The re-release of Band Aid’s “Do They Know It’s Christmas” (this time, to raise funds in the fight against Ebola) has been a huge commercial success – the single, which features everyone from Harry Styles to Bono singing lines, shot to the top of the national charts on its release on Monday and generated over $2m-worth of cash for the cause in the first five minutes of its release.
By the time Christmas actually comes, the fundraising single, a re-worked version of the original first released 30 years ago (sample lyric: "A kiss of love can kill you / And there's death in every tear") will probably have raised in the region of $10m.
So, what’s not to like?
Plenty, to judge by the furious reaction the song has prompted in the UK national conversation, with a series of accusations that the song is patronizing, racist, counter-productive, reinforces stereotypes and even disrespectful to the predominantly Muslim population of Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea, who don’t celebrate Christmas.
The debate became particularly heated when a Liberian academic, Robtel Pailey, and the original Live Aid promoter Harvey Goldsmith went head to head on the BBC’s flagship current affairs radio program, Today.
Pailey said the song “reinforced stereotypes” and said it described the continent as “unchanging and frozen in time,” adding, “it ‘others’ Africa in many ways…it refers to ‘them versus us’ and that’s incredibly patronizing and problematic.”
(In fact, the original line, “Tonight thank God it’s them instead of you,” has been replaced with, ‘Well tonight we’re reaching out and touching you.’)
Goldsmith replied, “Does that mean we have to sit back and do nothing?”
Miss Pailey said Band Aid should have supported African artists, such as Liberian musicians D12 and Kuzzy, who have released similar tracks to raise money for Ebola.
Goldsmith replied he had never heard of them.
The increasingly vicious debate has since migrated into newspaper columns and TV.
British-Ghanian rapper Fuse ODG wrote in The Guardian that he was "sick of the whole concept of Africa … always being seen as diseased, infested and poverty-stricken."
Janice Turner, in the Times, wrote, “How outdated the Band Aid single feels. A bunch of old, white, rock titans come together with young, white, X Factor hotties to persuade Britain to heal Africa. Shuffle the lyrics of Do They Know It’s Christmas to replace famine with ebola. Bish, bosh; that’ll do. … The record is raising money but it could have raised spirits too if Bob Geldof had reined in his ego. Why not have Harry Styles, Chris Martin, Bono et al play alongside musicians from Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia?”
Sir Bob, 63, responded with his usual colorful language to his critics. Appearing on Sky News he said (twice, much to the newscaster’s dismay) that critics who said Band Aid should “stay silent” were “talking bollocks.”
Jack Lundie, Director of Communications for the British charity Oxfam, defended the single to the Daily Beast. “I think the debate is so heated because people really care passionately about changing the world,” he said. “And there is frustration, because it sometimes feels like stuff isn’t changing. And as a sector, we don’t tell the story of progress well enough.”
He said he supported the Band Aid single as a “mainstream charitable initiative” that would “bring in people who wouldn’t normally engage”.
Of the song itself, and the criticism the Christmas-based lyrics have received, Mr Lundie said, “Band Aid is raising money to fight Ebola. The bottom line is that Ebola is terrible and the world is not doing enough. But if we define our approach by an over-literal analysis of pop lyrics, we will end up on a road to nowhere.
“Its cheesy pop. But if people really want to talk about the line, well, clearly, the song is not questioning whether people in the countries affected by Ebola know there is a holiday on the 25th of December.”