The Making of “We Are the World”

Almost every hit song has a really great tale behind it, and this one definitely has one worth telling. This is the story of the making of “We Are the World”.

The USA for Africa project began with an idea that actor, singer and activist Harry Belafonte had for a benefit concert, after hearing of the UK effort Band-Aid’s success with “Do They Know It’s Christmas.”

In late December 1984, looking for people willing to participate, Belafonte called his friend, manager Ken Kragen, who oversaw an impressive roster of talent. Kragen loved the idea and convinced Belafonte that they could raise more money and make a much bigger impact with an original song. Belafonte agreed, and Lionel Richie came on board to help, along with his good friend Michael Jackson to jointly compose the music and lyrics.

Kragen asked Quincy Jones to produce; Richie got Stevie Wonder involved, and from there, word spread like wildfire, with many music artists ready to help. The project from conception to recording took about a month, with over 40 artists participating.

The first night of pre-recording was January 22, 1985. 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. On January 24, 1985, Jones shipped Richie and Jackson’s vocal guide to all those involved in recording “We Are the World”.  Enclosed in the package was a letter from Jones, addressed to ‘My Fellow Artists’, which stated:

“These 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.”

Several production meetings were held the week of January 23, 1985, arranging the particulars, such as which artist would sing at which point in the song, etc. Quincy Jones was quoted as saying “It was like putting a watermelon in a coke bottle.”

Wanting simplicity, peace, and no drama the night of the event, Kragen recalls: “We never intended to have 40 plus artists there. That itself was a huge undertaking. But Quincy coined a fabulous phrase: ‘Leave your egos at the door.’ And we had that on a sign in the studio as you entered the room.”

The final night of recording was held on January 28, 1985, at A&M Recording Studios in Hollywood. Michael Jackson arrived 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.

The star-studded event included Lionel Richie, Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder, Paul Simon, Kenny Rogers, James Ingram, Tina Turner, Billy Joel, Diana Ross, Dionne Warwick, Willie Nelson, Al Jarreau, Bruce Springsteen, Kenny Loggins, Steve Perry, Daryl Hall, Huey Lewis, Cyndi Lauper, Kim Carnes, Bob Dylan and Ray Charles, who all appeared as soloists.

The chorus included notables such as Harry Belafonte, Bob Geldof, Dan Aykroyd, Lindsey Buckingham, Sheila E., Bette Midler, John Oates, Waylon Jennings, Smokey Robinson, The Pointer Sisters, Jeffrey Osborne, and Latoya, Jackie, Marlon, Tito, and Randy Jackson, and numerous others.

As with any huge production, a few alleged minor wrinkles ensued…

  • Prince had initially signed on to do the project, then backed out at the last minute due to severe stage fright; The Purple one was “too shy” to perform in a room of his peers.
  • Michael Jackson was almost lost for the same reason. He disappeared for hours, only to be found hiding in the bathroom, curled up in a corner with stage fright.
  • Surprisingly, Bob Dylan was also a bit timid about performing in the room as well. (Both MJ and Dylan overcame their fright in the name of a greater good and performed as scheduled.)
  • Bob Geldof almost scared everyone off. He completely misunderstood that the catered food for everyone was 100% donated, and verbally berated the rest of the room of performers for “eating expensive food when there were kids starving in Africa”. He felt it defeated and demeaned the very purpose they were there for. He later calmed down and apologized after he was told the food was all donated.

We Are the World was sung from a first-person viewpoint, allowing the audience to “internalize” the message by singing the word “we” together. It has been described by many 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”. The result of this jaw-dropping endeavor was a benefit single for victims of famine in Africa. It raised over $60 Million, which was distributed to Ethiopia, Sudan, and other impoverished countries.

We Are the World was recognized with several awards following its release. At the 1986 Grammy Awards, the song and its accompanying music video won four awards: Record of the Year, Song of the Year, Best Pop Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocal and Best Music Video, Short Form. The music video was awarded two honors at the 1985 MTV Video Music Awards, for Best Group Video and Viewer’s Choice. People’s Choice Awards recognized We Are the World with the Favorite New Song award in 1986.

In the same year, the American Music Awards named it “Song of the Year”, and honored organizer Harry Belafonte with the Award of Appreciation. Collecting his award, Belafonte thanked Ken Kragen, Quincy Jones, and “the two artists who, without their great gift would not have inspired us in quite the same way as we were inspired, Mr. Lionel Richie and Mr. Michael Jackson”. Following the speech, the majority of USA for Africa reunited on stage, closing the ceremony with the song.

Along with its British counterpart Do They Know It’s Christmas, the two songs demonstrated the true power of music, and of inspired artists with respect to their ability to have a true impact on society.  In the thirty or so years since both songs were released, musicians have continued to use their ability to generate funds and influence their fan bases for the greater good. 

Tami Danielson is the main in-house blogger and Director of Operations for Pop-Daze. She was raised in California and Florida and currently resides in Oregon. Tami has written for a variety of periodicals and has provided digital marketing services for a number of artists. She can be reached at [email protected]