This song is a bit of an enigma. On Tuesday, we noted it as an exception to the stale Christmas songs, calling it "very good" with "an important message and purpose".
Musically, yes, it's a good track. The light melodies are backed by a triplet bassline which gives the song a nice gallop, and of course there are Christmassy bells dropped throughout to make the overall sound of the song more festive. It's not hugely exciting, but it's fun and catchy, which is important when you're trying to make money by selling loads of copies.
For that is exactly what this record was made to do: sell, in order to raise money for charity. Bob Geldof and Midge Ure were inspired to write the song by the news reports of the famine in Ethiopia at the time. On the face of it, then, this is a record full of good vibes and purpose, as it was specifically created to aid the people of Ethiopia.
But how much good did it really do? Since Tuesday's article, we have reflected on the song, and whilst the intentions were good, and it did make a lot of money for Africa, the lyrical content is rather questionable. It starts off alright, but later in the song you have lines such as:
"It’s a world of dread and fear Where the only water flowing is the bitter sting of tears And the Christmas bells that ring there are the clanging chimes of doom Well tonight thank God it’s them instead of you"
This is a purposeful misrepresentation of the continent of Africa. Yes, we all know they struggle with disease and famine in certain areas, due to the poorer conditions. However, much of Africa is perfectly happy and not suffering in the slightest. To paint the entire continent as one full of tears and doom is incredibly disrespectful and gives the song a typically Eurocentric view of the world. Those lyrics are meant to invoke sorrow and encourage people to buy the record - essentially donating their money to the cause. The problem is, however, that it's a lie. And is there a more condescending line than "Thank God it's them instead of you", which implies that these people are less important? The other lines may paint Africa in a bad light, but that directly references the people. It's not right.
It was always very much a case of a short-term fix, but long-term harm. Here's another set of lines:
"And there won’t be snow in Africa this Christmas time The greatest gift they’ll get this year is life Where nothing ever grows No rain nor rivers flow" Let's look at Africa as a whole, here. Snow? There are mountains. Nothing ever grows? They've got entire plains and rainforests - it's pretty much where the human race began. To depict the entirety of Africa as basically the Sahara Desert is hugely misleading, and as for the final line, did we just forget about the Nile? There are thousands of rivers in Africa, and whilst Toto were busy blessing the rains down in Africa, Band Aid was pretending they didn't exist.
Though the short-term money that was raised was no doubt welcomed by those struggling in Africa, it has perpetuated the stereotype that Africa is a place of no hope or happiness. This, in turn, harms Africa as a whole, and it continues to do so to this day. This article by Al Jazeera interviews a number of Africans who reflect upon the song, and how Ethiopia is struggling to bring in foreign investment and tourism because of the image the West has of the country.
The song was re-recorded in 1989, 2004 and 2014. The lyrics were changed in the latter, though they're still not perfect.
This article may read as more of a lyrical criticism rather than an actual music review, but it's important to understand the power of music and what it can do, in both the right and wrong situations. The Eurocentric and problematic lyrics of 'Do They Know It's Christmas' harm a song with otherwise good intentions.
There is no doubt that Geldof (who has since called it one of "the worst songs in history"), Ure and everyone involved had good intentions when writing and recording this song. Parts of Africa do suffer, and we should aid them in any way that we can. But with that being said, there are ways of helping them without being patronising about it, without promoting stereotypes that actually cause more harm than good in the long-term.
If there is to be a re-recording in 2024, let's hope for another change in lyrics that, perhaps, can discuss the many positives of Africa, and use positivity to raise some money - rather than sorrow and guilt.