If Band Aid 30's language was used by a news anchor on the BBC today, it would probably result in a public apology

All Bob Geldof wants is money to fight Ebola — but at what price?

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The Independent Online

In 1984 “Do they know it’s Christmas” (DTKIC) was a commendable and necessary call for action. It convinced people, through the power of song, intense imagery and celebrity to give money to charity. However, the producers did not seem to understand the political nature of the crisis or the consequences of the actions embedded in Bob’s famous phrase “Give us the money".

Following the 2014 re-release of DTKIC, people across the world have once again called the song’s narrative patronising and disrespectful to Africa. Bob responded by downplaying the significance of the lyrics, going for the cash. He might defend himself this way, but he's ignoring the fact that it's completely possible to produce a musical fundraiser without belittling an entire continent. In fact, it's already been done before.

In 1971, George Harrison, responding to a personal appeal from his friend Ravi Shankar, staged The Concert for Bangladesh in New York to raise awareness and funds to help Bengali refugees fleeing war in East Pakistan. The live concert featured a number of major artists at the time including Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton and Ringo Starr alongside Ravi Shankar and Ali Akbar Khan (both of whom had Bangladeshi roots).

George also composed the song Bangla Desh. The chorus repeats the name of a country that at the time was fighting for its political existence. “In one day, the whole world knew the name of Bangladesh’’, Ravi Shankar commented about the song.  The recording of the live concert became a bestseller and won a Grammy award for Best Album of the year.

WATCH: AFRICA STOP EBOLA

While the song itself may not have been one of Harrison’s best, and the fundraising not straightforward (money raised was held in escrow for ten years by the IRS), the awareness the concert and recording generated were of great impact and value for the cause.

Harrison acted out of spiritual connection with the region, making an effort not to victimise the affected population in the song or campaign. Collaborating with Ravi Shankar and Ali Akbar Khan, musicians and celebrities directly related to the area of conflict[, helped to ensure the campaign’s message was on target, sincere and respectful. Harrison’s lyrics also create some distance between "us" and "them", although this seems easier to hear in the context of the world of 1971.

 

So how do the lyrics of the latest DTKIC version depict Africa? Some argue that in 1984, the use of sensationalist language and imagery in the media was commonplace. But this has changed in the last 30 years.

The UK's media has been forced to mind its language, especially when others feel it causes offense. Isn’t the job of the media to only report the truth, not allow harm and offense, and abide by the strict Ofcom Code? So how is it that a song - disseminated by the very same media - is able to perpetuate a language that is considered offensive and misinformed by many?

Someone argued the other day that “poetic licence” was allowed, but sorry: in the land of William Blake I do not see the phrase “There’s a world outside your window and it’s a world of dread and fear” passing the test. If similar language was used by a news anchor on the BBC today it would probably result in a public apology.

A song is a powerful communication tool, a capsule of information that will live on way after the latest crisis subsides. The popularity of DTKIC perpetuates a western view of Africa as a place of dread, fear, famine and disease, and this has a direct impact on trade, investment and tourism on the continent. Who would want to go on holiday to Africa next year after hearing that song?

The intrinsic value of a song cannot be overestimated. This is an era in which music industry models are being re-invented. It is time to look at the real value of a song and expect more from the artists who have the skills and courage to write them. It is time music is valued by its effect on human behaviour, and its content directly associated with social change.

Bob has done us one massive favour though: he’s created a platform to review our very complicated culture of giving.

Carlos Chirinos is Director of SOAS Radio and teaches in the Development Studies Department at SOAS, University of London. He is a co-producer of the song Africa Stop Ebola.

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