News

Charity Song, 'We are the World' Remembered 25 Years Later

Lionel Richie, Michael Jackson song raised $64 million to aid Ethiopia's famine victims.

Logo, USA for Africa
Logo, USA for Africa
Cecily Hilleary

Twenty-five years ago, a group of several dozen American music celebrities got together to write and record a single song to benefit Ethiopian famine victims. It would become one of the best selling singles of all time, generating millions of dollars to Ethiopian famine victims.

In November, 1984, the British group Live Aid had recorded a Christmas song to raise money for famine relief. By late December, American music legend Harry Belafonte was outraged that African Americans had not done anything to help Ethiopians. He telephoned well-known pop celebrity manager Ken Kragen and suggested organizing a black superstar benefit concert. Within minutes, Kragen, who would later head the relief organization United Support of Artists for Africa (USA for Africa), was on the phone with singer/songwriter Lionel Richie.

Richie says he leaped at the idea. “This is the time in your life when all things are possible,” he says. “You’re looking to solve the world’s problems. So when you get this phone call that says, ‘Would you like to save starving people?’ the answer is, ‘Of course, yes!’”

He and Kragen agreed that a recording would be a better idea than a single performance, and they could think of no one better to produce the effort than composer, arranger and producer Quincy Jones. That evening, Richie called Jones, who just happened to be sitting with pop superstar Michael Jackson at the time.

A few days later, Jones, Richie and Jackson were holed up in Jackson’s Encino, California home, pounding out a melody. Within two days, We are the World had taken shape.

“We are so similar in our approach to the music,” says Richie, who still speaks of his friend Michael in the present tense. “Even though our music is so different…. We hummed this thing out, had someone to put the music to it. And of course we killed the melody. It was fabulous. And then after that, it was a matter of just assigning the names to the various phrases.”

While they were working out the song, Kragen went to work recruiting celebrity singers to participate. The list of artists who joined Richie and Jackson to donate their talents reads like a Who’s Who of mid-80's pop: Stevie Wonder, Tina Turner, Billy Joel and Bruce Springsteen, were just a few of the more than 45 who participated. Another four dozen were turned away.

Kragen says Quincy Jones was aware of the potential challenges of managing so many celebrities – and celebrity egos. “He said, ‘Look. If we allow any thing for chance, if we allow anything up to the individual artists, you will have absolute anarchy. They will all fight for the solo they think is the most important, they will all fight for the position to stand, to be placed in the group.’”

Jones’ solution was to write into the music exactly who would be singing what and to place pieces of tape on the floor indicating where each performer should stand.

They recorded the vocals the night of 28 January in a single, 10 hour session. The song was released five weeks later.

Music critics offered mixed reviews of the song. Some liked the tune for its simplicity and the fact that it was performed by such a racially diverse group of celebrities. Others questioned why the song didn’t address the issues leading to famine in Africa. But in the music business, it’s record sales that matter. We are the World became the fastest-selling pop single in US history and topped music charts all over the world. But for Lionel Richie and the other artists, it was something more.

“What you pray for in your entire career,” says Richie, “is that, besides all of the hit records and all of the money you plan on making, that you actually leave some kind of mark on the world. This was the best that could ever happen, because all of our talent, for one time in the history of all of us, where we were doing all of this ego [sic], all of this fame and fortune was now being directed towards helping someone else in the world. And you knew it was going to be a direct affect on their lives.”

Richie paused a moment. “We are the World,” he says finally, “marked the day I became a citizen of the world.”


 

This forum has been closed.
Comments
     
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Turkey's Main Opposition Party Hopes for Election Breakthroughi
X
May 22, 2015 10:23 AM
Turkey’s main opposition Republican People’s Party has sought an image change ahead of the June 7 general election. The move comes after suffering successive defeats at the hands of the Islamist-rooted AK Party, which has portrayed it as hostile to religion. Dorian Jones reports from the western city of Izmir.
Video

Video Turkey's Main Opposition Party Hopes for Election Breakthrough

Turkey’s main opposition Republican People’s Party has sought an image change ahead of the June 7 general election. The move comes after suffering successive defeats at the hands of the Islamist-rooted AK Party, which has portrayed it as hostile to religion. Dorian Jones reports from the western city of Izmir.
Video

Video Europe Follows US Lead in Tackling ‘Conflict Minerals’

Metals mined from conflict zones in places like the Democratic Republic of Congo are often sold by warlords to buy weapons. This week European lawmakers voted to force manufacturers to prove that their supply chains are not inadvertently fueling conflicts and human rights abuses. Henry Ridgwell reports from London.
Video

Video Class Tackles Questions of Race, Discrimination

Unrest in some U.S. cities is more than just a trending news item at Ladue Middle School in St. Louis, Missouri. As VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports, it’s a focus of a multicultural studies class engaging students in wide-ranging discussions about racial tensions and police aggression.
Video

Video Mind-Controlled Prosthetics Are Getting Closer

Scientists and engineers are making substantial advances towards the ultimate goal in prosthetics – creation of limbs that can be controlled by the wearer’s mind. Thanks to sophisticated sensors capable of picking up the brain’s signals, an amputee in Iceland is literally bringing us one step closer to that goal. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Afghan Economy Sinks As Foreign Troops Depart

As international troops prepare to leave Afghanistan, and many foreign aid groups follow, Afghans are grappling with how the exodus will affect the country's fragile economy. Ayesha Tanzeem reports from the Afghan capital, Kabul.
Video

Video Poverty, Ignorance Force Underage Girls Into Marriage

The recent marriage of a 17-year old Chechen girl to a local police chief who was 30 years older and already had a wife caused an outcry in Russia and beyond. The bride was reportedly forced to marry and her parents were intimidated into giving their consent. The union spotlighted yet again the plight of many underage girls in developing countries. Zlatica Hoke reports poverty, ignorance and fear are behind the practice, especially in Asia and Africa.
Video

Video South Korea Marks Gwangju Uprising Anniversary

South Korea this week marked the 35th anniversary of a protest that turned deadly. The Gwangju Uprising is credited with starting the country’s democratic revolution after it was violently quelled by South Korea’s former military rulers. But as Jason Strother reports, some observers worry that democracy has recently been eroded.
Video

Video California’s Water System Not Created To Handle Current Drought

The drought in California is moving into its fourth year. While the state's governor is mandating a reduction in urban water use, most of the water used in California is for agriculture. But both city dwellers and farmers are feeling the impact of the drought. Some experts say the state’s water system was not created to handle long periods of drought. Elizabeth Lee reports from Ventura County, an agricultural region just northwest of Los Angeles.
Video

Video How to Clone a Mammoth: The Science of De-Extinction

An international team of scientists has sequenced the complete genome of the woolly mammoth. Led by the Swedish Museum of Natural History in Stockholm, the work opens the door to recreate the huge herbivore, which last roamed the Earth 4,000 years ago. VOA’s Rosanne Skirble considers the science of de-extinction and its place on the planet
Video

Video Blind Boy Defines His Life with Music

Cole Moran was born blind. He also has cognitive delays and other birth defects. He has to learn everything by ear. Nevertheless, the 12-year-old has had an insatiable love for music since he was born. VOA’s June Soh introduces us to the young phenomenal harmonica player.

VOA Blogs