propaganda, and, even, the most under-emphasised point – that Ebola has afflicted a small number of communities in a small number of countries, and that the majority of Africa is unaffected by the disease.
The notion that a bunch of celebrities devoting their precious time to help ‘poor, needy Africans’ plays up to the ridiculous caricature of starving Ethiopians that the original single spread. Further, it is offensive to the vast number of ordinary people who have donated money to charities like Medicins sans Frontieres, who are on the front line assisting with health care, and the medical professionals who have dropped everything to help looking after Ebola patients, often putting themselves at risk. Those in the UK who donate the largest proportion of their incomes to charity are in fact the poorest, yet Bob, Bono and chums can’t even summon the courage to pay their taxes. Rather than donating some of the $150mn and $600mn they are respectively worth, they would rather guilt trip people into forking out their hard-earned cash on some tuneless drivel that purports to solve all of Africa’s problems. It’s ironic (and not even in an Alanis Morrisette way), given that it’s people like them that are the root of such problems – pompous wealthy white men from developed countries extoling a destructive image of people from developing countries, while contributing to an oppressive, IMF-driven humanitarian aid system that undermines developing countries’ sovereignty, autonomy and dignity.