Tag Archives: africa

The music of Ebola: Beyond Band Aid

Media hype around the Band Aid 30 single has died down, but we keep hearing it playing everywhere…

The video begins with two workers in hazmat suits lifting an Ebola-stricken woman from her home. End scene, fade in to the smiling faces of One Direction, Seal, Bono, Sinead O-Connor, Paloma Faith, Rita Ora and several other celebrities crooning, “Where a kiss of love can kill you / and there’s death in every tear… A song of hope where there’s no hope tonight.”

The Band Aid 30 single, “Do they know it’s Christmas?”, originally written in 1984 to raise money to fight famine in Ethiopia, has already drawn much criticism from the people it tries to help, with headlines like these:

Africans, aid workers and pundits have offered plenty of deserved critique for the new song and video, but a Sierra Leonean friend once told me that anyone who has experienced Africa in a positive way has a responsibility to challenge harmful perceptions of the continent, such as those perpetuated by this new song. As I was living in Sierra Leone around this time last year, I’m following my friend’s advice and offering a short critique of the song’s tendency to reinforce negative, needy stereotypes of Africa. More importantly, I want to share some positive examples of what African artists are already doing about Ebola.

There’s no doubt Ebola is a tragedy, but only a few countries in Africa are affected by it, out of 54 incredibly diverse nations. Projects like this one that portray Africa, the continent, as being diseased and poverty-stricken harm its global image. When I lived in the beautiful, fertile, and resource-rich country of Sierra Leone, my experience was mostly positive—it is not a place that needs patronising pity. The perception that Africa, the whole continent, needs help and is unable to help itself hinders investment and tourism, and inspires more “White Saviour” projects…

…such as this one. The song is yet another example of a neo-colonial campaign that draws lines on who is the saviour and who needs saving, fulfilling Westerners’ desires and meeting their need to feel good about themselves. Raising awareness in such a way does little, aside from fulfilling the ill-informed longings of the involved Westerners.

In Sierra Leone, it’s an understatement to say music is an important part of the culture. Rather, it’s integral to the lifestyle, blaring from a radio, speaker or cell phone near you at all hours of the day. One of my neighbours in Freetown was a fairly successful reggae artist. I met him while I was walking home from work—he was standing along the roadside singing, with his friend playing the guitar. He asked me to record him with my phone and put it on YouTube. He felt as though making music was the best way to make a mark on the world, especially with the new tool of the Internet. We’re living in an age where Africans can finally show us their views directly and broadcast them across the web.

Over the past several months, African artists, including my Sierra Leonean friend, have represented their culture and made their mark by creating and re-mixing several songs about Ebola, many of which have been hits. Ebola music is on the radio non-stop in affected countries. The songs range from hip-hop to reggae to gospel; the lyrics can be informative or uplifting. Many artists have also posted their songs on the web.

The efforts of these artists should not be undercut, but “Do they know it’s Christmas” has done just that.

For perhaps the first time, the pet projects of white saviours can also be immediately posted on the Internet, projecting the image of Westerners as the solution to African problems into the worlds of Africans. Whereas before, we could get away with keeping patronising projects inside our privileged sphere, they no longer remain within our walls—Africans are listening, too. Their work can be insulted on their own turf.

The West African artists who’ve been singing and rapping about Ebola for months deserve recognition, not the perpetuation of negative stereotypes and the promotion of outsiders as liberators. You might have heard Africa Stop Ebola by legendary African artists Tiken Jah Fakoly, Amadou and Mariam, Salif Keita, Oumou Sangare and others (which raises money for Doctors without Borders), but that’s just the beginning of African artists’ efforts.

Check out some of the catchiest songs about Ebola by local artists—some were produced independently, while others were made with development groups.

For more, check out this crowd-sourced database of song lyrics of 23 songs that “shout out Ebola,” all by African rappers and in five different languages. Let’s let African artists speak for their own countries.

Featured image is Liberian musician Black Diamond. Photo from Photos Liberia.