Let’s begin with a little perspective: This song was recorded for charity. Specifically, to help alleviate the 1983-1985 famine in Ethiopia, commonly held to be the result of drought but actually more due to poor governmental policies. Even the Glee version’s proceeds are going to charity, specifically to a trust set up by the group that did the first version of the song.
However, this song is also kind of really racist.
It begins fairly cheerily, and then, in what is probably a good faith effort to raise awareness, turns the spotlight on First World Privilege:
At Christmas time, it’s hard
But when you’re having fun
There’s a world outside your window
And it’s a world of dreaded fear
Rapidly takes a left turn into over-dramatic meloncholy
Where the only water flowing
Is a bitter sting of tears
And the Christmas bells that ring there
Are the clanging chimes of doom
And then right into what I can only hope was meant to be a sarcastic jab at privilege again (a common reading):
We’ll, tonight, thank God, it’s them
Instead of you
That’s when things go really south in my opinion. In the effort to raise awareness and play on first world sympathies, they paint a patently false image of third world poverty that borders on fetishistic:
And there won’t be snow in Africa this Christmas time
The greatest gift they’ll get this year is life
Where nothing ever grows, no rain or rivers flow
Do they know it’s Christmas time at all?
But hey, on the bright side…. Charity.
For the 20th anniversary of the song, they released an updated version, with more rap lyrics. Here’s a video made from it with the typical glurgy images of starving African children, implying that there’s nothing to eat in the entire continent:
Of course, it wouldn’t be a Christmas song if there wasn’t a Glee cover:
While their proceeds also go to charity…. they don’t sound nearly so focused on the goal at hand. What is it about the last 15-20 years that makes people think it’s now okay to use carols to show of your amazing vocal range?
The following video is making the rounds this year as sort of a rebuttal to the Band-Aid classic:
Frankly I think it’d have been better if they played it straighter, focusing entirely on Norway’s problems and showcasing African wealth in contrast. Here’s their website, if you want to know more about the video. They frame the problem this way:
Imagine if every person in Africa saw the “Africa for Norway” video and this was the only information they ever got about Norway. What would they think about Norway?
If we say Africa, what do you think about? Hunger, poverty, crime or AIDS? No wonder, because in fundraising campaigns and media that’s mainly what you hear about.
The pictures we usually see in fundraisers are of poor African children. Hunger and poverty is ugly, and it calls for action. But while these images can engage people in the short term, we are concerned that many people simply give up because it seems like nothing is getting better. Africa should not just be something that people either give to, or give up on.
The truth is that there are many positive developments in African countries, and we want these to become known. We need to change the simplistic explanations of problems in Africa. We need to educate ourselves on the complex issues and get more focus on how western countries have a negative impact on Africa’s development. If we want to address the problems the world is facing we need to do it based on knowledge and respect.