On one level, this seems like good news. The Ebola crisis and the damage it has wrought on the African nations of Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone is certainly a worthy cause for fundraising. Former Boomtown Rats singer Geldof and his songwriting partner Midge Ure have had success raising money with this type of project: The original release of "Do They Know It's Christmas?" was the biggest-selling single in British chart history, and with the subsequent re-releases (1989, 2004), plus accompanying concerts, it raised tens of millions for worthy causes.
However, the song's newest re-release brings the return of an uncomfortable quandary: Raising funds for African nations is a worthy philanthropic effort, but do we have to do it with such a terrible song?
I say terrible not because the song itself is musically terrible (though it is), nor because many of the artists touted for the re-recording are terrible (they are). It's not because the song kick-started a trend of terrible celebrity charity songs, either (see also: "We Are the World" and "Tears Are Not Enough"). No, the problem with "Do They Know It's Christmas?" is worse than that.
To understand the big problem with the song, start with the simplest elements. "Do they know it's Christmastime at all?" goes the chorus line from which the song takes its title. The core idea running through the lyrics is that Africans may not know it is Christmastime due to the problems they are facing.
That is quite clearly a flawed concept. It not only presumes that Africans wouldn't know it was Christmastime (quite a big presumption); it also assumes that they'd care. The first song, for instance, was inspired by a terrible famine in Ethiopia. In Ethiopia, the majority of Christians are members of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church and thus follow the Orthodox calender, meaning that for them Christmas Day falls on Jan. 7 rather than Dec. 25. Christmastime is quite literally a different time for them. The country also has a sizable Muslim minority (more than 30 percent in 2007) that do not celebrate Christmas, and thus probably don't care too much about when it is.
These problems don't get much better in the later versions. For example, the 2004 re-release was to raise funds for Darfur in Sudan, whose residents at that time were facing famine and displacement due to fighting in the region. Darfur is a largely Islamic area inside an Islamic country. As for the upcoming 2014 version, while Liberia is majority Christian, both Sierra Leone and Guinea are predominantly Islamic countries. Christmastime is irrelevant. There's something Crusades-esque about the repeated illusions to Christian traditions, ignoring the actual religious beliefs of the people the song is raising money for.
And there are other stupefying moments in the lyrics, too. "There won't be snow in Africa this Christmastime," goes another line of the song. It does, in fact, snow in Africa (you can find ski resorts in a number of countries). And for half the continent Christmastime falls in the middle of summer -- it seems unreasonable to demand that it snow. Other worrying lines paint all of Africa as a "world of dread and fear" where the "only water flowing is the bitter sting of tears" under a "burning sun."
You could put these details down to poetic license. The song is trying to convey an emotional message, after all. But that emotional message is simplistic. In "Do They Know It's Christmas?" the entire continent of Africa appears to be a vast, undifferentiated mass of famine and poverty that can only be saved by Western help. The lyrics aren't just inaccurate -- they are paternalistic.
The repeated re-release of the song also gives the impression that Africa hasn't changed. "Here we go again," Edna Berhane, an Ethiopian who works in African public health, told Time Magazine in 2004. "It's been 20 years, but Africa is still mired in its misery, famine, wars, genocide. Let's help them see the light ... again." Ten years later, it still seems to be the same.
To his credit, Geldof himself has acknowledged the song is one of the "worst songs in history" and is well aware that many people don't like it. “It really doesn’t matter if you hate this song or you don’t like this song. You have to buy this thing,” Geldof said at the press conference on Monday. “I really urge everyone. Don’t download it; don’t look at it on YouTube. It’s a couple of quid. It’s a great thing to do at Christmas.”
He has a point. "Do They Know It's Christmas?" has a crucial advantage over the modern social media tactics that so often get labeled "slacktivism": The song's re-release has a clear plan for actually raising a significant amount of money. And despite the qualms about the song's lyrics, if the song does convince people who otherwise wouldn't to part ways with their cash to help a cause, it has probably done more good than harm.
But it really would be better if people just donated a few bucks without purchasing a stupid song. The least they could do is choose a better song.