It’s Christmas time — and there’s no need to be afraid
At Christmas time — we let in light — and banish shade
And in our world of plenty — we can spread a smile of joy
Throw your arms around the world
At Christmas time
But say a prayer — pray for the other ones
At Christmas time — it’s hard but while you’re having fun
There’s a world outside your window — and it’s a world of dread and fear
Where a kiss of love can kill you — and there’s death in every tear
And the Christmas bells that ring there — are the clanging chimes of doom
Well tonight we’re reaching out and touching you
No peace and joy this Christmas in West Africa
The only hope they’ll have is being alive
Where to comfort is to fear
Where to touch is to be scared
How can they know it’s Christmas time at all
Here’s to you
Raise a glass to everyone
And here’s to them
And all their years to come
Let them know it’s Christmas after all
Feed the world — Let them know it’s Christmastime again
Feel the world — Let them know it’s Christmastime again
Heal the world — Let them know it’s Christmastime again
Songwriters: URE, MIDGE / GELDOF, BOB
Do They Know It's Christmas lyrics © Warner/Chappell Music, Inc.
I remember the lead-up to Live 8 extremely well; I was backpacking around England with my sister that summer (2005), and we were flying out of London the day of the concert. There was something pretty exhilarating about it for a 20-year-old — emotions were running high across the country. There was a strong feeling that these simultaneous music benefits, held around the world would do . . . something. In retrospect, and with the benefit of age, I’ve realized that, in the public consciousness, the point of Live 8 became secondary to the mere fact that it was happening. It was designed to precede the G8 summit, had something to do with making poverty history, and was performed on the 20th anniversary of the Live Aid concert.
It was almost a decade ago, now, and I haven’t given much thought to Live 8, its instigator (Bob Geldof), or its legacy, for a long time. In the past few weeks, though, Bob Geldof has once again surfaced into the public consciousness with Band Aid 30. On the 30th anniversary of the first charity single ever, Do They Know It’s Christmas?, Geldof has organized yet another remake of the song. I think it’s the fourth incarnation of Band Aid, though I wouldn’t swear to that. This version features One Direction and Ed Sheeran instead of Duran Duran and Sting, and this time it’s a charity single for Ebola relief rather than famine relief, but the formula is basically the same: get some famous people out to sing a song, and raise some money for a worthy cause.
This charity single business doesn’t seem to go down as well as it once did. There was a bit of blowback for Band Aid, but generally it was lauded as an admirable and innovative thing. Band Aid 30, though, has faced a lot of criticism. Its lyrical content, though in some places changed from the original, is read as condescending, people perceive cynical motivations from the performers, and commentators worry that the song and the culture surrounding it are perpetuating a stereotype of Africa as a helpless country in need of saving, not a diverse and vibrant continent made up of many countries and cultures.
Furthermore, Bob Geldof’s exhortation to delete the single and buy it a second time seems more than a bit stupid — perhaps they don’t know it’s Christmas, Sir Bob, but surely you know that buying singles is not the only way to donate money to charity. That said, Liberia is 85 per cent Christian, so I bet they know it’s Christmastime; Sierra Leone, Guinea, and Mali are overwhelmingly Muslim, so they likely don’t care. And while we’re at it, actually, the song came out in early November, so it’s not Christmastime at all, Sir Bob.
I don’t disagree with any of these criticisms, and any mind I might have to defend the song was erased by the fact that no one seems to know where the £1.5 million the single has generated is actually going. There’s another single, written and performed by West African artists, called Africa Stop Ebola. If I’m going to buy any single, it’ll be that one — not just because it’s a better song (which it is), but also because I know where the money is going (Médecins Sans Frontières), and it’s a group of empowered musicians working for their own countries. That song is in French, otherwise you would be reading Africa Stop Ebola’s lyrics at the side of this column, not Band Aid 30’s.
The trouble is, of course, that were it not for the backlash against Band Aid 30, I might never have heard of Africa Stop Ebola. A grassroots social media campaign formed itself around the single, but it wasn’t getting much play until it was seen as an alternative to Band Aid 30. However cynically motivated some of the performers might be, however condescending the lyrics, however problematic the western-centric colonial attitude, the song got attention. And it made over a million pounds within minutes of its release.
That’s probably for a number of reasons. The star power certainly helps. Nostalgia for the song might also be part of it. And actually, the song is ridiculously catchy. But I wonder, really, if the simplicity of the message is what makes the charity single so appealing. I genuinely believe that people want to make a difference in the world, but we live in a complex world with a globalized economy and so many problems so far from home. Just this evening, I heard a talk by a young man who grew up in a refugee camp in Uganda, got into a fight about whether or not a Missouri grand jury’s refusal to indict Michael Brown’s killer was motivated by racism, and wrote an article about inadequate responses to the Ebola crisis (see what I did there?).
In the face of that, when someone says, “buy this single and end hunger in Ethiopia, or stop the spread of Ebola in West Africa, or help us deal with whatever’s going on in Darfur!” it’s very easy to think, “OK! I will!” And when Invisible Children told the world that Uganda’s problems could be solved if the United States government only killed Joseph Kony, the initial reaction was, “OK! They should go do that!” But it’s never that simple, and on the national or international stage, it’s hard to hold anyone’s attention for much longer than the time it takes to shout a very simple directive.
Maybe that’s why I didn’t have a strong sense of why Live 8 was happening, and why despite all the good feelings, it ultimately failed. The concert series’ aim revolved around asking the G8 to make a series of pledges helping countries in the Global South. The pledges themselves were relatively simplistic solutions to extremely complex problems, and the way Live 8 was carried out suffered from many of the same issues that Band Aid has, but it was an attempt to do something a bit more complicated than simply ask for money. The G8 countries made the pledges, but, almost a decade later, they’re nowhere near meeting them. I’m not sure if they’ve made any real effort to try.
So then, what do we do with all of that? Do we speak to the complexities of the world, and get very little attention and support, or do we boil our message down to something a child could understand, and hope that despite how close to wrong it is, it might do some good?
Ward is a freelance writer and aspiring documentary filmmaker based in Saskatoon. You can find her short bursts of insight and frustration at www.twitter.com/newsetofstrings