Over the past few days, something very odd has been happening in the British Media. 25th November will mark the 30th anniversary of the release of the original Band Aid charity single, ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas’.
The song was written by Bob Geldof in 1984 in response to seeing the harrowing scenes broadcast by the BBC in its coverage of the escalating humanitarian crisis in Ethiopia following drought.
Geldof, lead singer with The Boomtown Rats, felt he could do something to raise money to help towards the relief effort and to help raise awareness of the rapidly escalating humanitarian crisis. He wrote the song with the intention of putting out a record featuring all the then current top selling pop artists.
Midge Ure was pulled into to help finish the song and to produce and Geldof set about pestering everyone he knew in the Music Industry to perform for free. He went on to equally pester all the Record Labels to give (unprecedented) permission for their artists to perform for free and began an unending campaign to convince the then Tory Government run by Margaret Thatcher, to waive VAT on sales so that 100% of all revenues would go directly to charity (which they refused to do).
The record was recorded, mixed, pressed and released in four days. A huge feat in the days of physical distribution before the digital internet world even existed.
Following the huge success of Band Aid, the pair went on to set up the even bigger Live Aid project in 1985, comprising of two main stages in London and Philadelphia and others around the world.
As someone who was in my late teens when the record was released and the Live Aid concert set up, I’m aware of the huge cultural shift that occurred around that time and the sheer weight of the work that Geldof and Ure put into the Band Aid project.
Finding that their ideas were blocked at every turn by NGOs, Governments (both African and UK), and other organisations with their finger in the African pie, they went on to set up their own distribution chains, negotiate directly with African Governments and local organisations.
So far, so hero…
In the intervening years there have been 3 additional remakes of the Band Aid record to raise further funds for the Band Aid charity.
So fast forward to November 2014…
Starting out with predictable overglowing press and publicity, the Media was respectful, if not a tad obsequious; effectively following the press release in an effort to generate buzz to help sell the record and thus raise money for charity.
The major difference between the 2014 version of the song is that Geldof had decided to use any funds generated towards the fight against Ebola which is currently killing around 50% of those people infected with it in 3 countries in West Africa; Liberia, Guinea, and Sierra Leone.
Once again the aim appears to be both a fundraising and a consciousness raising exercise.
So far, so hero II…
Once again there were early legitimate concerns raised about the low numbers of UK Black artists involved in making the record. Someone made the well made point that this seemed odd given the large numbers of homegrown Black UK acts regularly hitting the top of the UK charts.
This criticism was also raised with the original 1984 version of the song and Geldof at the time countered by saying that he’d picked those artists who were the biggest selling UK artists at the time, given that the aim was to raise the largest amount of money possible for the charity to help those dying in Ethiopia.
While this response had an arguable logic to it back in 1984, it doesn’t seem to hold water in 2014 given the current Pop landscape. It has however transpired that Geldof had in fact approached British-Ghanian artist Fuse ODG who had turned down the invitation to perform, feeling the tone of the lyrics didn’t reflect a positive vision of Africa.
Geldof has said that in conversation he’d told Fuse ODG to come down and change the lyrics if he felt necessary and to put his points himself directly to the assembled world Press and Media but that he’d declined (http://www.bbc.co.uk/newsbeat/30079411).
Simultaneously, there has erupted a Twitter and Media backlash so poisonous as to warrant comment itself.
The criticism has taken various reasonable strands:
1) that there aren’t enough Black artists involved in the record and this is insensitive given the nature of the effort
2) that the lyrics are crass and factually misleading (remember, the original song was using lyrical imagery to contrast the cosyness of a ‘traditional’ British Christmas against the famine, drought, hunger and death of Ethiopia – so as to encourage people to donate to the relief effort)
3) that Africa doesn’t need ‘paternalistic’ help, what it needs is to be freed from the poverty caused by historic colonialism
There have also been some criticisms which just seem ridiculous:
4) that those performing on the record are ‘wealthy popstars’ (this almost certainly doesn’t hold true for most of those performing on the 2014 version in the way it did for those on the 1984 version because of the way the UK Record Industry has collapsed). This is supposed to indicate an inappropriateness given the subject matter and intended relief effort
5) that Geldof and Bono’s Tax arrangements make them hypocrites and that if they ‘gave their tax’ to the UK Government then the charity work wouldn’t be necessary in the first place (this is total rubbish and demonstrates a complete lack of understanding of the issues involved as detailed later on)
6) that given the aim is to raise money for African countries, there ‘should be’ more African artists on the record (and by African, this criticism doesn’t mean UK born Black or Black African, they actually mean Africa born artists)
Reasonable Versus Unreasonable
As I’ve said before, there is most certainly a case that the Band Aid remake should be featuring more UK Black artists (as should all of them). And as I said earlier, given the current wealth of Black UK talent riding high in the charts this should particularly most certainly be case now. We cannot know however how many other Black artists were approached by Geldof and turned down his requests or their reasons. According to Geldof’s interview with BBC, it would appear that Fuse ODG’s feelings were also shared by Emelie Sande and (African artist) Angelique Kidjo (http://www.bbc.co.uk/newsbeat/30079411), both of whom did in fact appear on the record.
Was Fuse ODG right to suggest that ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas’ paints too negative a picture of Africa? Well, certainly, post 1984, there has been a growing consensus among Charities working in developing countries to avoid images showing death and illness in an effort to shock, and instead to replace these or balance these with positive images demonstrating the local populations’ humanity. As I understand it, there is however an understanding that people generally donate more money if they can actually see an urgent need to do so as opposed to seeing images of happy, healthy people apparently not in need of fiscal help. Charities now however try to ensure balanced representations.
Much of the criticism towards Band Aid on Twitter seems to be coming from three ostensibly quite disparate groups:
* Left wing activists (both Black and White) caught up in the current wave of ‘Tax arrangements’ activism, usually more at home (quite rightly) fighting unfair Tax loopholes and pushing the Government on Social Equality issues.
* disgruntled middle aged White men who appear to have hated the whole project with a vengeance since inception and who appear to be siding with Morrissey’s historic disdain for the project (http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Band_Aid_(band)); Smiths/Morrissey fans who hate the project from a musical perspective and who have been convinced of the ‘Charity equals sanctimoniousness’ perhaps?
* UK born Africans (ostensibly with what appears to be predominantly West African (Ghanaian, Nigerian) parentage. Is it possible that these people are too young to remember the events surrounding Band Aid/Live Aid 1984 and therefore lack an understanding of the global cultural significance of the project? Fuse ODG might actually reflect these sentiments in suggesting that Africa needs a ‘positive’ vision, not a ‘negative’ one.
Whilst arguably true, it could be said that this perspective owes more to Africa’s modern day need to present a smiling face to attract big business, tourism and investment than it does to the humanitarian crisises of the past or the potential for Ebola to become one. The need to paint itself as a continent in control of its own destiny, not in need of Foreign Aid.
This does however not hold true for the vast sums of money that Africa DOES need in terms of Foreign Aid investment. Yes it’s obviously true that Africa’s modern day problems stem largely from Foreign interference over the past 400 years or so since the Slave Trade and Colonial domination. Back then, as now, Africa has been effectively been governed by those foreign powers keen to sap its material wealth and resources.
Was the famine of 1984 caused by this? While droughts are (or at least WERE) essentially natural occurrences, the fact that Ethiopia was unable to feed and water its citizens was more to do with political issues than natural events. Geldof speaks extensively about these in his autobiography, ‘Is That It?’ written a few years following Band Aid/Live Aid (http://www.amazon.co.uk/Is-That-It-Bob-Geldof/dp/0330442929)
I just read a Forbes article tweeted by Breis, ‘Billionaires donating to fight against ebola’ http://t.co/mQa2c0I18C #BandAid30 #NoBandAid30
It appears the article is trying to demonstrate that Africa has its ‘own’ billionaires who are ‘doing everything they can to ensure an ‘African’ solution to the threat of Ebola is reached rather than accepting help from outside.
This simultaneously undermines the ‘Wealthy Popstars’ and ‘Tax arrangements’ argument being levelled by some against Geldof and Bono. But it strikes me like a impoverished father refusing a relative’s offer to buy his children food out of pride, preferring to allow his child to go hungry than appear to be in need of help. Most importantly, it also begs the question, why now and why not before?
There have been people dying from Ebola in Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone for some time now. Why has it taken the African Union so long to act and why has it taken these lauded ‘African billionaires’ so long to come forward…?
Geldof’s point back in 1984 was a simple one; if not me then who, if not now then when? And he was right.
For all of Twitter’s posturing and disinformation, for all of the admittedly crap lyrics, for all of the Colonial past, for all of the admitted lack of UK Black artists for all of the ‘Africa needs to do this itself’, the Band Aid project is essentially an admirable one.
I was caught up on a surprising exchange on Twitter with someone I respect and have followed for some time, who insisted that Geldof’s ‘problem’ was that he had ‘never talked about politics and didn’t understand how charity alone was not the solution for Africa’s problems’. This couldn’t be further from the truth, as anyone who had followed events back since 1984 would have known. Having read his autobiography, I also knew the immense work that Geldof, Ure, and the Band Aid team had put into creating stable distribution networks by negotiating directly with local African Governments, the British Government and NGOs, and local organisations.
Which begs the question, given that this tweeter is an intelligent, politically aware person and a teacher, where was she getting this disinformation from? She was clearly picking up on the floating hearsay surrounding both Geldof and the Band Aid project and lacked the necessary personal experience of the project to know better.
There was an interview on BBC Radio 4’s The World Tonight (@bbcworldtonight) with UK born Nigerian artist Breis, who’s Twitter timeline (@MrBreis) is awash with anti Band Aid sentiment and accolades from supporters for his appearance on the show. For all the accolades, he struck me as an unconvincing spokesperson for the case against Band Aid, resorting to lazy repetition of so called ‘facts’ currently washing thru the Media and Twitter and demonstrating a lack of any genuine information.
Whatever the rights and wrongs of the Band Aid project, I wish people were talking from an informed viewpoint rather than spouting lazy cliches and reiterating ignorant hearsay.