After you hear it, you might find yourself singing it – with the words “Ebola, Ebola” rolling off your tongue. It might seem strange to hum about one of the world’s most pressing health crises, especially to such an upbeat refrain.
But that’s exactly the point of a new creation by a collective of West African artists, called Africa Stop Ebola. They’ve set five minutes of what is essentially a public service announcement to pop and reggae in an effort to dispel myths and stereotypes about the virus and get Africans to do all that they can to prevent it.
Their song has come out as Band Aid has released its own song to raise funds to fight Ebola, a remake of “Do they know it’s Christmas Time?” Organized by Irish singer Bob Geldof, it has topped UK charts. But it’s also been slammed for stigmatizing Africa with lyrics that perpetuate fear, sung by a line-up of famous artists that include only one African.
Africa Stop Ebola, on the other hand, is sung by the artists whom many West Africans know well, and its lyrics, in seven languages, are as straightforward as the group’s name. “You cannot kiss someone,” belts out the Guinean artist Mory Kanté. “It’s just the reality.” Other lyrics include: “Take Ebola seriously,” “wash your hands, and “avoid shaking hands of others.”
“We chose to sing because we need to talk about Ebola,” says Barbara Kanam, a well-known Congolese singer, in a bright royal-blue blouse at the Paris offices of Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), which benefits from the song's proceeds “The message is easier to hear in a song than what a doctor says to you. Through song, people can understand that it exists, but that it can be overcome.”
MSF, or Doctors Without Borders, has been on the frontlines of the fight against Ebola in West Africa. But the group is the first to admit that when it comes to prevention, it is the musical stars, including reggae artist Tiken Jah Fakoly and pop-singer Salif Keita, not the nurses and doctors, who can spread prevention advice fastest.
“These people are very popular musicians, everyone wants to listen to their music,” says Becky Oba, a nurse for MSF from Nigeria who works in Liberia. “People hearing these popular artists singing, passing this information, is going a long way in spreading awareness.”
The song, produced by Carlos Chirinos, a music and development expert at the University of London, was written specifically for the radio because it’s how most Africans receive their information. “Radio is still the medium that is closest to the community,” says Mr. Chirinos. “The power that radio has is that it can reach those houses that are the most isolated.”
The Band Aid song has a different audience and plays a role in awareness that is important But Chirinos agrees with some of the criticism of lyrics that make it seem that Ebola is a continent-wide problem and stereotype Africa as place to fear. “Here a kiss of love can kill you – and there’s death in every tear,” the lyrics read. “And the Christmas bells that ring there – are the clanging chimes of doom.”
“That has a knock-on effect on trade and investment ... and a knock-on effect on tourism,” he says. “Who is going to Africa next year for their holidays?”
Africa Stop Ebola, on the other hand, relays specific health advice and tries to instill public trust in health authorities. But at its core is a message of hope for the people directly affected, says Chirinos.
“It sends a message that this can be overcome,” he says.
[Editor's note: The original version misnamed the anti-Ebola song.]