I was still in my teens when the news broke about a great famine in Ethiopia. I can clearly remember watching the CBC National News with my mother and being shocked by the reports from journalists such as Peter Kent and Brian Stewart that showed small children with distended bellies, black flies circling like vultures as they lay prone on the parched earth. Foreign aid workers described the indescribable as best they could. Like many who watched these reports around the world, my mother and I were profoundly moved by the plight of these African children starving in a world of plenty. We weren’t the only ones who felt that way. Across the pond in London, England, singer Bob Geldof and his wife, TV producer Paula Yates, were watching similar news reports that were airing on the BBC. Neither could shake the images from their mind. However, helplessness was not a feeling that Bob Geldof was used to having to deal with. He knew that he had to do something, anything, to help. The idea that he came up with was to create a charity song to help raise some funds to add to the coffers of humanitarian relief organizations that were working on the ground in Ethiopia. It just so happened that Paula Yates was set to film an interview with Midge Ure, lead singer of the UK band Ultravox. Geldof, the lead singer of The Boomtown Rats, knew of Midge Ure and asked his wife to arrange for a phone call between the two whenever her interview was over. The two men discussed Geldof’s charity song idea and agreed to see what they could come up with. Time was of the essence because of the dire situation in Ethiopia, but also because the Christmas shopping season was fast approaching in England. If this new song was to have maximum impact, it needed to get finished and on store shelves as quickly as possible. In the days that followed, Geldof and Ure exchanged possible melodies and snippets of lyrics back and forth until the outline of a song began to emerge. Once that happened, they met in person and completed the song. Since it was to be sold during the Holiday season, the two men called the song “Do They Know It’s Christmas?”
Once they had the song finished, Geldof launched into the second phase of the project which was to recruit an all-star choir to actually record the song. Not having any time to waste, Bob Geldof called up every singing star he could think of. Sting agreed to participate, as did the members of Duran Duran, U2, Wham, Kool and the Gang and Culture Club. Paul Weller agreed to lend a hand and so did Paul Young. David Bowie, Paul McCartney and Elton John all had prior commitments but agreed to send video messages of support. All participants agreed to appear for free. All studio time was donated for free. Bob Geldof’s record label agreed to produce the song for free as well. The only organization that refused to support the song by removing overhead costs was the British Government under Margaret Thatcher, who still taxed the single as if it was any other song. It was only under the most extreme public pressure that Thatcher relented and agreed to make a donation equal to the amount of tax raised. All in all, “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” debuted at #1 on the charts and stayed there throughout the Christmas season. It was played hourly on the BBC and ended up selling millions of copies worldwide. In total, the song raised tens of millions of dollars for humanitarian relief. The choir that sang the song was dubbed Band Aid. The success of this endeavour was so great that it immediately spawned similar efforts that gave the world Live Aid, Farm Aid, USA for Africa (with their song, “We Are The World”), Northern Lights from Canada (with their David Foster-led song “Tears Are Not Enough”) and many more. And just like that, famine was eradicated around the globe and no one ever had to go hungry again! Right? Well, not exactly.
As Bob Geldof himself has long since admitted, while his heart may have been in the right place, he ended up creating a monster too great for him to tame. In his rush to do something, anything, to help, Geldof and millions of people who donated to his charity ended up rushing into something that turned out to be a far more nuanced situation than they had imagined. In doing so, “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” has actually caused as much harm as it has good. As time has gone by, Geldof has ended up on the receiving end of much of the blame for the legacy of this song, but to be fair, while his share of the criticism is well earned, there are many other aspects to the story of what happened in Ethiopia in the late 1970s and early 1980s that led to the catastrophic famine that had nothing to do with him at all. When all is said and done, the story of “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” has turned out to be a cautionary tale for those of us living lives of privilege in the western world. It is always good to be helpful, but it is even more important to be respectful and knowledgeable about those whom we are trying to help. Here is the story of what happened as a result of the release of “Do They Know It’s Christmas?”
In stories such as this, the temptation exists to rush to judgment and assign blame and credit as if issues were simple and straightforward. That was not the case with the situation in Ethiopia. The first question that should have been asked before any fundraising was done was why the famine had happened in the first place. The news reports on the BBC and other national television networks around the world focused their coverage on the images of starving children being brought to humanitarian feeding centres. The stories implied that drought was to blame for the famine reaching the epidemic proportions that it had. So far, the news reports were not wrong. There was drought, and there were crop failures which contributed to a nationwide scarcity of food. That was all true. However, what wasn’t stated until many months or even years had gone by was that much of the food-related crisis in Ethiopia was the result of government corruption and ill-informed agricultural policies that did more to line the pockets of landowners loyal to the president than they did to actually help to grow the food for a hungry population. It was this same corrupt, authoritarian government that siphoned off much of the money that was raised by way of the “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” charity song. While some of the money donated by millions of well-meaning consumers around the world made it into the hands of relief agencies, most ended up padding the bank accounts of a dictator. A large part of the reason that this ended up happening was because those involved with the charity single were not prepared to deal with the large amount of money that appeared out of nowhere all of a sudden. As anyone who works in fundraising can tell you, there have to be organized systems in place for accepting donations and then, conversely, for sending that money out to those in need. There are international banking laws that have to be followed that require the involvement of trained professional financiers. While Geldof and his musical associates tried their best to be as organized as possible, the rushed nature of the entire enterprise contributed to instances of sloppy bookkeeping which, in the end, allowed the president of Ethiopia to acquire much of the funding directly. Those funds never made their way to relief agencies and ended up having no impact on those in need and helping no one except the president and his cronies.
But this is just the start of the issues raised by this song. I know that some people have grown tired of hearing/reading about white privilege and about colonialism, but I am sorry to tell you that they are very real things with very real social consequences for many. The song “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” is a textbook example of this phenomenon in actual practice. Here is how white privilege and colonialism came into play in this instance. As mentioned earlier in this post, the entire process involved in creating this song out of nothing was rushed in order to have the song ready for the Holiday shopping season. That Geldof, Ure and their friends managed to write, record and release the song in jig time is a testament to their collective skills as songwriters and musicians. However, in the rush to create the lyrics for this song, not much time was spent actually researching the people, the places nor the circumstances that revolved around what the song was about. Instead, Geldof and Ure wrote poetically off of the tops of their heads based upon what they knew about Africa. As it turned out, the pair knew very little at all about Africa. Consequently, they created a song filled with lyrics that are actually quite ignorant with regards to the nature of the African continent and of the nature of Africans as distinct peoples. For example, let’s discuss the very title of this song, “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” When Geldof came up with the title, he had images of starving children in his head. His rationale for the title was that surely these dying children had other things on their minds than Christmas. In fact, in their desperate quest to survive, did they even know it was Christmas, as opposed to any other day of the year? Fair enough. But that’s not how the song’s sentiment is expressed when it is sung. The song gives the very clear impression that Africans, as a demographic group, are not aware of Christmas. The reality is that Africa is populated with a great diversity of people who live in all parts of the continent, just as there is a wide diversity of people living in Europe or in North America. As a result of this diversity, and as a direct result of colonization, large numbers of Africans in all parts of the continent are practicing Christians, and consequently, they do, in fact, know all about the biblical story of Christmas. While the song was well-meaning in concept, the fact that it joyfully sings about Africans as if they are a homogenized group of uncivilized people has caused great offense throughout much of Africa. Further to that, the lyrics to “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” also question whether it snows in Africa…it does at times, whether rivers flow…they do, and whether anything ever grows there. If you have ever watched a National Geographic documentary about Africa, then you know for a fact that it is quite lush in most regions. That the song makes such fundamental errors which, in turn, are perpetuated again and again, year after year as this song is played ad nauseam during our Christmas time is tough for African citizens to tolerate. If it doesn’t bother you or you simply don’t care that much because it is “just a song”, then you, too, are displaying your privilege, just as Bob Geldof and Midge Ure inadvertently did in 1983.
But there is still more. If you watch the video carefully, you will note that this song about Africa features not a single person of colour in a lead role. Singer Jody Watley and the band Kool and the Gang appear in the video, but only in the background as part of the whole group finale. The same is true of women. Although Watley and the members of Bananarama are present, they, too, are shunted into the background of the group finale. All of the main lyrics are delivered by smiling, handsome, wealthy white men. All of them. If you want to know how the world really works then watch this video.
The last thing I would want anyone to take from this post is the idea that contributing to charitable causes is a bad idea. It is actually a beautiful idea. There are many wonderful people in our own communities and around the world who have dedicated their lives to helping others in need. To those people and the organizations they are associated with, charitable donations are their lifeblood. I wholeheartedly encourage people to give generously to organizations that they know do good work. Donating to local agencies is different from the performative act of buying a charity single organized by a bunch of guys who know nothing about finances nor about the cause that they are attempting to support. As mentioned earlier, nowadays even Bob Geldof looks back upon the impulsive nature of this project and cringes. *(A link to an interview with him saying as much can be found here). It is also important to keep in mind that when looking at issues such as poverty, hunger, addiction, unemployment, etc., nothing really changes when we channel all of our funding and attention to the symptoms of these problems, instead of addressing the root causes that helped make these problems happen in the first place. Hold governments accountable for their policies. Hold land barons accountable for the high cost of rent and of home ownership, along with the loss of prime agricultural land and wetlands, too. Hold corporate CEOs accountable for the policies they enact that place profits ahead of people. Throwing charitable donations at the crises of homelessness or hunger or poverty are laudable decisions, but do so in tandem with organizations that hold those in positions of authority responsible for their decisions, too. Otherwise, donating to charities will only ever be a band-aid solution.
The link to the official website for Band Aid Charity Trust can be found here.
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