Band Aid 30: The politics of pity

Band Aid 30: The politics of pity
  • PublishedJanuary 13, 2015

Many people have understandably been offended and perplexed by Band Aid 30. But as James Wan explains, the song was a symptom of a much deeper world-view in the West – namely, a politics that rests on radical inequality, a wilfully simplistic outlook, and a morality based on “doing something now”.

If one were to compile a book of the best-known quotes from figures who have, at one point or another, been described as “modern day saints”, one would mostly get an array of inspirational aphorisms. Under Gandhi, we’d read “Be the change you wish to see in the world”. Under Mandela, “A good head and a good heart are always a formidable combination”. Under Mother Teresa: “Let us always meet each other with smile, for the smile is the beginning of love.”

And then we would turn to the page for Bob Geldof, who some see as a selfless champion of African causes. His list of famous sayings, by contrast, would include: “I genuinely could do without all the…general crap that goes with all this ‘world-saving’ b****cks” and the admittedly misquoted, “Give us your f*****g money!”

In the pantheon of “modern- day saints”, the foul-mouthed, scruffy-haired rock star is an anomaly. Rather than being calm and serene, he is combative and unyielding. Rather than being humble and civil, he swears and harangues. And rather than embracing his actions with a quiet sense of moral duty, he talks openly of his resentment that he has to do what he has to do. “I don’t like doing this stuff…it’s quite boring,” he said as he announced Band Aid 30, the 2014 incarnation of the charity supergroup Band Aid.

It is not my role here to pass judgement − there is no shortage of critiques as well as defences elsewhere − but what I want to do instead is unravel some of the dynamics behind Geldof’s various Band Aid projects. After all, many responded to Geldof’s return to the public eye not just with indignation that we were confronting yet another Band Aid single, but a real sense of confusion. How could they re-use the same dehumanising lyrics that have been so condemned? How could they almost completely exclude African artists despite being roundly criticised for that in every incarnation of Band Aid since 1984? How can its supporters shrug off the fact that so many of the people it purports to help find Band Aid deeply offensive? And how is it seen as legitimate for Geldof to dismiss any critique of the project with the single-word answer: “b******s”?


From an outsider’s perspective, Band Aid can seem like a very confusing phenomenon indeed. It is rare to find a humanitarian relief effort that offends so many and whose figurehead’s main mode of interaction is one of being shouty and irritable. However, once one begins to understand the real underlying goals and politics of Band Aid, it starts to makes more sense. It is only then that we realise the exclusion of Africans is not an oversight but a necessity, that shouting down detractors is not bad practice but a logical response, and that not even mentioning how the raised funds will be used is not a blunder but really quite inconsequential.

The crucial point to understand about Band Aid is that it rests upon, and is inspired by, what the German theorist Hannah Arendt called a “politics of pity”. This informs how the organisation sees the world, and therefore determines what it attempts to do.

A politics of pity − which stands in contrast to a “politics of justice” − can be characterised in two main ways. Firstly, this worldview relies on there being a strict distinction between those who are suffering and those who are not. In the song, for example, the “you” being told to “feed the world” are clearly distinguished from “the other ones” who are so distant in listeners’ imaginations that they may not even know it’s Christmas. This division is necessary because the ability to feel pity depends on there being an imbalance of positions; you cannot pity someone if you are wallowing in the same misery as them.

The second crucial feature that underpins this kind of politics of pity is that the fates of sufferers and non-sufferers are understood to be unrelated. That is to say, the two categories are not of the oppressors and the oppressed or even the centre and the periphery, but simply of the lucky and the unlucky. According to this understanding, things like disease, hunger and poverty simply exist in the world, and Westerners ought to count their lucky stars that they don’t share the same fate as those poor unfortunate Africans.

When Geldof first introduced Band Aid 30, for example, he implied that it was pure chance where Ebola struck, warning “This thing could arrive [in the UK] on a plane at any time”. This ignored the fact that the possibility of Ebola spreading in the UK is virtually nil given the country’s high quality healthcare infrastructure, and clearly obscured the myriad factors that have shaped the spread of the disease in West Africa. Disregarding all manner of important political and institutional dynamics, Geldof instead depicted the spread of the disease as an unpredictable and ultimately unknowable act of God. Essentially he reiterated Bono’s famous line: “Well tonight, thank God it’s them instead of you.”

Indeed, ideas of context, politics and history are anathema to a politics of pity. Pity, after all, is a visceral, emotional and immediate feeling; and when something makes you feel sick to your stomach, how can you sit around scratching your head?

In fact, in direct contrast to a politics of justice, which would see suffering as evidence of systemic failures, Geldof and Band Aid’s perspective not only avoids questions of complexity but even derides them as being frivolous distractions.

Hence Geldof’s proud admission that “the technicalities of aid distribution don’t interest me one bit”, his contemptuous remark “when people are hungry they die, so spare me your politics”, and his shouted appeal to viewers of Live Aid in 1985 that “People are dying NOW, give us the money NOW”.

Under a politics of pity, one’s moral duty in the face of suffering is to do something and to do it now.

Once we recognise these underlying politics, some of Band Aid’s decisions start to seem a little less perplexing.

When the new single was released in November, for example, thousands of jaws hit the floor as people heard the words to the song. To begin with, the patronising question “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” had been retained, even in 2014, when a quick SMS to one of the 900 million mobile phones on the continent, or message to one of Africa’s 100 million Facebook users, could have yielded a very swift answer. But also, new lyrics had been added, including lines such as: “There’s a world outside your window and it’s a world of dread and fear, where a kiss of love can kill you, and there’s death in every tear.”

On its release, these lyrics were heavily criticised for depicting the whole continent as a place of death and disease, while contributing artists Emeli Sandé and Angélique Kidjo lamented the fact that their suggested changes hadn’t made the final cut. This coverage suggested that the team behind the song should have been a bit more sensitive and that some alterations to the wording might have avoided the backlash. The issue was put down to a few errors of judgement.

Angelique Kidjo

However, once we recognise that the song relies upon a politics of pity, it is clear that the words are only the surface manifestation of a deeper worldview, and that they could only have been tweaked up to a point. Because whether through sensationalist lyrics about “a world of dread and fear”, or whether through more subtle alternatives, Band Aid 30’s underlying politics of pity required the song to create a distinction between “us and them” and depict “the other ones” as being as helpless, hopeless and pitiable as possible. The song’s offensive lyrics could maybe have been softened but they were not a regrettable misstep; they were central to justifying the whole rationale of the endeavour.

Another apparent oddity was the conspicuous exclusion of African artists, something Band Aid has been criticised for in each one of its incarnations since 1984. Geldof typically defends himself by saying he simply gets the biggest artists he can in order that the appeal reaches the largest possible audience. But to some it might still seems curious that Band Aid doesn’t even try to include more African musicians when it would help the project avoid criticism and give it the kind of legitimacy it most lacks.

This seems confusing, but once we appreciate the project’s politics, the decision to marginalise African artists starts to add up. To begin with, there is a risk that including too many musicians from the continent might disrupt the stereotypes on which Band Aid’s eliciting of pity relies, but secondly, and more importantly, African musicians are excluded because they just aren’t that necessary.

After all, in order to elicit pity, Band Aid needs to depict Africans as helpless victims, but this is only half the mission. The other half − and arguably the far harder task − is to overcome the cynicism and apathy of Western viewers in order to get them to play the counter-role of the non-suffering valiant hero. Band Aid doesn’t just need to create passive objects in need of rescuing, but also empowered and well-meaning Westerners ready to do the rescuing. This latter challenge is the real mission at the heart of Band Aid. It is where the majority of its efforts and messaging is directed. And it is a sphere in which African artists are at best irrelevant and at worst a hindrance.

This is why only 15 seconds of the Band Aid video actually take place in West Africa, while the rest of the five minutes is devoted to showing a whole host of famous Western musicians (plus the one African singer, Kidjo) being photographed by paparazzi as they turn up at a London studio, before singing, embracing one another and clapping their hands as they sway joyously to the song.

This is why Bob Geldof in interviews talks at length about how the band Bastille cancelled two concerts to be in the studio, how singer Ed Sheeran stayed up till 3am to record his section, and how Bono gave up a TV appearance to be part of the project. “That’s what matters,” Geldof stressed to one reporter. “That’s what you focus on − the immensity of what they do.”

And finally, this is why the main response from Band Aid advocates when the song is criticised is to automatically paint all sceptics as uncaring cynics. This is because, according to a politics of pity, the important thing when confronted with suffering is that you take some kind of action. This is the start and end of one’s moral duty, so once that person has done something, any questions about efficacy, transparency or offensiveness are simply irrelevant. They don’t make sense, and in the words of singer Sinéad O’Connor, critics should therefore just “shut the f**k up”.

Once we recognise the underlying politics of pity that informs, and is perpetuated by, the likes of Band Aid, we can better understand how the phenomenon operates and we realise that rather than making a few errors of judgement regarding the lyrics and chosen musicians, the team behind the song did exactly what they needed to do.

Where does that leave us? Well, on the one hand, this understanding arguably provides an even more worrying analysis of Band Aid than most, because it suggests that the song was not an anomaly when it comes to Western views of Africa, but symptomatic of them. Band Aid no doubt propagates a certain way of seeing the world, but, more importantly, it relies on these cultural and political attitudes already existing. A five-minute song cannot argue for a certain worldview or create widely-accepted stereotypes; it can only tap into and enhance those that already dominate the cultural and political environment. Another way of saying this is that Band Aid’s politics of pity is not really Band Aid’s − it is, more broadly, the West’s.

This is a worrying proposition, but at the same time, the first step to changing narratives is to understand them. And once we recognise that for all its sins, Band Aid was just a symptom of a problematic and much more widespread politics of pity, we can turn our attention to examining the structures upon which this worldview is built and begin to dismantle them.

As seen from the backlash to Band Aid 30, much of it from Africans, it seems that the distinction between “us and them” is already getting harder to maintain in today’s hyper-connected world. This is a hugely positive trend, but alongside this, our understanding of a politics of pity also suggests that we will need to defeat the notion that luck is the main driving force behind issues of inequality, hunger and disease. Combating an entrenched and wilfully simplistic view of the world made up of “us and them” will no doubt be a difficult and long-term challenge, but repurposing the words of Geldof himself: “We can stop it, and we will stop it.”

Written By
James Wan

James Wan is a journalist and former Senior Editor for Think Africa Press. He is a British-born Mauritian and has particular interests in China-Africa relations, human rights and social theory. In 2013, he was shortlisted for The Guardian's International Development Journalism Competition. He blogs at jamesjwan.com. Follow him on Twitter at @jamesjwan.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *