Band Aid 30- or, why "good intentions" simply don't cut it

16 November 2014

Band Aid 30. It premiered yesterday and I’m just as enraged by it as I have been by the original. I’ve read already a couple of good pieces about why Band Aid 30 is terrible; here are some more reasons I’d like to add to that mix, from the perspective of having grown up in the UK, and having heard that song every, single, Christmas time.

It’s a sad truth, but pop culture, and songs like this, play an inordinately large role in public consciousness. I recently had a conversation with someone where he told me “I would never travel somewhere like Africa on my own!”. Now, where do we think he might have got this negative impression of Africa from? Of course, there will be many sources, and all of them will be shaped by his own interpretation of this information. But I can’t help but think that a song, written by people who know nothing at all what they’re writing about, full of factually incorrect statements, that refers to the enormous continent of Africa as though it is one, homogenous, other-worldly land mass, cannot be helping this incredible lack of awareness.

To put this in the British context: throughout my entire education in the UK, we never once studied, or even came across, Britain’s role as a colonial power. We also never covered anything in terms of African (or Asian) history. In contrast: we heard Live Aid play every single Christmas time, over and over again; I would guess that most people my age probably know most of the words to it. The song is not, and should never be, any sort of replacement for a good education, but until that time comes, it is quite shockingly one of few sources of “(mis)information” to the British public about a continent that is all too often mis- or under-represented in the media too. As such, people producing material that have such wide coverage like this need to be aware of their role in providing information to the public, and do so responsibly. Clearly, here, this hasn’t happened.

I can’t imagine what kinds of ignorant rubbish was said to people from African countries, following Live Aid. This gives me a hint, though:

The other overwhelming message that comes from an initiative like Live Aid is that rich (mainly white) people from Europe and the US can “save” Africa. In the case of Band Aid, it ignores entirely the life-changing role that many local healthworkers had in stopping the spread of Ebola and puts the paternalism back in the situation.

One of the excuses I’ve seen bandied around most often about this is that Bob Geldof undoubtedly has the best of intentions. I hate that excuse. For me, saying “he meant well” is almost on a par with “but it’s tradition” as a way of excusing discriminatory or offensive behaviour.

It seems as though in many cases, the best of intentions goes hand in hand with a total lack of awareness of less privileged groups. It is by far and away the number one excuse I hear when people are trying to excuse away their prejudiced behaviour. In most (though not all) of those cases: I literally couldn’t care less what you intended to do. The fact is, you behaved in an offensive way, and you should be apologising, not trying to dodge that fact. Yes, of course, we all make mistakes, myself included (many times over!) - I hope, and I try, to accept responsibility when I do, and learn from that.

The excuse “but I meant well” allows people to escape that responsibility and avoid having to learn or change anything about their behaviour. Most importantly, being able to use that excuse is a sign of the very privilege that brought them to behave like that in the first place. It changes nothing, when clearly, something needs to be changed.

In this case, Geldof pledged that the lyrics would be updated. I had hoped that this might get rid of some of the paternalistic aspects of the song - but no, he is still wondering “How can they know it’s Christmas time at all” - I don’t know, maybe because 400 million of them are Christian, and celebrate Christmas too?

In conclusion: the song will raise awareness of Ebola. It will raise money to help in the fight against the Ebola virus. At the same time, it will insult the dignity of millions of people from the continent of Africa, and it will further strengthen damaging and harmful narratives about inequality, about racism, about privilege, and people’s positions in the world. For me, this is nothing even vaguely resembling a close call.

But actually, why is Geldof doing all this now? He says it’s “not out of nostalgia”, but because the UN called him, three weeks ago. If anyone working at the United Nations genuinely thinks that their best response to fighting Ebola is calling Bob Geldof, we have a much, much deeper problem.

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