Thursday, 23 December 2010


"Thank God it is them instead of you"

In modern times, we seldom celebrate our colonial mentalities. We tend to hide them away under euphemisms. Christmas charity singles, however, provide a rare peep hole into the decayed core of the former colonial powers: the moral decrepitude still stands, where the empire has fallen. After abdicating all responsibility for why the world population is so polarised and why the Western nations can enjoy times of mass excess and extravagance, we throw on paternal hats and sing some utterly offensive tripe.

Nothing is worse in this respect that Bob Geldoff and Midge Ure’s “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” A song who’s very title echoes the modus operandi of the Christian missionaries who were instrumental in tearing Africa to pieces. A song that refers to the world’s poorest as “the other ones” and “them” - blatant and unexcused orientalism - from Liberalism’s most compassionate. It beggars belief that in 2010 this is still played, en masse.

Africa, the richest continent in terms of natural resources, is universalised as a basket case, “Where nothing ever grows/No rain or rivers flow”. Now, in defence of Geldoff and Ure (a phrase that will only be used once in this article, I assure you) the song was meant to raise money for the Ethiopian famine of 1984. At this particular historical moment there was a lack of water. However, the writers never specify this. In order encourage charity amongst the population of Great Britain a picture of the whole continent of Africa is painted where it is deprived of snow and running water, where “the only water flowing is a bitter sting of tears”. Artistic license is one thing, but what the self-righteous pop stars have done is embedded within the mentalities of the masses a picture of Africa that is in complete opposition to the truth. More harm has been done than good as it has, and continues to, reinforce stereotypes that systematically deprive third world peoples from autonomy. My generation would sing this song in our December assemblies and at our Christmas performances. One hopes this practice does not remain today, though given the single still transmits nationally through all our major radio stations, nothing surprises.

Africa enters the youth consciousness as a place of utter devastation, deprived of any semblance of happiness. “The Christmas bells that ring there are the clanging chimes of doom”. A graphic and horrible metaphor that shows complete ignorance and disregard for the percussive, vibrant and joyful cultures throughout the continent that have spread globally and had an immeasurable impact on our own artistic output.

The song is replete with geographic inaccuracies and inexcusable colonialism. It validates a Victorian “charitable” mentality, where the wretched of the Earth are “raised a glass” for, patronised from afar, while the crimes that are the cause of the devastation are literally whitewashed from history. Those poor, black people, don’t even know it is Christmas! Well this seems quite trivial given us poor white people don’t even confront our own history and instead actively perpetuate it, under the guise of compassion.

The song ends with a declaration: “Feed the world!”, over and over and over again. It kind of reminds me of the resolution that has attempted to get through the UN, again and again and again that states that "proper nourishment" is a human right. The declaration has been continuously blocked, by the US, as to feed the world is to compromise the extravagance of modern Western existence. So, instead, we continue to polarise the world. The rich remain rich, while the poor remain poor. This Christmas, if you’re ‘lucky’ enough to celebrate it keep in mind that opulent, festive meals are provided at the expense of the vast majority of the world. “Thank God it is them, instead of you”.

Merry Christmas


By Daniel Renwick (Aka Frank Natter): Joint organiser of the forthcoming meeting: Haiti Will Rise Again, (Commemoration of Haitian Earthquake), 12th January 2011, Gasworks, Vauxhall 19.00-22.00


Anonymous said...

Piss off with your crit of Bob Geldoff and Midge Ure. They have worked for decades to save lives. Period. Rage against whatever the heck you want, but cut two guys who really gave a shit out of it.

Sara said...

Great post! I really enjoyed it.
Too bad ethnocentric assholes still can't cope with the fact that charity does not equal altruism, nor does painting an entire billion people with the brush of helplessness help the West's endless fascination of starving African children OR the incredibly varied people who inhabit any corner of the African continent. Whitewashing and appropriated history to fit your lovely, privileged Western life doesn't do anything revolutionary, either. Seriously, anon, Geldoff and Ure profited from people's misery and helped tailor the image of Africa as an irreparable clusterfuck that cannot ever stand on it's own two feet without the money and help from the West. Nevermind that the West was largely the entity that made certain parts of Africa so chaotic, and don't forget all the milking of natural resources that the West still practices (think oil and gold for starters) and what that entails.

Sukant Chandan said...


well, you wrote something much more eloquent and concise that I would have done in reply to anon.


Sara said...

Not a problem, Sukant! :)

Melissa C said...

Couldn't have put it better.

merrick said...

You're right that the song perpetuates the lie of Africa as a barren place that cannot help itself; I'm not sure it's fair to blame the continued airplay on the writers. They wrote it hurriedly as a swift fundraiser over 25 years ago. We can be confident they weren't thinking about its long term impacts, and may well have laughed at the idea that it would become a perennial christmas classic.

How can you have a problem with the use of the phrases 'the other ones' (defined as those not having sharing our feasting festivities) and 'them'? There were clear differences between those living in the UK and those suffering in the Ethiopian famine; thus, the latter can be described as 'them'.

The lyric is saying that we do all this Christmas talk about seasonal goodwill yet we feast while others starve; if we actually meant what we said, we'd act. The line 'do they know it's christmas?' is not a call for a massive deployment of missionaries, it's more a rhetorical question aimed at those in the affluent christian countries. It is push for people to act as if those who suffer are as human as we are; the 'thank god it's them instead of you' line is something we all agree with, uncomfortable and shaming as it feels when said so starkly (before anyone claims otherwise - look at the fripperies you spend money on, then pipe down).

Band Aid was a way that some pop stars felt they could do some short term good. I couldn't stand in front of the people drinking clean water from wells sunk with Band Aid money and tell them I wish they'd never had it happen.

African poverty is misrepresented by the 'basket case in need of our largesse' vision that ignores the historical stripping of African resources. That's why the project chose the name Band Aid - they knew it was a sticking plaster, something temporary that help slow the wound's worsening but was not a long term solution, and certainly not a cure.

The record does not address the root causes of the famine. But that is not a reason to dismiss it. If someone is drowning in a river and you go to throw a lifebelt, I'm not going to get in your way and criticise because you aren't lobbying for proper upkeep of the riverbank.

Other Sara said...

Oh dear Anon, if Geldoff and Midge are your heroes then I feel distinctly sorry for you...remember the Live 8 debacle? Distracting people from actually being at Greenacres and diverting the general public's gaze? Almost makes you think they did it on purpose...