PopMusic: Do They Know Its Christmas?

Plugged in to public health

Published on March 14, 2013by Lauren Weisenfluh

Written by Bob Geldof and Midge Ure to raise awareness and money to combat the 1984-1985 Ethiopian famine, Band Aid’s “Do They Know Its Christmas?” was a joint single by a myriad of popular ‘80s musicians, including David Bowie, Sting, Bono and Adam Clayton of U2, and Phil Collins of Genesis. The song became the best-selling single ever in the United Kingdom until 1997, earning $13.6 million worldwide, every penny of which was donated towards the cause.

Driven by the success of the single, Geldof and Ure organized the 1985 Live Aid concert to keep the famine in the public spotlight. To this day, Live Aid is remembered as ‘the day rock and roll changed the world,’ earning £30 million for famine relief in Africa.

The money brought early-warning systems that prevented an Ethiopian famine in 2003 from spinning into ‘80s-magnitude devastation, said Ure, the song co-author and co-organizer of the Live Aid concert, in an interview with Music OMH. “People are alive today who wouldn’t have been alive had people not stuck their hands in their pockets and bought that record,” she told the magazine. Enough money was raised from the “Christmas” single to send “seven emergency flights and three ships to Africa” containing a wealth of humanitarian aid, such as “one hundred and forty tons of high energy biscuits, one thousand two hundred and forty tons of dried skim milk powder, twenty five tons of full cream milk powder” and more, writes Trócaire, the official overseas development agency of the Catholic Church in Ireland.

The song pleads with the listener to remember that “there won’t be snow in Africa this Christmas time/The greatest gift they’ll get this year is life /Where nothing ever grows, no rain or rivers flow/Do they know it’s Christmas time at all?” After establishing the plight of the Ethiopian people, the ending asks listeners to be generous with their good fortune and remember those less fortunate: “Feed the world/Let them know it’s Christmas time/and Feed the world.”

Today, Ethiopia is green again: “In 1984 the land was parched brown and covered in tents,” writes Peter Gill, one of the first journalists to arrive to the center of the 1984 Ethiopian famine, in his 2012 book “Famine and Foreigners: Ethiopia Since Live Aid.” “Today the site of the camp had a flush of green to it, even four months into the dry season.”

Read our introduction to the PopMusic series, The 2×2 Project’s compilation of some of the most iconic songs tackling topics of public health. Come back to see new songs posted every Thursday.

Edited by Jordan Lite. Additional research by Arti Virkud.