I always ask myself a couple of questions before starting this column. One is whether l can write an incisive, perceptive, eloquent yet occasionally witty piece about a contemporary issue without invoking Diane Abbott’s ‘divide and rule’ maxim and making negative observations about fellow members of our African diaspora. Apart from UKIP’s Communities spokesman Winston McKenzie that is, who, regrettably, asks for it.
The other is whether l actually have anything new to add to the debate. And so it is with what is increasingly becoming a furore around the resurrection of the Band Aid franchise, now in its fourth incarnation, (this time to raise money to fight Ebola in Africa.)
A press release was sent out today by the ‘We Know its Christmas Campaign‘ which is launching on the 1st of December. Inviting people across Africa to share videos and images of ‘hope, beauty and good’, one of its aims is to answer the ‘Do they know its Christmas?” question first posed by Geldof & co 30 years ago and once again this year.
After a promising beginning in 1984 (Bowie, McCartney et al) and its terrible lyrics notwithstanding (l’m pretty sure the 500,000,000 Christians in Africa know that it’s Christmas), we were then treated to the risible 1989 effort (Sonia, Cliff Richard, Jimmy Somerville), in 2004 the random (Natasha Bedingfield, Busted) and then to Band Aid 30, where the musical giants of today with their instantly-recognisable hits, such as Bastille, Clean Bandit and Underworld (no, me either), are front and centre.
I remember well the momentous nature of the 1984 recording, and my Dad instructing all of his children to buy the record, despite our meagre pocket money. And we were happy to play our small part in something that was clearly of a magnitude to which we had hitherto not been exposed. Yet watching the artists arrive to take part in the 2014 recording, l felt no such euphoria. In fact, l felt a distinct sense of unease. And clearly, l am not alone.
You see, after the natural exuberance and optimism of youth has long since dissipated and been shepherded into the recesses of dim, distant memory by the world-weary drudgery of earning a living, excuses are no longer needed to be cynical about pretty much anything. And so last week l found myself regretting the sight of the likes of Rita Ora and Olly Murs waving at the cameras on arrival at the London studio, and wondering how many times they will even perform in Africa in their careers.
This is not without conscience on my part. When set against my miniscule contribution to the Disasters Emergency Committee a few weeks ago, l find myself asking who am l to question the motives of those who have been involved with this initiative – especially one that has sold over 312,000 units at the time of writing and sits at No 1 in the charts – and is likely to have raised millions when all has been said and done.
Yet despite this obvious point, there are so many reasons for my unease that they are impossible to ignore – the most obvious being that it has been necessary to record it in the first place. That ‘thanks, Sherlock’ statement aside, it seems to me that Band Aid 30 is a missed opportunity to tell a different story about Africa and to build on the sterling work being done, both from within the continent and outside it, to re-evaluate the narrative that has become all too familiar.
To start with, how about highlighting that Africans are, and always have been, at the forefront of the fight against Ebola? Or indeed urging the public to download tracks that are already available by African artists in support of the fight against Ebola, giving practical advice on avoiding infection and raising money for Doctors Without Borders and Medicins Sans Frontiers, at the same time as Band Aid 30? That way we might see the beginning of moving away from the persistent notion that African people are unable to do things for themselves and constantly need Westerners on white chargers.
A good way of symbolically recognising that fact would have been to have a significant number of African-heritage artists represented on the track. Symbolism is important. And the sad thing is, this has not got better in 30 years. In 1984, 4 of the 41 accredited artists on the original Band Aid – or 10% – were black. And three of those were Kool And The Gang, who just happened to be over from the US at the time. In 2014, amazingly, the figures are even worse – 3 out of 32 (9%). Compare this to the USA for Africa effort in 1985, which had 24 African-American performers out of 50 (48%), not to mention African-American writers and producers in Michael Jackson and Quincy Jones.
Further, much has been made of the fact that some of the lyrics that were felt to be more objectionable – not least by
African-heritage artists such as Fuse ODG – have been changed. However, this needs to be put into the context that has since emerged that two of the three African-heritage artists who did make it on to Band Aid 30 – Emeli Sande, whose father is Zambian, and Angelique Kidjo, born in Benin – both made and sang their own edits, which did not make the final cut of the song. Indeed, Ms Sande now says that in her view ‘a whole new song needs to be written.’
Despite foregoing the opportunity to involve more artists who it could be argued have more of an emotional stake in the Ebola crisis, we are treated to the spectacle of Bono claiming to be ‘bored of having to do this’ and Bob Geldof talking of the ‘embarrassment’ of having to call up people he didn’t know to implore them to participate. Well, maybe the boredom and embarrassment of these individuals (combined wealth, estimated £540m) could have been lessened if they had taken this opportunity to re-cast African people, with new voices, not as crowd scene extras, but as leading actors.
The danger of Band Aid 30 in this form is that it essentially freezes the debate, trapping it in the time-warp of Michael Buerk’s seminal report on the 1984 Ethiopian famine. Whenever Band Aid is resurrected it is to that time to which we are transported, not to the modern story of a continent that still needs some help, but also has the capacity to solve its problems itself, as Nigeria has successfully done with Ebola.
To be clear, I am not in itself against Band Aid 30, and it goes without saying that what has been done is of infinitely more value to the people whose need is so great than anything written here. However, I do object to the laziness of the approach; the failure to adjust to the new reality, either lyrically or politically; the apparent sidelining of African-heritage artists and their views; the scandalous lack of representation; the logo that implies the virus has struck the entire continent; the awful #e30la hashtag and the ‘throw-money-at-it’ mentality that doesn’t appear to have got so far as to explain where the money raised actually goes and how it is being spent. And there is also a small part of me that objects to people prepared to use tax avoidance schemes – despite hailing from one of the more generous tax regimes in the EU – exhorting the public to do what governments should be doing by way of appropriate International Development support. If they had more revenue from people who didn’t avoid their taxes, that is.
So what would l have liked to have been the story of Band Aid 30? Well, l would have liked to have heard more of the fact that Africa is changing – it has seven of the world’s ten fastest-growing economies – coupled with an acknowledgement that Africa is still owed hugely by those nations that have done the continent so much damage through colonialism and its legacy. This is not to belittle or fail to recognise the Make Poverty History or RED and other such campaigns led by the likes of Geldof and Bono that have done much to raise the profile of these issues, but more an expression of regret that there has been a failure to continue on that road and recognise Africa’s changes. Arguably, this is where influential figures might best be utilised. To go further, I would dearly have loved for all the artists to be engaging with the wider reparations debate that is getting more currency, figuratively speaking, as African and Caribbean governments and movements seek to move on from aid to economic and social justice.
Because if Band Aid is going to be put out of business, as Messrs Geldof and Bono say they want, then the quicker African states are helped to become entirely self-sufficient the better. To do that, we should be investing in its people, offering expertise where it can make a real difference, subsidising educational opportunities to enable Africans to accelerate their work building their nations. After all, prevention is preferable to cure – better to avoid being cut in the first place than having to reach for a Band Aid.
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David Wood writes and speaks on issues of Politics, Faith, Community, Race, Education, and occasionally, sport in Britain, whilst retaining an interest in the politics of the US and the Caribbean. And Croydon. He is a member of the First Martin Luther King Twelve and a School Governor, and has worked extensively on education issues surrounding black boys, community engagement, serious youth violence and interfaith relations. He is Chair of his Trade Union branch, a local political activist and is a cricketer, goalkeeper. Find him on twitter @WoodyDave39