Do They Know They’re Perpetuating Stereotypes of Africa?

November 16, 2014 1:07 am3 comments

On the weekend of Nov. 15, some of the most popular names in music got together to cover the 1984 Band Aid song “Do they Know it’s Christmas?”  The stars that participated in the cover range from U2’s Bono to the various members of One Direction.

This time around, the song’s purpose is to raise money for the Ebola outbreak, mostly in Sierra Leone, Guinea, and Liberia.  However, while the intentions of the song were certainly altruistic, it contains some rather troubling lyrics that are only contributing to the perpetuation of a few key stereotypes about the African continent.

The song begins by describing how “we let light in and banish shade” during the holidays, but it then goes on to remind listeners to “say a prayer, pray for the other ones.”  Undoubtedly, “the other ones” refers to West Africans, and “we” refers to the Western world, which is problematic on so many levels.  It is this type of “othering” that creates an us vs. them discourse that makes it easy to create a dichotomy and inequality between us (the Western world) and them (West Africans). In effect, this line is saying that “we” should remember to factor in time to pity West Africans while we of the Western world are having a joyous and peaceful time during the holidays. This is a quintessential example of the classic but inaccurate view of Africa as a poor, pitiful charity case in need of “our” help and well wishes.

Another troubling line is a sort of call to action, telling listeners to “bring peace and joy this Christmas to West Africa.” There are two main issues with this.  First of all, the term “West Africa” is usually used to refer to the group of 15 countries in Africa that make up the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS).  However, the Ebola outbreak is confined mostly to three countries. Thus, calling a lack of peace and joy due to Ebola a West African issue shows the gross overestimation of the span of the outbreak.

The second issue with this line is that it seems like a subtle emulation of the message of the White Man’s Burden.  By saying “we” must bring peace and joy to West Africa suggests that West Africa is in need of saving. In other words, it is our duty in the Western world to save these poor West Africans and bring them peace. Send forth the best ye breed!

Just when you thought the song could not get any worse, the musicians go on to further the exaggeration of what Ebola means for West Africa.  First, they say, “There’s a world outside your window and it’s a world of dread and fear. . . There’s death in every tear.” And later comes the line, “The Christmas bells that ring there are the clanging chimes of doom.” While it should be noted that Ebola is devastating for those who have been affected, the entirety of West Africa is not doomed—as it is inferred by these two lyrics.  As of 2013, the ECOWAS countries had a population of over 300 million people.  The total death count from Ebola now comes to 5420.  So, roughly .002% of West Africa’s population has died from Ebola.  This statistic means that there are no “clanging chimes of doom” reverberating throughout West Africa.

Finally, the lines that are belted the most often in the song are unsurprisingly most ignorant.  At various points throughout the song, the singers ask, “How do they know it’s Christmastime at all?” followed by, “Let them know it’s Christmastime.” Well, I have a question of my own. Do “we” know that most people from two of the countries with the most Ebola cases, Sierra Leone and Guinea, are Muslims?  It looks like “we” are the ones that need to be informed. Yes, they know it is Christmastime, but no, many do not celebrate this holiday. These people are not absent of their own culture or their own practices, so there is nothing that we need to “let them know.”

Unfortunately, there are other various problematic lines throughout the song, but it is already clear that the lyrics leave listeners with a bad taste in their mouths.  This year’s version of “Do They Know It’s Christmas” can be found here, and we can only hope it is the last.

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