A Tale Of Dueling Ebola Songs: One From Britain, One From Africa

Dec 3, 2014
Originally published on January 5, 2015 3:14 pm

In separate recording studios and separate songs, two groups of international stars have harnessed the power of their voices to help raise awareness of Ebola.

One song, titled "Africa Stop Ebola," captures the rhythms and atmosphere of Africa. It's a beautiful song — and it also delivers a lifesaving message.

"Ebola, Ebola, invisible enemy," sings an ensemble of some of Africa's most renowned musicians. It then continues: "There is hope to stop Ebola; have confidence in the doctors."

Sung in French, English and several West African languages, the ballad gives advice on the importance of trusting doctors, not touching sick or dead people and keeping proper hygiene. The song was recorded in Paris; since its release in October, it's been aired all over West Africa. The song can also be downloaded through online music retailers like iTunes and Amazon to help raise funds for humanitarian organization Doctors Without Borders, which has taken the lead in fighting the epidemic.

The lyrics are meant to reach everybody.

"Music and radio are critical because music is education [and] entertainment," says Carlos Chirinos, a specialist in music and media at New York University, who helped produce the song. "You don't have to know how to read or write in order to understand what a song says."

Then there's the more famous Ebola song that's at the top of the charts in Britain: "Do They Know It's Christmas?" by Bob Geldof and a group of mostly British artists, recording under the name Band Aid.

But the production has become controversial. The song's video opens with two men in Hazmat suits lifting an emaciated dead woman from a soiled mattress. Then it cuts to well-heeled pop stars under the camera lights, heading into a London studio to perform.

Chirinos says the song is well-intentioned but perpetuates a negative image. "It's using certain language that still denigrates Africa," he says.

He points to one line in the song as an example: "There is a world outside your window and it's a world of dread and fear."

The Ebola version of "Do They Know It's Christmas?" is a rewrite of the 1984 original, which raised funds for a famine in Ethiopia.

It can't always be Europeans coming to the aid of Africans, says Congolese vocalist Barbara Kanam, who sings her part in "Africa Stop Ebola" in Lingala. "I agreed to sing this song because I think that today we need Africans to take our responsibility and to be involved in the battle against Ebola," she says.

There's a lot more to Africa than the misery conveyed by some charity songs, adds Malian rapper Mokobe, who also participated in "Africa Stop Ebola." He says he couldn't bring himself to watch the Band Aid video.

"It stigmatizes us and gives a horrible image of the entire continent," he says. "What we want is for people to share our song in solidarity and mobilize together with us."

In addition to raising money, Ivoirian reggae star Tiken Jah Fakoly says the group hopes to use its star power to dispel deadly myths. "People listen to us more than to their politicians," he says in French. "We encourage them to see a doctor and be confident."

Fakoly says that's the strongest message because many in West Africa have believed that going to the hospital meant death: "We say, 'No, you can beat this if you get to the doctor early on.'" And with music, he says, the advice comes with a dose of hope, not despair.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

MELISSA BLOCK: Some of Africa's best-known musicians have recorded a song to raise awareness about Ebola. It's also meant to be a fundraiser for the humanitarian organization Doctors Without Borders, which has led the fight to contain the epidemic. NPR's Eleanor Beardsley spoke with some of the African artists when they were in Paris to promote their song.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AFRICA STOP EBOLA")

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing in foreign language).

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY: This song, "Africa Stop Ebola," is full of the rhythms and atmosphere of Africa.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AFRICA STOP EBOLA")

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing in foreign language).

BEARDSLEY: But it isn't just a beautiful song. It also delivers a life-saving message.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AFRICA STOP EBOLA")

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing in foreign language).

BEARDSLEY: Sung in French, English and several West African languages, the ballad gives advice on the importance of trusting doctors, not touching sick or dead people and keeping proper hygiene. And it's meant to reach everybody. Carlos Chirinos, a specialist in music and media at New York University, helped produce the song.

CARLOS CHIRINOS: Music and radio are critical because music is education. It's entertainment. You don't need to know how to read or write in order to understand what a song says.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DO THEY KNOW IT'S CHRISTMAS?")

BAND AID: (Singing) It's Christmastime. There's no need to be afraid.

BEARDSLEY: There's another, more famous, song calling attention to Ebola, which is at the top of the charts in Britain - "Do They Know It's Christmas?" by a group of international stars calling itself Band Aid.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DO THEY KNOW IT'S CHRISTMAS?")

BAND AID: (Singing) And in our world of plenty we can spread a smile of joy, through your arms around the world at Christmastime.

BEARDSLEY: But the production has become controversial. The song's video opens with a lurid scene of two men in hazmat suits lifting an emaciated dead woman from a soiled mattress. Then it cuts to well-heeled pop stars under the camera lights heading into a London studio to perform. Chirinos says the song is well-intentioned, but it perpetuates a negative image.

CHIRINOS: It's using certain language that still denigrates Africa and I can tell you a line - one line says there is a world outside your window and it's a world of dread and fear.

BEARDSLEY: The Ebola version of "Do They Know It's Christmas?" is a rewrite of the 1984 original, which raised funds for a famine in Ethiopia.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AFRICA STOP EBOLA")

BARBARA KANAM: (Singing in foreign language).

BEARDSLEY: Congolese vocalist Barbara Kanam sings her part in "Africa Stop Ebola" in Lingala. She says it can't always be Europeans coming to the aid of Africans.

KANAM: I agreed to sing the song because I think that today we need African to take responsibility and to be involved in a battle against Ebola.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AFRICA STOP EBOLA")

MOKOBE: (Rapping in foreign language).

BEARDSLEY: Malian rapper Mokobe says there's a lot more to Africa than the misery conveyed by some charity songs.

MOKOBE: (Through translator) I couldn't even watch the video. It stigmatizes us and gives a horrible image of the entire continent. What we want is for people to share our song in solidarity, mobilize together with us.

BEARDSLEY: In addition to raising money, Ivoirian reggae star Tiken Jah Fakoly says the group hopes to use its star power to dispel deadly myths on the ground.

TIKEN JAH FAKOLY: (Through translator) People listen to us more than their politicians. We encourage them to see a doctor and be confident. That's the strongest message because many believe going to the hospital means death. We say no, you can beat this if you get to the doctor early on.

BEARDSLEY: Fakoly says their music passes on life-saving advice with a dose of hope, not despair. Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News, Paris.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AFRICA STOP EBOLA")

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing in foreign language). Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.