Yes, they DO know it’s Christmas-time!

It’s been 30 years since Band Aid recorded the original “Do they know it’s Christmas.

Yes, I know the song is catchy and the proceeds are meant to help in Africa (with a new focus on the fight against Ebola this year, as compared to the Ethiopian famine of 1984). The song and all its incarnations as well as the Live Aid and Live 8 concerts raised millions for good causes in Africa and made the world aware of the problems that continent faces. But I still think that the song’s lyrics are simply ignorant and condescending.

I also can’t help but notice that Bob Geldof continues to sit on his millions and donates his “time” on a weekend to re-record a song, while the public is meant to dig deep and part with actual money. He recently publicly blamed singer Adele for not getting involved in Band Aid 30, criticising her for raising a family instead of writing or recording songs. She chose to get involved privately – with a direct donation.

But why do I take such offence with the lyrics to this hit single?

Well, let’s take a look at the original version (in bold), shall we?

It’s Christmastime; there’s no need to be afraid
At Christmastime, we let in light and we banish shade
And in our world of plenty we can spread a smile of joy

(Not all the world has “plenty”, nor is a “smile of joy” what is really needed, is it?)

Throw your arms around the world at Christmastime

(But only at Christmastime, ignore their problems the rest of the year)

But say a prayer to pray for the other ones
At Christmastime
It’s hard, but when you’re having fun

(“Having fun” doing what exactly? Praying or looking at the world through a window?)

There’s a world outside your window
And it’s a world of dread and fear

(Dread and fear are ripe ALL over the world)

Where the only water flowing is the bitter sting of tears

(“The ONLY water flowing”? Well, sure, if you completely ignore such important African rivers like the Nile, Zambezi, Chobe, Orange, Congo or Niger to name just a few. There’s also a little something called “Wet Season” – look it up)

And the Christmas bells that ring there
Are the clanging chimes of doom

(Firstly: I would think that for many Christians in the world, church bells ringing on Christmas Day are not a sign of doom but of hope and joy. Secondly: I have been to many African churches, some housed in schools. A lot of them didn’t have chimes or bells.)

Well tonight thank God it’s them instead of you

(That’s a bit harsh!)

And there won’t be snow in Africa this Christmastime

(AFRICA consists of 54 countries, some in the Northern and some in the Southern Hemisphere. There are ski fields in Morocco in the Atlas Mountains. Tunisia and Algeria saw snow last in 2005. In 1979, it even snowed for half an hour in the Sahara desert and it snowed again for a day in 2012 in the Algerian part of the northern Sahara. Mount Kenya and Mount Kilimanjaro are snow and ice-capped pretty much year-round. In the Southern Hemisphere, Christmas is at the height of summer, but there are also ski fields in Lesotho and South Africa during their winter months.)

The greatest gift they’ll get this year is life

(Some would argue that’s the greatest gift there is. Not everything is about material gain.)

Oh, where nothing ever grows, no rain or rivers flow

(The varying climates in the African continent mean that – given irrigation works – there can be an abundance of fresh fruits and vegetables. The continent is also a prime location for tea and coffee plantations. Ghanaian oranges and coconuts were the juiciest I have ever tasted.)
Do they know it’s Christmastime at all?

(Approx. 24% of the world’s Christian population resides in African countries. Christianity in Africa started in Egypt in the first century, spread and was distributed and (re)-introduced by explorers, conquerors and missionaries, pre-dominantly to Sub-Saharan Africa. So yes, chances are, they know it’s Christmas.) 

Here’s to you, raise a glass for ev’ryone
Here’s to them, underneath that burning sun

(The climate on the African continent ranges from arid (Sahara) to semi-arid (Sahel zone), tropical (along, north and south of the equator) and semi-tropical/temperate (South Africa). Africa is the second largest continent – the sun is not that relentless everywhere. It also rains a lot in parts.)
Do they know it’s Christmastime at all?

Feed the world
Feed the world

(Africa IS feeding the world. Approx. 14% of the UK’s fruits and veg imports came from African nations).

Feed the world

Let them know it’s Christmastime again 

Feed the world 

Let them know it’s Christmastime again

Some of these things have bugged me for the last 20 years (I can’t say 30, as I was not alive while the original was recorded).

Band Aid started as famine relief for Ethiopia. The conditions there were harsh. Yet the song specifically says “Africa” and not “Ethiopia”.  And Africa is a vast continent. Just like Seattle is different in climate and vegetation from Phoenix or Miami,  Ethiopia’s capital Addis Abeba is different from Agadez (Niger) and Bumba (DRC).

And correct me if I’m wrong, but I think most of the artists recording Do They Know It’s Christmas were white. Only Jody Watley (Shalamar) and Kool & The Gang members James “J.T.” Taylor, Robert “Kool” Bell and Dennis Thomas have darker skin.

I always found it sad that such a hit single for charity, in aid of Africa, did not feature any African artists or sounds.

The new version for the 30th anniversary, includes altered lyrics to address the Ebola epidemic currently spreading through West Africa.

Here’s the changed version:

Where a kiss of love can kill you – and there’s death in every tear
And the Christmas bells that ring there – are the clanging chimes of doom
Well tonight we’re reaching out and touching you

No peace and joy this Christmas in West Africa
The only hope they’ll have is being alive
Where to comfort is to fear
Where to touch is to be scared
How can they know it’s Christmas time at all

Here’s to you
Raise a glass to everyone
And here’s to them
And all their years to come

Let them know it’s Christmas after all

Don’t get me started on “How can they know”. Just don’t.

But the saddest things is: African musicians, many of whom actually live with the risk of Ebola as their countries are affected, came together to record a song highlighting the problem and the Western world doesn’t know.

These musicians are big names in Africa, including Amadou & Mariam, Tiken Jah Fakoly, Salif Keïta, Mory Kanté and others. Their song is called Africa Stop Ebola, they sing mainly in French (as it is the dominant language in the affected region) but also in local languages Malinké, Kissi, Bambara, Lingala and Soussou. It’s available on iTunes.

To me, this song is more from the heart. Its proceeds go to Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders, the people actually helping to fight Ebola. The lyrics warn of how the disease is spread and that people should trust their doctors.

The musicians might not all be Western big-shots with millions in the bank. But the song is more honest than the (what is it now? Third, fourth re-recording?) of a song from 1984 that had the single purpose of making money so that the writers and composers and participants could look good when they handed over that cheque and then go back home to Europe while Ebola continues to threaten lives in Africa.

It definitely has more to do with the current situation than wondering whether Africans even know it’s Christmas (because that’s just weird. They’re on a whole different continent and living in other conditions, how could they possibly know it’s Christmas?).

Check this video to see whether you agree (you can select English subtitles)

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3 thoughts on “Yes, they DO know it’s Christmas-time!”

    1. You’re welcome! I spent 20 weeks in 2006 living, working and volunteering in Africa and I love the entire continent. Got to know a good cross-section, I think, as I was working in Ghana and South Africa and travelled through those two countries, Swaziland, Botswana, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Malawi, Tanzania (incl. Zanzibar) and Kenya. My hosts in Ghana and SA were pastors. The ignorant lyrics of the song really annoy me.

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  1. Thank you for this, my feelings have always been exactly the same. And I WAS around when the original version appeared, and I was just as annoyed and put off then! I’m glad not every young performer just jumped on the bandwagon, but actually have been speaking out about their opposition to this half-baked notion.

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