Voices: This December, can we please cancel one awful Christmas song?
I’m not the first to demand that it be banned, cancelled and burned (should such a thing be possible) and yet this year, like all those that have come to pass since 1984, we’ve been forced to suffer through it again. I’m talking about the Band Aid 1984 charity single, “Do they know it’s Christmas?”.
First, let’s answer the question; yes, they damn well do know it’s Christmas. Politicians and celebrities get “cancelled” for far less but every year, Africans in the UK hear this embarrassment of a song and are expected to smile, ignore it or even sing along.
Bob Geldof and Midge Ure came up with the idea of the song to help people in Ethiopia who were dealing with extreme heat at the time. The intention is a great one and should be lauded rather than criticised, but the execution was appalling and helped to perpetuate stereotypes and misinformation.
Both Geldof and Ure have since acknowledged that the song is not good. In Ure’s autobiography, he wrote: “The song didn’t matter: the song was secondary, almost irrelevant.”
What he failed to understand was that Africa is a large place and the generalisation is dangerous that all people who come from the continent require help from “the white man” to survive because otherwise, God forbid, they won’t know it’s Christmas (part of a religion brought over by colonisers and one that many Africans don’t celebrate anyway) or indeed know happiness.
This song sparked a range of charity events that we still have today, including Comic Relief, and I don’t have any issue with their existence, other than to question why so many people have to rely on charities and donations rather than adequate government support.
The problem I do have, though, is with the half-truths. There are, of course, people in countries all over the world experiencing hardship and suffering. If we can help, we should, but hurting others in the process of doing so is not acceptable. The images of children with dry lips, skinny arms and bloated bellies aren’t lies, but they cannot be the only representation of Africa that people in Britain see.
The discomfort I felt as a child watching the single’s music video alongside my predominantly white friends in school assemblies was unnecessary and avoidable. At primary school, I struggled to articulate to peers that the images they were seeing in the video weren’t an accurate representation of an entire continent.
My siblings and I are lucky to know where we came from. Despite being born and raised in Hertfordshire, our parents would take us to Nigeria every couple of years. I understand Igbo, I know my family and I’m proud of being an African woman. But many African British people aren’t as fortunate and so what they understand their place of origin to be is one that has no water, no food, no shelter and all the worst diseases, though that simply isn’t the truth. Africa is a continent filled with so much, not just poverty and death.
Despite the criticism of the song, it’s been remade a number of times. Fuse ODG, an incredible London-born Ghanaian musician, was invited to sing on the 2014 version but turned the opportunity down. He referred to some of the lyrics as being problematic – including “there’s no peace and joy in west Africa this Christmas”, explaining that he goes to Ghana every year for peace and joy.
And Fuse isn’t the only one. Many travel to African countries for months before returning to the UK. I’ve had the luxury of visiting Morocco as well as Nigeria, and while I would like to see so much more of the beautiful continent, I can honestly say that though some are in need, it’s not the case for all Africans.
The intention behind the song is a lovely one but the way it manifested was, at worst, a racist and ignorant creation that ended up condescending and patronising an entire group of people in the UK. At best, it was problematic.
In the West, systemic racism is an issue we continue to face. Other marginalised groups are defended and protected from inappropriate behaviour, but Black people are often left until last and expected to deal with it alone.
We have “cancelled” whole people in the past. Let’s write off the Band Aid single as just another mistake from the 1980s – I don’t think it’s too much to ask that this song be cancelled too.