We Are The World is a time capsule. When you open it, all manner of stories come to light. It started when Band Aid, a collaboration between mostly British and Irish musicians, released the 1984 single “Do They Know it’s Christmas?” as a fundraiser for famine relief in Africa. Harry Belafonte was impressed and initiated the recording of a US single.
Lionel Richie and Kenny Rogers were approached to participate. They reached out to Stevie Wonder, and Quincy Jones was invited to produce. With Jones involved, Michael Jackson came on board, as Jones had produced Jackson’s massively popular albums Off the Wall and Thriller. We Are The World, was written by Lionel Richie and Michael Jackson.
Looking at We Are The World one sees a snapshot of US music celebrities in the mid-1980s. Some of the of the artists are still performing – see how sprightly Willie Nelson, Bruce Springsteen and Bob Dylan were! Many of the artists have passed on. One of the most impressive feats of the song is the skilful layering and ordering of the voices. Vocal arranger Tom Bahler described the task as arranging in “a perfect world”. Jones quipped that it was more like fitting a “watermelon in a Coke bottle”.
The vocals for We Are The World, were largely recorded in a session starting at 10.30 pm on January 28 1985 and ending at 8.30 the next morning. Many of the participants came straight from the American Music Awards which was held that night. Remarkably, this was a mere 7 weeks after the release of Do They Know it’s Christmas? So who was Harry Belafonte, that his idea could come to fruition so quickly, and with such a stellar cast. Here is his hit Island in The Sun:
Perhaps the most successful Jamaican-American celebrity, Harry Belafonte was the first single artist to have a million-selling LP, 1956’s Calypso. He won three Grammy Awards, was an actor, and he hosted television shows. Like his mentor, the actor and singer Paul Robeson, Belafonte was a supporter of humanitarian causes. Being both well connected and having credibility as a charity organiser through his involvement in the Civil Rights Movement and the Anti-Apartheid Movement, Belafonte was perfectly placed to initiate a project that included artists as esteemed and as diverse as (besides those already mentioned) Ray Charles, Paul Simon, Tina Turner, Billy Joel and Diana Ross.
More than 45 musicians participated, and a further 50 were turned away, lest the recording process become unmanageable. The We Are The World single was released on 7 March 1985 and soon became a worldwide hit, to the extent that it was listed as the best selling pop single of all time, prior to Elton John’s tribute to Princess Diana, Candle in the Wind (1997).
The critical reception of the single was mixed, with some critics pointing to the sentimentality of the song and questioning the appropriateness of US celebrities identifying with starving Ethiopians, as implicit in the song’s title. Be that as it may, the song went on to raise over $63m ($156m today) and it’s success was part of the spur to the Live Aid concerts. The story of We Are The World is documented in Wikipedia, should you want more information. It is an interesting article.
As a time capsule, the We Are The World video brings to mind the subsequent lives and reputations of the artists involved. So many intersecting histories came together for the historic recording. In this regard, the tragic decline of Michael Jackson is brought into poignant focus by seeing him in his prime.
We Are The World also captures the idealism of a time when globalisation was seen as a solution to many of the world’s ills. Now, when nations and people are said to be turning more inward in response to Covid19, the war in Ukraine, the energy crisis, and other factors, We Are The World stands as a beacon to the belief that, by joining together, “we’ll make a better day”.