In My Words: Do They Know It’s an Awful Song At All?
Newspapers in North Carolina and South Carolina recently featured a column by Mat Gendle, professor of psychology, offering a different take on the popular holiday tune, "Do they know it's Christmas?"
By Mat Gendle, professor of psychology
Now that the holiday season is upon us, the debate over which popular seasonal song is the worst of all time will again be unavoidable.
The songs usually in the running for this dubious distinction are either maddeningly kitschy (“Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer”), obnoxiously sappy (“The Christmas Shoes”), or revel in dated antics that simply aren’t funny, such as the booze-induced sexual assault suggested in “Baby, It’s Cold Outside.” But “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” isn’t the only holiday tune that celebrates horrifyingly bad worldviews. “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” by Band Aid may seem like a harmless and heartwarming song, but its lyrics display a sinister ignorance about food insecurity in Africa during the 1980s and a misunderstanding of the issues.
Recorded by an all-star collection of performers, “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” was penned by Bob Geldof and Midge Ure in response to the 1983-85 famine in Ethiopia. Conceived as a “charity record,” the single became a smash hit around the world, and remains quite popular to this day. Unfortunately, few holiday revelers seem to have actually listened to the song’s lyrics or thought much about what the words really mean.
Geldof and Ure’s lyrics paint a panoramic and parched hellscape of death, drought, starvation and suffering. Ethiopian citizens are described as “deprived” and “helpless.” Western stereotypes of sub-Saharan Africa that are widely held yet fundamentally incorrect are used to bring forth images of an arid wasteland, overflowing with starving people living in “a world of dread and fear,” who have long sense given up their hope and human dignity. By using these offensive tropes, the writers expose their lack of understanding of the Ethiopian famine in particular, and the staggering diversity of sub-Saharan Africa in general. With their words, Geldof and Ure unintentionally lay bare the pandering, self-righteous and elitist attitudes that many in the U.S. and Europe held — and continue to hold — regarding this part of the world.
In the song, Africa is treated as a scorched and long-suffering monolith, rather than the ecologically, politically and culturally diverse multination continent that it actually is. With lyrics like “the Christmas bells that ring there are the clanging chimes of doom,” Geldof and Ure evoke a mythical and desolate land “where nothing ever grows, no rain nor rivers flow” and where “the only water flowing is the bitter sting of tears.” They overlook the reality that the famine in Ethiopia was not principally caused by a lack of rainfall. Rather, political scholars and historians widely agree that the famine was primarily a human-induced event stemming from decades of violent civil conflict.
The entire song is really just a horrifying example of the type of fundamentally pointless, feel-good charity work that inflates the self-worth of those participating while simultaneously doing precious little to facilitate meaningful change. Indeed, one could argue that the wide dissemination of these problematic attitudes might have actually done more societal harm over the years than whatever good that came from the money generated by the song’s sales and radio plays.
In a nutshell, “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” is astonishingly tone deaf in its message. Yes, “they” know it’s Christmas, after all, a large proportion of the residents of sub-Saharan Africa, including the majority of Ethiopian citizens, are Christian. And no, “there won’t be snow in Africa this Christmastime,” except on some high mountain peaks. But that’s not as a result of drought, but because Ethiopia and neighboring countries are located squarely in the tropics, just north of the equator.
During this season of giving, I would encourage you to avoid charitable efforts (like those of Band Aid) that invoke erroneous neocolonial stereotypes, promote the idea that those in material need are hopeless victims without dignity or personal agency, and create paternalistic and patronizing structures of dependency. Instead, I ask you to support organizations that partner with people as equals, truly recognize the equivalency and dignity of human life, and avoid trafficking in mistaken, simplistic and demeaning stereotypes.
Through such partnerships, we can work toward a world where the mistaken and troubling themes of “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” will truly become a relic of the past, much like one-horse open sleigh rides and drinking wassail whilst huddled around a flaming Yule log.