‘Tis the Season… to rage against “Do They Know It’s Christmas”

It snowed overnight in Ann Arbor, which reinforced the television ads’ reminder that Christmas is coming. Another sure sign of the season is that “Do They Know It’s Christmas” begins playing relentlessly on the radio and in shopping malls. To commemorate the 30th anniversary of the original 1984 single, Band Aid has released a new version of the hit song. Featuring Ed Sheeran, One Direction, and, of course, Bono the song offers updated lyrics and a promise to fight Ebola in West Africa.

Those who know me, know that I despise “Do They Know It’s Christmas.” The original song is deeply patronizing and its lyrics are downright offensive. It labeled its would-be benefactors as deprived, helpless, and doomed. It encouraged people to “pray for the other ones” and to “thank God it’s them instead of you.”

The 2014 version has updated some of these lyrics. We’re still supposed to “pray for the other ones” but the “thank God” line has been replaced with “where a kiss of love can kill you and there’s death in every tear.” I’m sure Geldof and company are quite pleased with this particular revision as it’s more Ebola-appropriate but without losing any of the drama of the original line. At the end of the song, the Band Aid 30 logo appears with the tagline “Buy the song, stop the virus.” I’m sure public health workers in West Africa will be thrilled to learn that the solution is so easy. Although Nigeria and Senegal must be wondering how they managed to contain the virus’ spread without adding the song to their music library. (Am I being too sarcastic? I warned you I was rageful.)

Like its predecessor, this song is condescending and willfully promotes a White Savior complex that is as harmful as it is ignorant. “Do They Know It’s Christmas” relies on caricature to turn a complex public health emergency into a shiny, feel-good holiday moment. Like the Band Aid single and the Live Aid concert before it, the initiative appears to substitute authentic African input for degrading, stereotypical images of Africans. It would be one thing if the song did this but actually raised money for local Ebola-fighting initiatives. But it’s not clear, at least to me and a few others, that this is the case.

Laura Seay at The Monkey Cage offers a concise take-down of the song and I highly encourage you to read it. I hope she and The Washington Post will not mind if I summarize her main points here. Please go read the original article.

  1. Yes, they know it’s Christmas (in fact, it’s a public holiday in Sierra Leone and Guinea)
  2. The song is demeaning
  3. It mostly ignores Africans and their efforts to fight Ebola
  4. We don’t know where the money is going

The last point references an often overlooked criticism of the Live Aid 1985 concert. There are allegations that the funds raised by the concert were misused and may have indirectly contributed to the death of thousands of Ethiopians when the money was used to purchase weapons. There is also the question of whether or not this type of celebrity-fueled fundraising is beneficial to African development in the long-term. Such considerations are vital to effective humanitarian aid but I don’t see any evidence to suggest that the latest version Band Aid has evolved any further than replacing already demeaning lyrics with slightly different demeaning lyrics.

Despite the fact that they don’t seem to have learned from their mistakes, I am not accusing Geldof, Bono et al. of anything but having the best of intentions. But that’s not good enough. True compassion is more than simply having a desire to help others. It must be combined with critical thinking. It must include a sincere effort to truly do good. Even if that means that your effort ends up being less ostentatious than you originally planned. That doesn’t mean that compassion can’t be fun or even a little flashy. I think the link that I share at the end of this post demonstrates that. But compassion without critical thinking risks being self-indulgent and ineffective. And that’s what I think “Do They Know It’s Christmas” represents.

As I bring my Grinch-like post to a close, I wanted to mention that it’s easy to beat up on this type of thing without offering a solution, so I will avoid doing that. Instead of buying the single, maybe consider making a donation to Africa Responds, a collaborative effort by African organizations to pool resources in response to the Ebola outbreak. I’m also a fan of Médécins Sans Frontières, which is a Western organization but has a long, reputable history and tends to work very closely with the local population. These are just two off-the-top-of-my-head suggestions, I’m sure there are tons of other, equally fantastic organizations doing great work in the public health arena and beyond.

I would also encourage you to check out Radi-Aid: Africa for Norway, a brilliant piece of satire and a really creative, valuable initiative. If I could have one Christmas wish this year, it would be that this song eclipses “Do They Know It’s Christmas” as the holiday single that dominates the airwaves.

Update: November 18, 2014

Band Aid 30 has been trending on Twitter and I have been reading through the responses. It’s still incredibly popular and I’m sure the song is selling millions, but I was really heartened to see the amount of critical engagement on social media. I won’t link to all of it here but I’m retweeting lots of stuff on Twitter so feel free to follow me there.

I did want to share this though as it’s really special. I was unaware of it as I was writing my post yesterday and I want to take a chance to correct that. A group of African musicians came together and recorded a song about Ebola. The song offers Ebola education and all of the proceeds are going to Médécins Sans Frontières. It’s what “Do They Know It’s Christmas” should be: local initiative, clear financial support for a reputable organization, oh, and it’s super catchy. Check it out.