We Are (Still) the World

It’s easily been my best song ever, as far as best songs go; even the video, right from childhood. A tiny globe appears, the earth, rotates, as on an axis, momentarily becomes bigger, and the maps apparent in the regular blue and white haze. The earth becomes bigger, and then flattens out into a white square with USA for Africa (United Support of Artists for Africa) in bold print. It recedes to a corner of the square as the signatures emerge; the signatures and a single thumbprint. I could make out Ray Charles’ signature so I’ve since concluded that the thumbprint must be Stevie Wonder’s.

There comes a time when we heed a certain call (Lionel Richie)
When the world must come together as one (Lionel Richie & Stevie Wonder)
There are people dying (Stevie Wonder)
Oh, and it’s time to lend a hand to life (Paul Simon)
The greatest gift of all (Paul Simon/Kenny Rogers)

The world hasn’t come a long way since 1985 when this group of high-profile artistes sang We Are the World, (written by Michael Jackson and Lionel Richie, produced and conducted by Quincy Jones.) The song was intended to raise funds to help famine relief efforts in Ethiopia. We really don’t seem to have come a long way. People are still dying, all around the world, seemingly unnoticed, from wars, famines, economic repression et cetera, and there’s still as much insensitivity, and embarrassingly, the world still relies on pop stars to bring all of this to our notice.

We can’t go on pretending day by day (Kenny Rogers)
That someone somehow will soon make a change (James Ingram)
We’re all a part of God’s great big family (Tina Turner)
And the truth (Billy Joel)
You know love is all we need (Tina Turner/Billy Joel)

The USA for Africa effort came probably as an American response to the 1984 success of British super group, Band Aid‘s Do They Know It’s Christmas? organised by Bob Geldof. Twenty-two years after, Bob Geldof still finds himself playing the same role. What déjà vu!

We are the world, we are the children
We are the ones who make a brighter day so let’s start giving (Michael Jackson)
There’s a choice we’re making we’re saving our own lives (Diana Ross)
It’s true we’ll make a better day just you and me (Michael Jackson/Diana Ross)

To ensure as many artists as possible could participate, the recording was done on the night of the American Music Awards. If you watch the video of the song, especially the making, (I suggest you try it out on YouTube) you’ll find that they all complied with Quincy Jones’ famous advice to them in his written invitation that they “check your egos at the door.” In all, 45 musicians attended. It’s always beautiful to see pretty Michael Jackson sing side by side with young Diana Ross.

Well, send’em your heart, so they know that someone cares (Dionne Warwick)
And their lives will be stronger and free (Dionne Warwick/Willie Nelson)
As God has shown us by turning stone to bread (Willie Nelson)
And so we all must lend a helping hand (Al Jarreau)

Indeed, they sent the world their hearts, and I suppose we all caught it. We Are the World hit the stores on Tuesday, March 7 1985, and all 800,000 copies sold out before the end of the weekend. On April 5 (1985 Good Friday), more than 5,000 radio stations played the song at the same time. It became the United States’ number one single on April 13 and held the position for four weeks. On June 10, 1985, USA for Africa’s first airlift delivered food, medicine and shelter materials to famine victims in Ethiopia.

We are the world; we are the children (Bruce Springsteen)
We are the ones who make a brighter day so let’s start giving (Kenny Logins)
There’s a choice we’re making, we’re saving our own lives (Steve Perry)
It’s true we’ll make a better day just you and me (Daryl Hall)

The song went on to win three 1985 Grammy Awards (Song of the year, Record of the Year and Best Pop Performance by a Duo or Group.) Ultimately, the single sold 7.5 million copies in the US. It was released on an album, We Are the World, which sold over three million copies. Including revenues from the single, the album, the video and related merchandise, We Are the World raised about $50 million for famine relief.

When you’re down and out there seems no hope at all (Michael Jackson)
But if you just believe there’s no way we can fall (Huey Lewis)
Well, well, well, let’s realize that a change can only come (Cyndi Lauper)
When we (Kim Carnes)
Stand together as one (Kim Carnes/Cyndi Lauper/Huey Lewis)

“…when the world must come together as one.” What audacity, what a great dream they had, what idealism. That the world could possibly someday stand together as one. This was the most moving part of the song for me, the image of all of us standing together as one, as they stood to sing the song, and the success that often comes when people choose to stand as one.

(with ad-lib by Bob Dylan, Ray Charles, Stevie Wonder, Bruce Springsteen, James Ingram)

It may be argued though, that efforts like USA for Africa’s have the tendency to challenge recipient’s sense of dignity, as it sometimes may make us appear like beggars with empty bowls and supplicatory faces, but these are arguments made on full, not empty stomachs. It is also possible to criticise efforts like this as being more about publicity than charity, and one defence I’ve always put up against this charge is that most human actions have a goal and a motive, which are not necessarily the same. Even if their motive was publicity, their goal, undeniably was charity, and indeed, it was well outstandingly achieved, and remains a symbol even now.


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