“We Are The World” Shows Community Unity: The Good…
On April 5, 1985, 5,000 radio stations across Africa, North America, Asia, China, and Europe simultaneously played “We Are the World,” a song that was written by Michael Jackson and Lionel Richie. The song was produced by the legendary Quincy Jones and revolved around a simple idea: to unite American recording artists and help raise money for the poor and less fortunate famine relief victims in one of Africa’s most remarkable lands, Ethiopia.
This kind gesture was initialized by Calypso music legend, Harry Belafonte, who first contacted the head of the United Support of Artists for Africa foundation, Ken Kragen. Kragen then reached out to Lionel Richie, whose wife passed the idea on to Stevie Wonder the following day. Then music’s best, Quincy Jones, signed on as producer and brought in Michael Jackson. The rest is history.
As America’s “We Are the World” propelled up Billboard’s charts, the other songs on the top five singles list were “One More Night” by Phil Collins, “Crazy for You” and “Material Girl” by Madonna, and “Nightshift” by The Commodores. The “We Are The World” song was recorded on January 28, 1985 on the evening of the American Music Awards, which was a smart way to guarantee that the top recording acts would be present. Sure enough, others quickly followed suit, and before long, the list of supporting acts had grown to include over three dozen celebrities such as:
Dan Aykroyd Jackie Jackson Cyndi Lauper Kenny Rogers
Harry Belafonte LaToya Jackson Kenny Loggins Diana Ross
Lindsay Buckingham Marlon Jackson Bette Midler Paul Simon
Kim Carnes Michael Jackson Willie Nelson Bruce Springsteen
Ray Charles Randy Jackson John Oates Tina Turner
Bob Dylan Tito Jackson Jeffrey Osborne Dionne Warwick
Sheila E. Al Jarreau Steve Perry Stevie Wonder
Bob Geldof Waylon Jennings The Pointer Sisters Huey Lewis
Darryl Hall Billy Joel Lionel Richie &
James Ingram Quincy Jones Smokey Robinson The News
CBS Records’ Columbia and Epic labels had the bulk of contributing artists. The song’s opening developed from a basic raw phrase, and then its chorus evolved into an international anthem of the world. Dropping the music down was the first phase of production. They accomplished this at the studio by capturing the instrumental performances of musicians into the studio’s multi-track recording system. The lyrics were later added to the instrumental as the song progressed.
Producer Quincy Jones turned three days of pre-production work with Lionel Richie and Michael Jackson into a recording session of less than three hours, by advising artists in advance to “check their egos at the door.” As this unforgettable recording session transpired, the performers did their parts, leaving Richie and Jones in the studio tightening up the track until the following morning. Recorded in Hollywood's A&M Studios, all of the artists were arranged choir-style with a half-dozen microphones in place for the song’s chorus.
In a little over a month after its recording, “We Are the World” arrived in stores. Needless to say, Harry Belafonte's dream parlayed itself into a music industry phenomenon when between Thursday, March 7 and Sunday March 10, 1985, over 800,000 copies were sold. Entering the Billboard singles chart at #21, it became the fastest-rising Billboard #1 single in 10 years. In less than a decade, the Commodores’ front man Lionel Richie scored his eighth #1 single by writing “We Are the World.”
Although a fierce bidding war for the release of the record probably took place between record companies like Motown (Lionel Richie's label) and Epic (Michael Jackson's), Columbia Records won out; it was Epic's sister company, and a division of CBS Records (part of the CBS conglomerate).
To comprehend the significance of the bidding wars, just figure in the economics. By the new decade, CBS would go on to be sold to the Sony Corporation for $2 billion. Sony recouped its investment within a year thanks to chart-topping hits by acts like Mariah Carey, Luther Vandross, Jermaine Dupri’s So So Def releases…and Michael Jackson, also known to some as the ‘King of Pop.’
By mid-May, Columbia presented a check to the United Support of Artists for Africa Foundation in the amount of $6.5 million, which was only two months after the initial release date. Additional sales netted more than 7 million singles and nearly 4.5 million albums. Within a year, media and product sales generated over $40 million.
Though “We Are the World” wasn’t first, it was America’s version of the United Kingdom’s “Band Aid.” The key here is that each release brought light to the issue of starving Africans doing whatever they could to cling onto life. But today, does its impact continue to make a difference? Would there still be widespread social issues like these? I’m curious how many people have answers to these questions.
Like I just pointed out, the “We Are the World” conglomeration was an American form of the UK’s “Band Aid,” a project that began its recording phase several months prior to America’s efforts, on November 25th 1984. “Band Aid” was released on December 3rd, just in time to cash in on holiday music sales. It’s no secret that most of the industry’s products are sold around the holiday season.
“Band Aid” was a premier musical fundraising project that assisted the needy people in Africa. It featured performances that came from almost four dozen mostly British recording artists and producers including Midge Ure (Ultravox), who composed the melody and music tracks to the lyrics of Boomtown Rats member and event organizer, Bob Geldof. Also in the lineup were Duran Duran, Sting, Paul Young, and The Culture Club's Boy George. Other British acts signed up, and a few American recording artists popped up too--like Jody Watley, formerly of R&B group Shalamar and Kool & The Gang members Robert ‘Kool’ Bell, James ‘JT’ Taylor, and Dennis Taylor.
There was a void of any major American Pop/Rock artists, thus initiating the U.S.A. for Africa’s “We Are the World.” Band Aid’s ensemble of recording artists performed a touching song called “Do They Know It's Christmas?” This inspirational composition reminded many of their blessings at a poignant time of the year.
Project organizer Bob Geldof must have been proud to see the fruits of his labor turn into sales of over 3 million copies in Britain, making it the biggest-selling single at that time. With sales of one million units in the first week alone, “Do They Know It's Christmas?” assumed the position of being the fastest-selling single of all time in the U.K.
Another case of famine hit Ethiopia in 1989 that led to another outreach of love by empathetic British music people: “Band Aid II.” Produced by the hit-making Stock Aitken Waterman, a part of the 17 acts included:
These artists and others banded together with the hope of putting a lid on reoccurring monstrosities such as starvation and poverty in Africa. Despite these magnificent efforts, today there are still folks that contemplate amongst themselves: do events such as “Band Aid” or “Band Aid II” continue to hold an impact some 15 years (“Band Aid II”) and 20 years (“Band Aid”) after the fact? Was it all still influential by the November 2004 release of “Band Aid 20” (a benefit for famine relief in Sudan’s Darfur region) and 2005’s ‘Group of 8’ or ‘G-8’ superpower 3-day summit meetings in Scotland? As far as which event generated the most impact, the jury is still out.
Unfortunately, the high-level ‘G-8’ meetings shifted focus, albeit briefly away from the positivism of “Band Aid 20” due to terrorist bomb attacks in London. Remarkably, the show went on with simultaneous broadcast of artists’ performances from around the world. The CD version quickly sold 200,000 copies…it included the fastest-selling single of the year on it. Over two dozen international artists united including Bob Geldof (he gets around), U2’s Bono (a long-time activist), Dido, Nigel Godrich, Chris Martin, and Ultravox’s Midge Ure–-another key player in the program.
Let’s get a quick glimpse of a few other ‘intentional acts of kindness’ that the music community collectively made towards solving dilemmas like cancer, America’s impoverished farming industry, and famine in Africa. We’ll take a close look at how fragile the gift of life can actually be in this unruly continent, then we’ll be on our way deep into its villages to see up close and personal what the ‘411’ is on African tribal music and the people that made it, in the motherland.
Similar projects to “We Are the World” and “Band Aid” made their way to the music market including “Live for Life” and “Farm Aid,” the latter being an annual event spearheaded by country music icon Willie Nelson. Kicked off in September of 1985 in Champagne, Illinois, this fundraising event included the peoples’ own John Mellencamp, who busted onto the music scene in the early 80s with a ‘Cougar’ scratched in between his first and last names. He also wrote “a little diddy about Jack and Diane”–-a song about trying to make it in the heartland. Estimates indicate this fundraiser generated over $20 million for farmers in America by showcasing a live concert and studio tracks.
The goal of “Farm Aid” was to help keep creditors from foreclosing on family-owned farms. An assorted music lineup included Country, Blues and Rock performances by the likes of Neil Young and Dave Matthews. This event was commemorated in 2005 with a 20 year anniversary concert held in Tinley Park, Illinois. Between the very first concert and this one, annual events took place in cities as diverse as Austin (Texas), Columbus (Ohio), Lincoln (Nebraska) and even in America’s heartland of Indiana and Iowa. Additional cities like New Orleans, Seattle, and Virginia also contributed by hosting some of these benefit concerts.
The purpose of the “Live for Life” album was to raise funds for cancer prevention and treatment. It was released on I.R.S. Records in 1986, and distributed by MCA Records. Executive producer Miles Copeland supervised the project; other great names on the album included Ian and Stewart Copeland, Bob Marley (who ironically died of the disease May 5, 1981), R.E.M., The Alarm, General Public, Sting, The Bangles, Oingo Boingo, The Go-Go's, Squeeze, and Derek Holt.
Over the subsequent years to come and into the new millennium, many music releases followed analogous paths to address urgent medical issues. In 2001, fashion maverick Chuck Navasky and Radio Records released “One Less Tear–-Brothers & Sisters United In The Fight Against Cancer,” featuring songs by a widely assorted list of artists and celebrities including:
Nellie Briles Trevor Johnson Ricochet
Carol Chase C. Danny Lewis Eric Rigler
Robin Cole Ryan Marshall Dale Russell
Coppola Tia McGraff Hal Schaefer
Tony Curtis Olivia Newton-John Kevin Sharp
Dawn Vince Neil Mark Slaughter
Cahal Dunne Wesley Oliver Gabriella Weiser
L.C. Greenwood Jim Peterick Stacey Woodson
Ken Griffey, Sr. Cathy Richardson Donnie/Johnny Van Zant
Other luminaries jumped on the bandwagon. Here’s the beauty of this project to me: many talented people committed their time to help in assembling a truly inspirational music CD. All proceeds from the CD were donated to cancer research. Some good people stepped up for this mission to help battle a bad disease. It was the right thing to do, and so was another previous, multi-cultural musical event: the 1985 effort of “Live Aid” concerts that assisted in reducing the catastrophic famine in Ethiopia during the mid 80s.
The “Live Aid” event was broadcasted from London, England, and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. It featured an all-star lineup that showcased 16 hours of performances by 60 acts. Unfortunately, reports surfaced that not all of the funding went for good. Some donations were diverted to finance the operations of a dictator who used the money to reclaim land, causing an estimated 100,000 people to lose their lives.
We should always remain mindful when huge amounts of money are given to seemingly innocent people through the Internet. Fraud happens! Donations should be well thought out and require the utmost attention before possible victims dig into their bank accounts to give away money. Widespread Internet fraud has been used to support terrorists in Nigeria and other regions of the world. This happens in much the same way that other Internet ‘spammers and scammers’ attempt to separate people from their money.
Regardless of the few negative aspects that tagged along, socially uplifting projects such as “We Are The World,” “Band Aid,” “Live for Life,” “Farm Aid,” and “One Less Tear–-Brothers & Sisters United In The Fight Against Cancer” all displayed the power of good people uniting for a worthwhile cause. As for the “Live Aid” event, organizer Bob Geldof was determined to make a difference, and that's what he did by orchestrating events of this magnitude.
Coinciding with the 2005 three day ‘G-8’ superpower summit in Scotland around America’s July 4th Independence Day celebration, the 20th anniversary of “Live Aid” held worldwide fundraisers to reduce poverty in Africa. This summit gathered leaders of the world’s wealthiest and most powerful nations to play golf, eat expensive food, drink some bubbly, and be merry (well, maybe not in that order). Some time was also allotted to ponder the issues that affected the 'have mores' (capitalism), the ‘have-nots’ (3rd world famine, poverty), and both groups (health, terrorism, global warming and weather conditions). The G-8 summit aimed to address these important issues and try to come up with a strategy to manage them.
As mentioned before, a momentary lapse of reason caused the focus of this high-powered convention to be diverted as a series of terrorist bomb attacks raised havoc throughout London. The blessing here is that each event (the G-8 summit and concerts) still happened, thereby sending a message to terrorists declaring “we may be scarred, but we’re not scared.”
British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s proposal to eliminate the debt of the world’s poorest countries was a grand plan to pitch at the summit. It included proposals to double developmental aid to Africa with the hope of giving it a genuine opportunity at world trade in a global market. This all sounded good because it alerted everyone as to how much attitudes really have changed since the 1500s United Kingdom society.
The last time a summit like this took place was in 1998 and it was hosted by the aforementioned British Prime Minister Tony Blair in Birmingham, England. On the same days that politicians performed lip-service for the people and the press at the G-8 meetings, countless musicians were delivering amazing performances simultaneously, through multiple broadcasts from opposite hemispheres. Since its 1975 inception in France, the summit meetings have taken place in different locations around the world. Canada joined in 1976 and by 1998, Russia came on board.
Concerts in support of the 2005 landmark event were held in Berlin, Canada, Johannesburg, London, Moscow, Paris, Philadelphia, Rome and Tokyo. Some of the superstars featured throughout the years included U2's Bono, Mariah Carey, Run-DMC's DMC, The Who’s Roger Daltrey, Destiny's Child, Duran Duran, Faith Hill, Madonna, Paul McCartney, Will Smith, Sting and Stevie Wonder. It even brought out Microsoft's Bill Gates. Bill brought his band XDP (Xtreme Deep Pockets), and did a cover version of Pink Floyd’s “Money.” Just kidding folks! From time to time, I have to make sure you’re paying attention. Back on a serious note, the presence of Bill Gates put his philanthropic side in plain view to the masses…and people were taking notes.