In early 2014 a major crisis emerged as the deadly ebola virus resurfaced in in Guinea, expanded rapidly and spread into neighbouring western African countries. By the time it was brought under control in 2015, over 11,000 people had died, including many healthcare workers.
This is all well known. What is less well known is the role a music campaign played in the massive international effort to contain the disease.
New York based music producer and academic Carlos Chirinos tells the story:
“The music campaign started with a song. Actually it started with a frantic phone call from a music agent. Ebola was killing her business. Her artists, including celebrated Malian star Salif Keita, were having tours and concerts cancelled, and audiences were staying away. This call led to a conversation. How could music help provide a solution?
When the crisis started there were many issues to contend with. One was that most of the voices providing information were white. This was a well-intentioned narrative from western aid organisations and others. But it wasn’t reaching those most in need – local people affected by the crisis. The biggest issue was human to human contact and there was an urgent need to educate people about appropriate procedures for maintaining safety, including handling the deceased.
So a song was written: Africa stop ebola. Recorded in seven languages, it featured influential African artists including Amadou & Mariam, Salif Keita, Oumou Sangaré and many others. The aim was to reach as many affected people as possible with specific information, including building trust in health services. This led to a partnership with Médecins sans Frontières (MSF), the agency first on the ground to deal with the crisis, and all proceeds for the song were donated to this charity.
The song was recorded and launched digitally without fanfare. Within days it had 200,000 shares. Then something interesting happened.
A blog post by U2 star Bono changed it all. In response to the latest Do they know its Christmas campaign song, Bono alerted the world to this issue – and this other song. It took off, and the song has now had over 750,000 views on You Tube. “For all the goodwill of the Bob Geldof led band aid effort, a song by Africans, recorded in Africa, in local languages, had real resonance at this time.
Public health officials needed behavioural change. Who would have thought they’d choose music to do it? Carlos certainly didn’t think this would happen. But it did.
“With funding from an award, a song contest was launched, and agents of change were recruited across the music and health sectors. The song inspired others, who wrote songs with a similar theme, often in local languages. All were designed to do the same thing – to reach communities with a public health message.
So how valuable was the campaign? An evaluation found that celebrities and songs are trusted sources of information, and that health workers viewed the song as a very effective communication medium, particularly in reaching young people.
It also demonstrated the ‘soft power’ of music, and showed how music, which is often embedded in the social and cultural fabric of a community, can be a tool to engage people, and in this case demonstrated an ability to address an urgent public health issue.”