30 years on from the original Band Aid single, which promised to raise money to feed the world, Bono and Bob Geldof are back with another celebrity-endorsed single, this time aimed at the Ebola crisis in West Africa. Ed Taylor looks at this latest charity single and asks: do these millionaire musicians really know who’s to blame for famine and disease?
Back in 1878, Friedrich Engels published the Marxist classic Anti-Duhring. Following Duhring’s production of what was supposedly his own version of socialism, Engels saw fit to write an entire book, which was by no means short, dedicated to refuting Duhring.
It would be completely possible to take a similar approach as Engels took to Duhring and produce an exhaustive publication in order to fully explain just how completely wrong ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas?’ is as a song. A hideous Frankenstein’s monster of blandness and banality, as a piece of music, it is incorrect.
However, it has sold millions of copies and so in turn has raised millions for famine relief. Seeing as we can safely assume that this is not a reflection on the quality of the music, it is worth examining Band Aid to see how much of a positive force it really is in the struggle to relieve various issues of the African continent. “Various” now being the appropriate word because the current release of Do They Know It’s Christmas? has switched its focus from famine to disease.
No peace and joy under capitalism
Indeed, 30 years on from the original single we are being subjected to ‘Band Aid 30’. How has this come to be? Well, if we are to believe what has been said, it would seem that, as a result of the Ebola crisis, the UN has found itself in a state of panic as to what to do. The virus is spreading exponentially. The death toll is well into the thousands. Ban Ki-Moon – head in hands, perspiring profusely, and on the verge of despair – suddenly realises there is only one man that can help them now. “Get Bob Geldof!” he cries.
And so the bandwagon arrives again. Everyone’s most loathed popstars have assembled to record a version of Do They Know It’s Christmas?, which has already achieved the incredible feat of somehow being far worse than the original. This time, there have been some alterations to the lyrics. Now that we’re all aware of the tragic fact that there just won’t be snow in Africa this Christmas time (despite there being ski resorts), we can move on to there being ‘no peace and joy in West Africa’. Gracefully exchanging a half-truth for a sweeping statement like this is almost commendable. The same general process occurs with most of the lyrical changes.
After literally forcing an album upon everyone that they never even wanted, philanthropist tax-dodger Bono continues to be the gift that just keeps on giving. Here he lends us his voice for the highlight line, “well tonight we’re reaching out and touching you”. The thought of a badly-dressed egomaniac casting his eyes through orange-tinted sunglasses, and reaching out to touch a suffering Ebola victim makes the image of the disease all the more harrowing.
Taking politics out of music
But does all this really matter? Surely it’s just nitpicking to point out the silliness of the record and the people who made it when the money is going to a good cause? Starvation and Ebola are bad, so Band Aid must be good.
Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. Let’s look at the history of Band Aid and examine the context. Do They Know It’s Christmas? was originally released in 1984 and in many ways was the first of its kind. Charity singles had existed before, but not on the scale of the Band Aid phenomena. Record labels were never keen on letting their artists get involved with political causes; the likes of Rock Against Racism was mostly left to the punk bands and never became the same sensation that the likes of Live Aid became. The labels, and probably many rich musicians, would never want to support anything that could perhaps lead to questions about capitalist society and therefore become a threat to their wealth. So why did all the big names come together for Band Aid and Live Aid, a cause which was attempting to deal with the issue of poverty?
What Band Aid presented was the illusion, and probably initial intention, of being apolitical. But this was during a political time. 1984 was of course the year of the miners strike. Many families in mining communities were being starved by Thatcher in her attempt to get the miners back to work. Prospects for the upcoming December looked bleak. As it happened, acts of solidarity would be shown to the miners at Christmas-time, with food parcels and funds being donated from various parts of the globe. However many of these families were surviving on these handouts as well as soup kitchens during this period.
Poverty amidst plenty
And along comes Band Aid, right on cue, proclaiming of “our world of plenty”. It was time to put all this strike and politics nonsense to one side because something just had to be done about these starving Africans. If you look at the lyrics of ‘Do They Know…’, as well as various things Bob Geldof has said over the years, then you’ll notice that the whole thing is built on a patronising premise. It’s the idea that the people of Britain are selfish idiots who don’t realise how privileged they are and need be made to feel guilty about third world poverty in order to want to do something about it.
It occurs to the bourgeoisie that the charity single and benefit concert can be used to their advantage, hence the continued imitations of Band Aid/Live Aid since ’84. These become so popular because they serve a role for capitalists. They shift the blame for issues such as Third World poverty onto the working class. It is their responsibility to solve these problems and give their money. It’s no accident that Margaret Thatcher loved Band Aid. In fact she was quoted as saying “What fascinated me was this. It was not ‘why doesn’t the government give more?’ but ‘what can I do as a person?’”. Charity, in other words, becomes just a form of privatised welfare. Don’t question capitalist society – it’s your fault these people are starving, and your individual responsibility to do something about it.
Famine and disease: a symptom of capitalism
Another false premise that ‘Do They Know…’ is built on is the idea that the poverty in Ethiopia is caused purely by people happening to live in an area where “nothing ever grows, no rain or rivers flow”. The initial problem with that lyric is that it is in no way correct; but a more important point is that the famine crises in the Horn of Africa are a symptom of capitalism. Whilst it is true that droughts occur in this region, the fact that they result in mass starvation is down to the area being seriously underdeveloped and only having the most primitive agricultural methods at its disposal. There are areas where crops can actually grow, however they are increasingly fenced off and privatised to produce luxury goods for the West, rather than feeding the surrounding villages. It is not in the interests of capital to feed the people of Ethiopia and other poverty-stricken areas, as they are not where the big profit is made.
With regards to the Ebola virus in West Africa, it is clear again that this is the product of a society which is based solely on it’s thirst for profit. We have known about this disease for nearly forty years, but it is only when the trade and economic growth in Africa is threatened that it is taken seriously. The reason Bob Geldof is getting calls from the U.N. is due to Ebola killing so many people; but this is only a problem because it could seriously cut into profits for big business.
Promoted by millionaires and tax-dodgers
Band Aid 30 has become the fastest-selling single of 2014. It’s success has not been so sweet however. Artists, some who were involved and some who turned down the offer, have criticised the factual distortions in the lyrics. People are also wondering why a bunch of wealthy tax-dodgers are asking them to part with their money. Appearing on Sky News to sulk about Adele not singing on the record, Bob Geldof was probed on this matter and could only respond with “bollocks”. Presumably an attempt to generate a controversy to raise his profile, this only highlighted the fact that he has no answers to the question. Band Aid is a corrupt idea and he can’t hide it.
The sight of rich musicians boosting their egos and careers by rubbing shoulders with one another and painting themselves as caring philanthropists must be becoming increasingly sickening to the British public. We live in times of austerity, where hundreds of thousands are forced to live off food banks, many of whom are in work. There are swathes of young people who are out of work or saddled with debt, or both. Workers are having to endure pay cuts, redundancies, and zero-hour contracts. They are been forced to work until they’re older whilst their pensions are simultaneously attacked. The list goes on and yet here we have a host of sanctimonious millionaires, shamelessly patronising the working class.
Fight to change society
Band Aid is allowed to happen because it makes no attempt to explain why people have to live with famine and disease. It is a vehicle for celebrities to raise their profiles, and a tool for the ruling class to take the desire amongst many to change the world, and direct it into a safe channel. Whilst a lot of money is raised, Band Aid would not exist if it made any real difference.
What is necessary in order to achieve real change is to overthrow the capitalist system, which is at the heart of all of these problems. It is true that we live in a world of plenty, but that plenty is in the hands of a small few. There is no need for so many of the world’s population to be subjected to disease, famine, poverty…and Bono. The struggle against Ethiopian famine is the same as the struggle against Ebola in West Africa, which is the same as the struggle against workers living off food banks in Britain and elsewhere. They are all part of the international struggle against capitalism!
Not by purchasing a naff song will we bring about change, but by linking these struggles together and fighting for a socialist revolution. Only then can we truly feed the world, and begin to build a society which fits the needs of the many, rather than the egos and pockets of a few.