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3 May 2018 / by Wong Chi Chung

Wong Chi Chung: A Brief History of Charity Singles

Close-up on a bespectacled, dark-haired man’s head and torso as he holds a microphone and speaks into it. In his other hand, he is holding a cardboard VHS cover with the words ‘LIVE AID’ emblazoned on top of an illustration in which the continent of Africa has been made to look like a guitar.

Wong speaking at ‘We Are One?’ Screenings & Conversations (2017), held in conjunction with Samson Young: Songs for Disaster Relief

To accompany Samson Young: Songs for Disaster Relief, at the 57th Venice Biennale in 2017, M+ and the Hong Kong Arts Centre co-presented 'We Are One?,' a programme on the theme of charity efforts. We invited veteran radio DJ and music critic Wong Chi Chung, a speaker at the programme, reflects on charity singles from a historical perspective as a response to Young's Hong Kong return exhibition, Samson Young: Songs for Disaster Relief World Tour.

On Sunday 11 March, at the gloriously sunny Freespace Happening, I wandered off to the Samson Young: Songs for Disaster Relief World Tour exhibition nearby at the M+ Pavilion and found that my thoughts took me back to an important period in my relationship to music: the time when I, a long-time music fan, became a radio DJ, in the 1980s.

The Christmas songs released in the early 1980s were mournfully beautiful, with many exceptionally romantic musicians writing moving pieces. The soundtrack for the film Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence, which premiered in May 1983 at the Cannes Film Festival, was, for example, an unparalleled collaboration between David Bowie and Ryuichi Sakamoto. In the year 1984, both Last Christmas by Wham! and Band Aid’s Do They Know It’s Christmas? were heard throughout London and then around the world. While the former is a song about losing love, the latter was a charity song pioneer.

Pop music attempted to relieve the world’s disasters—a continuation of the 1960s’ utopian vision of universal brotherhood.

Wong Chi Chung

The Band Aid project was conceived by Bob Geldof, vocalist of Boomtown Rats, the band notable for its socially conscious songs like I Don’t Like Mondays, based on a school shooting tragedy. Back then, Ethiopia was stricken by a severe famine. Deeply moved by the country’s sufferings he'd learned about from news reports, Bob co-wrote Do they Know it’s Christmas? with his friend, Ultravox frontman Midge Ure, and invited world-famous performers and acts from the United Kingdom—like Bono from U2, Boy George, Sting, Duran Duran, Spandau Ballet, and Wham!—to record this Christmas charity song.

Because mobile phones, YouTube, and social networks were yet to appear, the song’s publicity was highly focused, through print media, radio, and television. The song soon took the world by storm, and Hong Kong was no exception.

The considerable influence of the song could be felt almost immediately after its release, as the American music world responded swiftly with the recording of We Are The World by USA for Africa on 28th January 1985. The song was written by Michael Jackson and Lionel Richie and produced by Quincy Jones, all of whom were, at that time, major players in the popular music world. They were joined by a star-studded group including Stevie Wonder, Diana Ross, Bruce Springsteen, and Cyndi Lauper.

A crowd of people is gathered in front of a large stage with musicians playing. Enormous banners with the words ‘LIVE AID’ over a graphic of the continent of Africa turned into a guitar.

The Live Aid concert held at John F. Kennedy Stadium in 1985. Photo: Squelle via Wikimedia Commons. (CC-SA-3.0)

Both singles soon snowballed into a massive benefit concert co-hosted by pop musicians from both countries. Live Aid was held on 13 July 1985 simultaneously at the Wembley Stadium in London and the John F. Kennedy Stadium in Philadelphia, with worldwide satellite broadcast coverage—including in Hong Kong. Together with tens of millions of people around the world, we watched the live performance featuring superstars like Paul McCartney, David Bowie, Queen, and Madonna, and witnessed a significant moment in history, in which pop music attempted to relieve the world’s disasters—a continuation of the 1960s’ utopian vision of universal brotherhood.

However, the world has changed dramatically since the beginning of the 21st century. Band Aid 30’s revival of the track Do They Know It's Christmas? in 2014, this time to raise money for African countries afflicted with the Ebola virus, prompted a wave of criticism. First of all, many felt that recording versions of the same tune over and over was mundane. Second of all, people in Africa found the so-called white-saviour complex offensive, as demonstrated in the altered lyrics sung by Bono: ‘Well, tonight we are reaching out and touching you', which replaced the much-criticised original line, ‘Well, tonight thank God it’s them instead of you’ in the earlier version.

A person sits on a couch in a red-lit room containing a TV screen, two bugles and a drum on the floor, a carpet and two footstools, and a jacket on a stand. The walls are covered in curtains with song lyrics embroidered onto them. One of the lyrics is the line ‘Thank God it’s them instead of you’.

Lines of song lyrics, including ‘Thank God it’s them instead of you’ from 'Do They Know It’s Christmas?', embroidered onto curtains on the walls of the exhibition. © Samson Young; Photo: M+, Hong Kong

In fact, with the popularisation of musical production and social media, African musicians themselves are now producing widely distributed charity songs in their own languages, as an opposition to the good-intentioned but oft-patronising attempts of aid from their Western counterparts. It is worth thinking about how this change in direction for charity songs gives these musicians a new voice and agency.

In Samson Young’s exhibition, the music has been deconstructed (think of the whispered performance of We Are the World) as well as constructed (the fusion of Bob Geldof and David Bowie into the fictional character of Boomtown Gundane). In this so-called post-truth era, how do we tell fact from fiction and know what is true and what is false?

A room with a large screen on the wall in front of two rows of old fashioned wooden theatre seats. The screen is playing a video showing a choir singing something.

A whispered version of We Are the World, performed by the Hong Kong Federation of Trade Unions Choir. © Samson Young; Photo: M+, Hong Kong

All photos by M+, Hong Kong, unless otherwise specified. This article was originally published on M+ Stories.

Wong Chi Chung is Head of General Education at The University of Hong Kong and a veteran radio DJ, music critic, and curator. He plays an active role in promoting international and local music culture through various cross-cultural projects, such as the Mandarin version of David Bowie’s Seven Years in Tibet (1997), Dream Come True 80 Days Around the World (2000), PoPo Song (2004), James Wong Study (2005), Centennial Exhibition of Chinese Records (2006), Hong Kong Pop/Performing Culture (2007), 'Farewell Ka Kui' 15th Anniversary (2008), Gen-S Concert (2010), Hong Kong Week in Taipei (2012), Ryuichi Sakamoto's async (2017), and Cantopop oral history for the Hong Kong Heritage Museum (2021). Wong currently hosts the radio show Chi Chung’s Choice on CR2 FM 90.3.

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