Thirty years ago, Bob Geldof and Band Aid recorded the song “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” for famine relief in Ethiopia. Last week, a new version of the song was released, this time in response to the Ebola outbreak in West Africa. Not everyone is enthusiastic about the encore; some saw Geldof’s initial Band Aid song as a band-aid solution, lacking an understanding of the famine’s causes and inadequate in the long-range.
Like most that occur in modern times, the 1983-1985 Ethiopian famine was inextricably linked to war. In Evil Days: Thirty Years of War and Famine in Ethiopia, Alex de Waal writes that famine and starvation were not solely a result of drought. Instead, it was a deliberate tactic used by the Ethiopian government. Although some food was used to sustain lives, it was simultaneously being used as a weapon of war--government troops bombed food markets, slaughtered livestock, destroyed crops, and intentionally withheld food relief in rebel controlled areas.
At Live Aid, Geldof famously shouted, “Get your money out now. There are people dying now, so give me the money.” It was a simple command, one that may have been too simple. Although humanitarian relief efforts did save many lives, several aid experts objected specifically to Geldof’s strategy. They believed it failed to address the famine’s complexity and, in the long term, may have done more harm than good.
It’s that kind of shortsightedness that is once again a concern with the re-release of “Do They Know It’s Christmas?" Elliot Ross, managing editor of Africa is a Country, says long term factors need to be taken into account in order to understand the Ebola crisis:
"Band Aid is an attempt to resolve the many political and moral contradictions of Britain's long disengagement from empire, in a manner that sustains the cherished fiction of Britain as a moral centre in world affairs. People need to understand how an Ebola crisis on this scale became possible, and examine their complicity as citizens instead of posing as would-be saviors. For years, UK-sponsored structural adjustment programs have torn up local healthcare infrastructure. Geldof, Bono et al are deeply complicit in glossing neoliberal policies towards the continent with a humanitarian/anti-poverty sheen of respectability.
These policies will continue to fail ordinary people and actively prevent governments putting in place the quality public services people require. Geldof is the one who always gets the international platform on crises in Africa, but he never talks about these things. In his launch, he spoke about how “tragic” it was that “modernity” has arrived in Africa at last and it has brought Ebola with it. It’s the kind of nonsense you end up coming out with when you mean well but don’t really know what you’re talking about."
Carlos Chirinos is the director of SOAS Radio at the University of London and a visiting professor at New York University’s Steinhardt School, specializing in development communications in Africa and Latin America. He thinks the idea of using a song to combat disease is valid but that the re-released version of “Do They Know It’s Christmas” can have long term consequences. “The lyrics have nothing to do with Ebola but it paints a picture of death. It sends a message, just not a relevant one."
Chirinos recognizes the urgency for funding but believes Geldof’s “people should buy this single whether they like it or not” mentality diminishes the value of songs and the potential impact they can have. “The power of the song is that it’s a capsule of information that will survive way beyond this crisis.”
“What Geldof’s song fails to see is that a song is actually a very powerful means of communication that’s going to live way beyond this crisis and this has a very pragmatic, practical and very direct effect on the way in which the West deals with Africa,” he told me. “This has a knock on effect on everything--impacting trade, tourism, the political economy of aid because the words they are saying have a very important value.”
Last month, Chirinos collaborated with acclaimed West African musicians to produce “Africa Stop Ebola.” The song joins a number of African artists raising awareness about the crisis and features musicians including Didier Awad, Mory Kante, Oumou Sangaré and Kandia Kouyaté.
Since musicians are often highly respected in communities throughout West Africa, songs can be a powerful method to disseminate information about Ebola. In the song, artists like Salif Keita perform in a more traditional griot role by imparting wisdom and others like Ivorian reggae star Tikan Jah Fakoly add appeal for younger generations, Chirinos said. He added that “Africa Stop Ebola" is also relevant from a practical standpoint because it communicates information in non-technical terms and, unlike written material, can be understood in areas with low rates of literacy.
“We wanted to do something that would address the real issues with Ebola transmission and create a piece of high cultural value and longevity,” he explained. In order to do so, the musicians and Chirinos worked collectively to write a song that would convey information about prevention, rebuild trust in the health system and restore hope.
The song was performed in French, English and other languages spoken throughout West Africa. Translated into English, some of lyrics include: Do not touch the bodies, Everyone is in danger/ There is hope to stop Ebola, Have confidence in the doctors/You cannot kiss someone, It does not mean that person makes you ashamed, It’s just a reality/We will strike you, we are not a plague, We will get together and we will beat you.
Image Credit: "Do They Know It’s Christmas" album cover via Luke David O'Rourke