Published on July 5, 2016
“We Are the World” is a song and charity single originally recorded by the supergroup United Support of Artists (USA) for Africa in 1985. It was written by Michael Jackson and Lionel Richie (with arrangements by Michael Omartian) and produced by Quincy Jones for the album We Are the World. With sales in excess of 20 million copies, it is one of the fewer than 30 all-time singles to have sold at least 10 million copies worldwide.
Following Band Aid’s “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” project in the UK, an idea for the creation of an American benefit single for African famine relief came from activist Harry Belafonte, who, along with fundraiser Ken Kragen, was instrumental in bringing the vision to reality. Several musicians were contacted by the pair, before Jackson and Richie were assigned the task of writing the song. The duo completed the writing of “We Are the World” seven weeks after the release of “Do They Know It’s Christmas?”, and one night before the song’s first recording session, on January 21, 1985. The historic event brought together some of the most famous artists in the music industry at the time.
The song was released on March 7, 1985, as the only single from the album. A worldwide commercial success, it topped music charts throughout the world and became the fastest-selling American pop single in history. The first ever single to be certified multi-platinum, “We Are the World” received a Quadruple Platinum certification by the Recording Industry Association of America. However, the song garnered mixed reviews from journalists, music critics, and the public. Fans enjoyed hearing racially and musically diverse recording artists singing together on one track, and felt satisfied in buying “We Are the World”, knowing that the money was going to charity. Other individuals, including many commentators in the rock press, were disappointed that the song did not challenge listeners as to why famines occur in the first place, and felt that the lyrics were self-aggrandizing.
Awarded numerous honors—including three Grammy Awards, one American Music Award, and a People’s Choice Award—the song was promoted with a critically received music video, a home video, a special edition magazine, a simulcast, and several books, posters, and shirts. The promotion and merchandise aided the success of “We Are the World” and raised over $63 million (equivalent to $136 million today) for humanitarian aid in Africa and the US.
Following the devastation caused by the magnitude 7.0 Mw earthquake in Haiti on January 12, 2010, a remake of the song by another all-star cast of singers was recorded on February 1, 2010. Entitled “We Are the World 25 for Haiti”, it was released as a single on February 12, 2010, and proceeds from the record aided survivors in the impoverished country.
Before the writing of “We Are the World”, American entertainer and social activist Harry Belafonte had sought for some time to have a song recorded by the most famous artists in the music industry at the time. He planned to have the proceeds donated to a new organization called United Support of Artists for Africa (USA for Africa). The non-profit foundation would then feed and relieve starving people in Africa, specifically Ethiopia, where around one million people died during the country’s 1983–85 famine. The idea followed Band Aid’s “Do They Know It’s Christmas” project in the UK, which Belafonte had heard about, In the activist’s plans, money would also be set aside to help eliminate hunger in the United States of America. Entertainment manager and fellow fundraiser Ken Kragen was contacted by Belafonte, who asked for singers Lionel Richie and Kenny Rogers—Kragen’s clients—to participate in Belafonte’s musical endeavor. Kragen and the two musicians agreed to help with Belafonte’s mission, and in turn, enlisted the cooperation of Stevie Wonder, to add more “name value” to their project. Quincy Jones was drafted to co-produce the song, taking time out from his work on The Color Purple. Richie also telephoned Michael Jackson, who had just released the commercially successful Thriller album and had concluded a tour with his brothers.
Jackson revealed to Richie that he not only wanted to sing the song, but to participate in its writing as well. To begin with, “We Are the World” was to be written by Jackson, Richie, and Wonder. As Wonder had limited time to work on the project, Jackson and Richie proceeded to write “We Are the World” themselves. They began creating the song at Hayvenhurst, the Jackson family home in Encino. For a week, the two spent every night working on lyrics and melodies in the singer’s bedroom. They knew that they wanted a song that would be easy to sing and memorable. The pair wanted to create an anthem. Jackson’s older sister La Toya watched the two work on the song, and later contended that Richie only wrote a few lines for the track. She stated that her younger brother wrote 99 percent of the lyrics, “but he’s never felt it necessary to say that”. La Toya further commented on the song’s creation in an interview with the American celebrity news magazine People. “I’d go into the room while they were writing and it would be very quiet, which is odd, since Michael’s usually very cheery when he works. It was very emotional for them.”
Richie had recorded two melodies for “We Are the World”, which Jackson took, adding music and words to the song in the same day. Jackson stated, “I love working quickly. I went ahead without even Lionel knowing, I couldn’t wait. I went in and came out the same night with the song completed—drums, piano, strings, and words to the chorus.” Jackson then presented his demo to Richie and Jones, who were both shocked; they did not expect the pop star to see the structure of the song so quickly. The next meetings between Jackson and Richie were unfruitful; the pair did not produce any additional vocals and got no work done. It was not until the night of January 21, 1985, that Richie and Jackson completed the lyrics and melody of “We Are the World” within two and a half hours, one night before the song’s first recording session. The line, “There’s a choice we’re making, we’re saving our own lives, it’s true” is very similar to the line, “A star, a star, dancing in the night, With a tail” from the famous Christmas song Do You Hear What I Hear?.
Photo showing Cyndi Lauper, studio badge, and the sweatshirt given to all attendees at A&M Studios in Hollywood California on January 28, 1985
Back of the “We Are the World” Sweatshirt autographed by Michael Jackson and Lionel Richie
The first night of recording, January 22, 1985, had tight security on hand, as Richie, Jackson, Wonder, and Jones started work on “We Are the World” at Kenny Rogers’ Lion Share Recording Studio. The studio, on Beverly Boulevard in California, was filled with musicians, technicians, video crews, retinues, assistants, and organizers as the four musicians entered. To begin the night, a “vocal guide” of “We Are the World” was recorded by Richie and Jackson and duplicated on tape for each of the invited performers. The guide was recorded on the sixth take, as Quincy Jones felt that there was too much “thought” in the previous versions.
Following their work on the vocal guide, Jackson and Jones began thinking of alternatives for the line “There’s a chance we’re taking, we’re taking our own lives”: the pair was concerned that the latter part of the line would be considered a reference to suicide. As the group listened to a playback of the chorus, Richie declared that the last part of the line should be changed to “We’re ‘saving’ our own lives”, which his fellow musicians agreed with. Producer Jones also suggested altering the former part of the line. “One thing we don’t want to do, especially with this group, is look like we’re patting ourselves on the back. So it’s really, ‘There’s a choice we’re making.'” Around 1:30 am, the four musicians ended the night by finishing a chorus of melodic vocalizations, including the sound “sha-lum sha-lin-gay”.Jones told the group that they were not to add anything else to the tape. “If we get too good, someone’s gonna start playing it on the radio,” he announced.
On January 24, 1985, after a day of rest, Jones shipped Richie and Jackson’s vocal guide to all of the artists who would be involved in “We Are the World”‘s recording. Enclosed in the package was a letter from Jones, addressed to “My Fellow Artists”
The cassettes are numbered, and I can’t express how important it is not to let this material out of your hands. Please do not make copies, and return this cassette the night of the 28th. In the years to come, when your children ask, ‘What did mommy and daddy do for the war against world famine?’, you can say proudly, this was your contribution.
Ken Kragen chaired a production meeting at a bungalow off Sunset Boulevard on January 25, 1985. There, Kragen and his team discussed where the recording sessions with the supergroup of musicians should take place. He stated, “The single most damaging piece of information is where we’re doing this. If that shows up anywhere, we’ve got a chaotic situation that could totally destroy the project. The moment a Prince, a Michael Jackson, a Bob Dylan—I guarantee you!—drives up and sees a mob around that studio, he will never come in.” On the same night, Quincy Jones’ associate producer and vocal arranger, Tom Bahler, was given the task of matching each solo line with the right voice. Bahler stated, “It’s like vocal arranging in a perfect world.” Jones disagreed, stating that the task was like “putting a watermelon in a Coke bottle”. The following evening, Lionel Richie held a “choreography” session at his home, where it was decided who would stand where.
The final night of recording was held on January 28, 1985, at A&M Recording Studios in Hollywood.Michael Jackson arrived at 9 pm, earlier than the other artists, to record his solo section and record a vocal chorus by himself. He was subsequently joined in the recording studio by the remaining USA for Africa artists, who included Ray Charles, Billy Joel, Diana Ross, Cyndi Lauper, Bruce Springsteen and Smokey Robinson. Also in attendance were five of Jackson’s siblings: Jackie, La Toya, Marlon, Randy and Tito. Many of the participants came straight from an American Music Award ceremony, which had been held that same night. Invited musician Prince, who would have had a part in which he and Michael Jackson sang to each other, did not attend the recording session. The reason given for his absence has varied. One newspaper claimed that the singer did not want to record with other acts.Another report, from the time of “We Are the World”‘s recording, suggested that the musician did not want to partake in the session because organizer Bob Geldof called him a “creep”.Prince did, however, donate an exclusive track, “4 The Tears In Your Eyes”, for the We Are the World album. In all, more than 45 of America’s top musicians participated in the recording and another 50 had to be turned away. Upon entering the recording studio, the musicians were greeted by a sign pinned to the door which read, “Please check your egos at the door.” They were also greeted by Stevie Wonder, who proclaimed that if the recording was not completed in one take, he and Ray Charles, two blind men, would drive everybody home
I think what’s happening in Africa is a crime of historic proportions … You walk into one of the corrugated iron huts and you see meningitis and malaria and typhoid buzzing around the air. And you see dead bodies lying side by side with the live ones. In some of the camps you see 15 bags of flour for 27,000 people. And I assume that’s why we’re all here tonight.
Bob Geldof, addressing his fellow USA for Africa musicians during one of the recording session of “We Are the World” on January 28, 1985.
Each of the performers took their position at around 10:30 pm and began to sing. Several hours passed before Stevie Wonder announced that he would like to substitute a line in Swahili for the “sha-lum sha-lin-gay” sound. At this point, Waylon Jennings left the recording studio for a short time when it was suggested by some that the song be sung in Swahili. A heated debate ensued, in which several artists also rejected the suggestion. The “sha-lum sha-lin-gay” sound ran into opposition as well and was subsequently removed from the song. Jennings returned to the studio and participated in the recording, which bears his name in the end credits. The participants eventually decided to sing something meaningful in English. They chose to sing the new line “One world, Our children”, which most of the participants enjoyed.
In the early hours of the morning, two Ethiopian women, guests of Stevie Wonder, were brought into the recording studio—it had been decided that a portion of the proceeds raised would be used to bring aid to those affected by the recent famine in Ethiopia. They thanked the singers on behalf of their country, bringing several artists to tears, before being led from the room. Wonder attempted to lighten the mood, by joking that the recording session gave him a chance to “see” fellow blind musician Ray Charles. “We just sort of bumped into each other!” The solo parts of the song were recorded without any problems. The final version of “We Are the World” was completed at 8 am.
Music and vocal arrangements
“We Are the World”
The structuring of “We Are the World” is said to “create a sense of continuous surprise and emotional buildup”.
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“We Are the World” is sung from a first person viewpoint, allowing the audience to “internalize” the message by singing the word we together. It has been described as “an appeal to human compassion”.The first lines in the song’s repetitive chorus proclaim, “We are the world, we are the children, we are the ones who make a brighter day, so let’s start giving”.”We Are the World” opens with Lionel Richie, Stevie Wonder, Paul Simon, Kenny Rogers, James Ingram, Tina Turner and Billy Joel singing the first verse. Michael Jackson and Diana Ross follow, completing the first chorus together. Dionne Warwick, Willie Nelson and Al Jarreau sing the second verse, before Bruce Springsteen, Kenny Loggins, Steve Perry and Daryl Hall go through the second chorus. Co-writer Jackson, Huey Lewis, Cyndi Lauper and Kim Carnes follow with the song’s bridge. This structuring of the song is said to “create a sense of continuous surprise and emotional buildup”. “We Are the World” concludes with Bob Dylan and Ray Charles singing a full chorus, Wonder and Springsteen duetting, and ad libs from Charles and Ingram.
USA for Africa musicians
• Quincy Jones
Soloists (in order of appearance)
• Lionel Richie
• Stevie Wonder
• Paul Simon
• Kenny Rogers
• James Ingram
• Tina Turner
• Billy Joel
• Michael Jackson
• Diana Ross
• Dionne Warwick
• Willie Nelson
• Al Jarreau
• Bruce Springsteen
• Kenny Loggins
• Steve Perry
• Daryl Hall
• Huey Lewis
• Cyndi Lauper
• Kim Carnes
• Bob Dylan
• Ray Charles
• Dan Aykroyd
• Harry Belafonte
• Lindsey Buckingham
• Mario Cipollina (from Huey Lewis and the News)
• Johnny Colla (from Huey Lewis and the News)
• Sheila E.
• Bob Geldof
• Bill Gibson (from Huey Lewis and the News)
• Chris Hayes (from Huey Lewis and the News)
• Sean Hopper (from Huey Lewis and the News)
• Jackie Jackson
• La Toya Jackson
• Marlon Jackson
• Randy Jackson
• Tito Jackson
• Waylon Jennings
• Bette Midler
• John Oates
• Jeffrey Osborne
• The Pointer Sisters
• Smokey Robinson
• David Paich – synthesizers
• Michael Boddicker – synthesizers, programming
• Paulinho da Costa – percussion
• Louis Johnson – bass
• Michael Omartian – keyboards
• Greg Phillinganes – keyboards
• John Robinson – drums