Pandemic Archive

Dear Band Aid: An email from “Africa” (via an African-Caribbean Black British Londoner, aka Jasmine Chin)

By Jasmine Chin . . .

WARNING! Reading this letter may take away a treasured relationship to a much loved, favourite song. Read only if moving towards discomfort is something you choose to do….

From: J Chin <Jasmine.Chin@Londoner.disconnectedfromafricanheritage.tier4.thewest >

Sent: 21 December 2020 18.34 GMT

To: Bob & Friends < BandAid@charityheadquarters.tier4.thewest >Subject: Tiresome & inescapable racism at Christmas

Dear Band Aid

I hope it’s ok to interrupt your charity do-gooding. I work for a charity too and I know this can be a challenging time for us. But I had a burning need to write to you and share some of my thoughts. I’m aware I may be somewhere between six and thirty-six years too late, depending on which song I focus on but hey, better late than never!

So the first thing to say is I love Christmas songs! From traditional carols to pop charts, and jingles to soul classics, the uplifting feeling of belting out cheerful songs, on my own or with others can be pure joy. And let’s face it, like so much of creative life they’re also a bit of a social commentary on what we value. Some of them highlight that traditional act of connecting to loved ones in our place of origin like “Driving Home for Christmas”, which will be all the more poignant this year. Others accentuate the more mundane but nonetheless central aspects of a “good Christmas” such as mistletoe and snow as heard in “Frosty the Snowman” and “Mistletoe and Wine”. And when I say “what we value” I obviously mean those like you with the power and influence to write songs, publish and market them, flooding the airwaves and our collective consciousness with what we need to be aspiring towards or thinking about in order to have the ideal festive period.  

But every now and then a song comes along to disrupt that feel-good, idealised Christmas image, to help bring us back to the realities of the world. It’s a noble and essential endeavour, using the influence music artists like you have to shed light on local and global issues that might otherwise go unnoticed.  Over time the social message fades and it becomes just another Christmas song, but when we catch ourselves, us listeners can reconnect with the meaning and intention behind the song again, and give a thought to those in need.  And this has surely been a year to do that! So there I was, catching myself listening to you when I really allowed the lyrics to resonate with me. 

I’m sure you know the ones I mean, but for those less familiar with your music who might come across our correspondence, I’m talking about ‘Do They Know Its Christmas’ released in 1984 to raise money for those affected by the devastating famine in parts of Ethiopia, and the 2014 version, to support efforts in tackling the Ebola crisis. For the purposes of time and, you know, less glamorous charity do-gooding that I still actually have to do before Christmas, I’m going to leave for now your 1989 version with different popstars, and your 2004 version for the Darfour troubles in Sudan.

As your songs have drifted to my ears this December, the irony of the themes in each of them has been hard to sit with. I know that you raised many thousands of pounds (at the lowest estimate) for people that were truly in need, which I’m aware makes my letter to you seem ungrateful. But I can’t help think about the cost to the lives of the same people and those in the diaspora for the decades since.

I’ll start with your 1984 rendition.  It starts off fairly innocently: “It’s Christmas time and there’s no need to be afraid”, and even as I write this, knowing what else is to come, I can’t help but sway my head from side to side.  But my niggles start with the next line: “At Christmas time, we let in light and we banish shade”. I know I know, “don’t be so sensitive Jasmine”, and maybe you’re right, as the next few lines after that are ok I suppose. But in the context of the rest of the song, that’s really not an easy position to take and my sensitivity radars are quite frankly on high alert.

You see the niggles step up a notch when you have one of your illustrious artists sing “Throw your arms around the world at Christmas time”. The world? I thought the song was attending to one country’s natural disaster; does the whole world really need a hug? I mean, if you were singing the song now then it would be a resounding “yes”. But I don’t quite get the leap from your call for benevolence for one country extending to the whole word.  I think my sensitivities are a little more justified here, given the history of “The West” and its historical tendency to position itself as a needing to save the whole world from itself. But ok, I’ll hold the “over-interpreting” challenge for now. And of course when I say “The West”, I’m assuming it’s ok to collapse the hugely diverse countries and cultures of the Americas, Europe and Oceania into one generic category? Do let me know if not.

You really don’t help yourself when you instruct listeners to “Pray for the other ones”. Maybe othering wasn’t a thing in the 80s but it sure is a thing now, and intensifies the superior positioning of your listener relative to the beneficiaries. If The West had not used Christianity over millennia to justify the systematic and brutal oppressive action of non-Christians, especially those in the African continent, then this might be more forgivable. In fact so many of the lines of this song are kind-spirited and well-intentioned when either heard in isolation, or sung in the car on the way home from the shops, disconnected as they are from the history within which they were formed, that it would be easy to think of oneself as mad to be bothered. Band Aid and The West, I hope you’re still with me, and you haven’t ripped up my letter in frustrated irritation (or just pressed delete; sorry I think I got myself lost in the 1980s for a moment there!).

So, moving through the lyrics, my next irksome lyric is, quite frankly, disgustingly rude: “Well, tonight, thank God it’s them instead of you”. What really was on your mind when you penned that lyric? Was it convincing yourself that distancing your preferred audience from those in need would encourage them to splash the cash? Perhaps, given history, you had confidence in the British listener that they’d say “yes, thank God!!” And what had you as artists thinking “yes, I can sing that line with gusto?” Is it that this sentiment held true for you too, enabling you to sing it with such conviction? I would judge you less if you said yes because let’s face it attitudes like this are all-pervasive today furthermore in the 80s. And of course no thought for any Africans or African diasporic people that might be in a position to hear this, and the full meaning of it, in a conscious way which I, in my self-protective fog, was not. 

You had the good sense to take that line out for the 2014 version. But whilst we’re here in 2014 let’s turn briefly to your generalisation of the Ebola crisis into a whole region in the line “No peace and snow this Christmas in West Africa”.  Again much improved from 1984’s “And there won’t be snow in Africa this Christmas time” where disaster in Ethiopia suddenly becomes synonymous with all 55 countries of the great continent.  West Africa is vastly improved indeed.  But not yet there in accuracy: Ebola largely affected the three countries of Sierra Leone, Guinea, and Liberia, with it’s 11,000 plus deaths. A quick search tells me there is an estimated population of 381,202,440 in the 17 countries that constitute West Africa. So another unhelpful generalisation that ignores the huge diversity of the continent and disconnects the richness and resource in Africa from the public’s consciousness. I can’t help but believe you knew the power of putting the word Africa in the song– it would invite pity at best and reinforce a tiresome stereotype of Africans in need of being helped by richer, worthier, maybe even better others.  Because, according to you in 1984, it’s a continent “where nothing ever grows” (and please put down that cup of coffee and bar of chocolate so you can really focus on this), and a continent where no “rain or rivers flow”; certainly not the river Nile, arguably the longest river in the world, nor Tanganyika, one of the largest lakes in the world. No, to reinforce your attempts to help some people in one country, you chose to use absolutes, an unimaginative, but tried and tested reductionist strategy that maintains the current social order. And yes I am going to make that much out of one line of a Christmas song!   

But look, it’s Christmas, and goodness knows we all need a good singsong to cheer our weary spirits.  And there’s not much wrong with the tune and for many of us in the UK it is one of the songs that really epitomizes Christmas.  So I hope you don’t mind but I have re-written it.  I’m not a song writer so some of the lyrics don’t quite fit, but I chose to prioritise accuracy and my values over a catchy, easy singalong.  You’ll see that I have tried to capture the actual status of Africa relative to the West in our current context, where 37,000 Covid-19 deaths have been recorded in Africa compared with roughly 580,000 in the Americas, 230,000 in Europe (almost 36,000 in the UK alone), and 205,000 in Asia. If we’re not a country that needs to get its own house in order before adopting the saviour position then I don’t know where is. And I have replicated you in assuming that I know what the whole of Africa would want to sing back to you – of course I don’t, but as an African (ancestral only via the Caribbean & London) I feel a tiny bit justified, in a similar vein to you, that this too will do good. 

Merry Christmas Bob and Friends!

Jasmine

Ps you might like to do this karaoke style! If so click here

 

Band Aid Revisited – from ‘Africa’ to ‘The West’

 

It’s Christmas time, there’s no need to be afraid

Our 1.26 billion people acted fast and we made a change

And in our 55 countries, we can spread a smile of joy

We’ll throw our arms around you all (UK/US) at Christmas time

 

But say a prayer, pray for the Western ones

At Christmas time it’s hard, but when Africa’s having fun

We’ll look at you from our window

And feel sad for your dread and fear

Where a cough or touch can kill you

And your government doesn’t care

And the Christmas pause to lockdown

Will surely be a chime of doom

Well we’ll hope that you will find a clear way through

 

And the sun’ll get rid of covid here this Christmas time

The greatest gift you’ll get this year is life

It’s a shame to Europe you said no

Food shortages you’ll now know

Will you know it’s Christmas time at all?

 

Here’s a clue
Do your best for all not some

 

Selfish ways
Disadvantage everyone

Who will care it’s Christmas time at all?

 

Feed your world

Have all know it’s Christmas time again

 

Save your world

Have all know it’s Christmas time again

 

Help your world

Have all know it’s Christmas time again

 

Fund your world

Have all know it’s Christmas time again

 

Feed your world
Why did Rashford have to tell you?


Feed your world
Food banks can’t sustain the nation


Feed your world
Stop your arrogant racism

 

Feed your world

Have all know it’s Christmas time again…

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