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.
The men and women on the frontline against Ebola and other hazards
The men and women on the frontline against Ebola and other hazards
1/6 Linda Dixon, 60, leads research into African swine fever at the Pirbright Institute in Surrey
"For more than 25 years I've been trying to develop a vaccine for the African swine fever virus, which causes death in domestic pigs, and has symptoms quite like Ebola. It came from East Africa in the 1920s and was transmitted to Georgia in 2007 via food from shipping that was fed to pigs. It has now spread to neighbouring countries and this year entered the EU via Poland, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia. It's difficult to eliminate because it also infects wild boar, which populate large parts of Europe."
2/6 Simon Woodmore, 45, is a paramedic and operations officer for London Ambulance Service's Hazardous Area Response Team (Hart)
"I have a helmet for all occasions – five in all – as well as an array of outfits, including breathing apparatus and gas-tight suits, respirators and chemical protective suits. My job is to put paramedics where historically they could not have worked. We were born out of the Tokyo subway sarin attack in 1995, and have been running as Hart since 2006. There are 94 of us in London dealing with chemical, biological and radiological incidents, as well as building collapses and floods."
3/6 Simon Woodmore, paramedic and operations officer
"We've always dealt with contagious diseases and work with the Royal Free Hospital London high-level isolation unit to transfer confirmed cases, which fortunately is rare. A lot of it is communicating with the patient in a caring and compassionate way, which can be difficult when you're in full gear. There is an increased awareness of Ebola, but it's about reinforcing the processes we already have in place. Any personal risk is mitigated by our training and equipment."
4/6 Benjamin Black, 33, is a specialist registrar in obstetrics and gynaecology for Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF)
"In June I travelled to Sierra Leone, where one in 21 women of reproductive age dies in childbirth. This was my first mission, and the reason I got into medicine. I had my eyes wide open to Ebola; though it was still in its early days and concentrated across the border in Guinea, within days I had my first suspected Ebola cases in maternity. It was happening."
5/6 Benjamin Black, Médecins Sans Frontières
"You need a healthy amount of fear to be safe, as well as protocol and organisational back-up. The greatest fear then is how long you can keep getting it right. There is also a huge psychological element. I checked my temperature daily, but in a hot, humid country there's a constant feverish feeling anyway. We had scares and one of our national nurses was infected, probably in the community. He sadly died and it had a huge impact on the team."
6/6 Lisa Jameson, 29, is a National Institute for Health Research doctoral research fellow for Public Health England, based at the Porton Down facility in Wiltshire. She specialises in emerging viruses
"I was in the field watching patients come into the isolation centre next to us, often with their families. Sometimes they'd be walking and talkative, then die that night. It was tough but we were so busy, and being there made it feel like we were making a difference. When I got home after a month, I felt a sense of guilt that I was able to walk away. I'll almost certainly be going back."
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.Reuse content