Sir Bob Geldof, the seasoned musician turned philanthropist, was quoted in the Daily Mail as saying: “I am responsible for two of the worst songs in history. One is Do They Know It’s Christmas? and the other one is We Are The World. Any day soon, I will go to the supermarket, head to the meat counter and it will be playing. Every ****ing Christmas.”
Why do good intentions lead to some of the worst songs ever committed to tape? And good intentions aimed at Africa, in particular, seem to inspire in artists the very opposite of the sort of creativity they bring to their regular work.
Too often the songs end up committing three crimes: one against music fans (whose intelligence is often insulted and who are expected to actually listen to this stuff), one against the intended “beneficiaries” (whose dignity is often trampled over) and one against art itself.
The surprise isn’t just that this happens (you expect some duds in the early years), but that it still happens when we’ve seen examples showing that this sort of thing can be done while leaving everyone’s dignity intact.
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The most recent culprit is Proud To Be by Yvonne Chaka Chaka and Youssou N’Dour.
Counterfeit drugs are a serious global problem that require mass educational campaigns, so we understand why Interpol thought it’d be a good idea to get two major artists known for their commitment to humanitarian causes to record a song about the dangers for the African “market”. Unfortunately, it would appear that Interpol’s brief demanded the inclusion of certain words, phrases and warning. What we have here is a mess that few, but Interpol officials, are likely to pay much attention to.
Say no to counter fake medication
Bad medication is in circulation
INTERPOL has them under observation
Work together, save the world, save Africa (cue images of dancing Africans, followed soon after by obligatory image of smiling kid)
Who actually wrote this nonsense? And who’s the conductor guy in the vid?
Yvonne Chaka Chaka and Youssou N’Dour are great musicians and know better than we do that if you start off with a set of words and phrases you simply must include in your song then what you are doing bears closer resemblance to building a wall than making music. So why did they go along with Interpol on this?
And by being this direct and didactic the intended audience is credited with little or no intelligence, i.e., we better spell it out otherwise they won’t “get” it. I find it hard to believe either of these artists believe that, which is why I think the fault must lie with their brief from Interpol. You can bet your ass that similar campaigns elsewhere in the world will not include such patronising tosh.
It really doesn’t have to be like this. Compare the above with 2Face Idibia‘s response to the same problem.
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Sure, it’s not his best song, but it’s not bad at all, and he clearly approached this like an artist, and not as a bricklayer.
First of all he personalizes it by making the character he’s singing about a friend, which, by implication, means he isn’t talking down to the audience. Secondly, you can tell there were no officials looking over his shoulder while he composed the song or while the video was being edited, no one demanding images of dying Africans. No such images in the Yvonne Chaka Chaka video, either, but they went for the opposite cliché: smiling, dancing Africans. When it comes to cause-related music videos it’s often this or Africa-on-its-knees. Still.
The awful song that kick-started the whole “save Africa through music” business was Do They Know It’s Christmas. This, for our younger visitors, was written by Bob Geldof and Midge Ure in 1984 to raise money for famine-hit Ethiopia.
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Terrible song, but for all its faults the writers at least credited music fans with some intelligence: The only reference to Africa were the lines And there won’t be snow in Africa / This Christmas time.
But then sometime between recording the song and sending it to the vinyl factory to be pressed they must have gone, Whoa! What were we thinking? Almost forgot the starving Africans! They also had second thoughts about the collective intelligence of music fans, because what landed in the shops was the sleeve at the top of this post.
No wonder the editors of the video for Band Aid 2 thought, hmm, mustn’t forget some “starving-Africans” footage this time around.
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A year after Do They Know It’s Christmas came We Are The World, written by Michael Jackson and Lionel Richie.
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This was another bad song, but it could have ended up a lot worse: the lyrics originally included the refrain sha-lum sha-lin-gay (whatever the hell that meant) because, hey, it’s Africa! As if that wasn’t bad enough, Stevie Wonder almost made it even worse by suggesting they replace this with something in Swahili. Fortunately, good sense eventually prevailed and neither sha-lum sha-lin-gay nor the Swahili line made it into the finished piece.
If Do They Know Its Christmas and We Are The World left us with the valuable knowledge that humanitarian concerns could be addressed with popular music, they also left many NGOs and artists with the belief that for cause-related songs to work they needed to be sentimental and, preferably, should portray Africa on its knees, implicitly or explicitly. It was an an anti-capitalist critique of this sort of tosh that anarcho-punk band Chumbawamba released Pictures of Starving Children Sell Records.
But not before our Canadian friends released this into the world:
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And other artists remained undeterred, because this was followed by many more crimes against art, music fans, Africa and Africans.
We were also left with the idea that the first priority of the song is “the message”. After all, many people bought these singles because they felt good knowing the proceeds were going towards a good cause and not because the music was any good. Thus it is that the phrase “charity single” came to strike fear into the hearts of all. Be honest, when you hear those words do you think, oh, this might be good, or does your heart sink in anticipation of something awful you ought to listen to and perhaps buy in spite of how it sounds?
And it applies more often to good causes relating to Africa than those relating to people in the west. When the BBC re-released the cover of Lou Reed’s Perfect Day as a benefit for its Children in Need charity, it didn’t start digging up images of children in need. Neither did it urge the performers to make it sentimental or more direct so people would “get” it.
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With over two decades of “saving Africa” songs and imagery in our collective consciousness, who can now blame the global army of well-meaning DIY enthusiasts who get busy whenever a humanitarian crisis occurs anywhere in Africa and take it upon themselves to:
1. Find a sad song
2. Find and stitch together images of starving Africans.
3. Give it an emotive title like Every 5 seconds starving kids of Africa dies
4. Add a self-righteous message (optional extra)
5. Stick the finished product on YouTube to join the collection of other Africa-on-its-knees vidz so everyone can go on thinking, oh, poor Africa.
(I’m not going to embed any of these examples; if you really want to see them go search on YouTube.)
But if we can’t blame the amateurs, what are we to say about the artists who still fall into the same trap? Take Prayer for Somalia by Zimbabwean hip-hop artist Black Bird.
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Say a prayer for the little black warriors (?!). Dear oh dear.
Apparently, the single will be used to drum up support for a compilation project called “Hustle 4The Horn”, which will involve her touring with other African artists to raise funds for Somalia. The proceeds will go to a humanitarian organisation called “Horn Relief”. I’m not making this up. Looking forward to this, anybody?
And here’s Walking To Somalia by the Chalice Reggae Band (Kingston, Jamaica), who were inspired to step up after reading a Newsweek article.
But I don’t want to leave you with the impression that well-meaning dimwits are winning, so here are two recent examples that we believe any NGO or artist thinking of making cause-related music ought to study before they put pen to paper.
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Celebratory and inspirational; Akon wrote this to raise funds for his charity Konfidence, which he set up to provide aid to underprivileged children in Africa. You wouldn’t know it to look at it: no shots of underprivileged children, and no strategically-placed shots of smiling kids either. Good music and vid, does the job with everyone’s dignity left intact.
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The Democratic Republic of Congo might be home to one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises, but this Oxfam-initiated project involving DRC Music (Damon Albarn and some other artists from the UK) and Congolese artists, is about music first (you can listen to more tracks here and here) and is interested in tapping into Congo’s strengths than in portraying the country on its knees.
We look forward to a world without the kinds of crises and problems that “inspire” NGOs and artists to make cause-related music, but until then here’s hoping those who genuinely care about music and Africa actually spare some thought for music fans everywhere (i.e. in and outside Africa), and think about what message that idea they’ve got in ther head is actually going to send out into the world about Africa and the intended beneficiaries when next something occurs that they feel they must address. In other words, NGO world and other do-gooders who haven’t thought things through, is the money, awareness or whatever else it is you hope to raise really gonna compensate for the damage you’re about to do? Really?