Inspired by the philanthropic success of the U.K. Band Aid’s “Do They Know It’s Christmas” in raising money to combat the 1984-85 Ethiopian famine, American entertainer Harry Belafonte recruited Michael Jackson and Lionel Richie to write the U.S. equivalent, “We Are the World.” Forming the United Support of Artists (U.S.A.) for Africa, 47 famous musicians, including Stevie Wonder, Ray Charles, Billy Joel, Cyndi Lauper and Bruce Springstein recorded the single.
“You know, when you start something like this, you don’t know what’s going to happen — you never do,” said Quincy Jones, the song’s producer, in an interview with “Today” about recording the single. “One by one as they came in, they started to see each other, and they couldn’t believe it. When I think about that night, I get goose bumps.” The song’s haunting chorus is indeed goose bump-inducing, repeating, “We are the world, we are the children/ We are the ones who make a brighter day/ So lets start giving.”
The song’s plea for giving was incredibly successful: “We Are the World” became the first album to obtain multi-platinum status and won four grammies, selling $20 million copies and earning $63 million for humanitarian aid in Africa and the United States. The first plane of humanitarian aid arrived in the Sudan and Ethiopia in June 1985, bringing high-protein biscuits, vitamins, medicine, tents and more.
The remaining proceeds were set aside for long-term projects. “We could go out and spend it all in one shot,” said organizer Ken Kragen in a 1985 newspaper interview. “Maybe we’d save some lives in the short term but it would be like putting a Band-Aid over a serious wound,” he said, noting that it would take 10 to 20 years to properly set up the proper infrastructure to prevent future famines.
While 90 percent of the profits were pledged to African projects, the remaining 10 percent went to American domestic hunger and homeless programs. “We are continually exploring new and innovative programs that serve the needy of this country,” said Marty Rogol, executive director of USA for Africa in a 1986 newspaper interview.
Read our introduction to the PopMusic series, The 2×2 Project’s compilation of some of the most iconic songs tackling topics of public health. Come back to see new songs posted every Thursday.
Edited by Jordan Lite. Additional research by Arti Virkud.