Behind the Song Lyrics: “We Are the World”

Videos by American Songwriter

Videos by American Songwriter

By 1983, famine was stretching across the African country of Ethiopia and it would take two years before the urgency of the humanitarian emergency reached the attention of the U.S., resulting in the LiveAid concert on July 13, 1985, and the iconic pop anthem “We Are the World.”

On March 7, 1985, the world first heard “We Are the World,” featuring a choir of 46 of the biggest names in music across other genres, all united to sing one song to help support those suffering from from poverty and hunger in Africa.

Written by Michael Jackson and Lionel Richie, “We Are the World” was produced by Quincy Jones and Jackson for the album We Are the World, which also featured nine additional songs including “If Only for the Moment, Girl” by Steve Perry, Prince & The Revolution’s  “4 the Tears in Your Eyes,” “Trapped” by Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band, and other tracks by Kenny Rogers, The Pointer Sisters, Chicago, Tina Turner and more.

Right from the beginning of “We Are the World” the message in the lyrics was clear:

There comes a time
When we heed a certain call
When the world must come together as one
There are people dying
Oh, and it’s time to lend a hand to life
The greatest gift of all

We can’t go on
Pretending day-by-day
That someone, somewhere soon make a change
We’re all a part of God’s great big family
And the truth, you know, love is all we need

To make the song happen, Richie and Jackson recruited everyone from Diana Ross, Bruce Springsteen, Cyndi Lauper, Ray Charles, Tina Turner, Willie Nelson, Kenny Rogers, Billy Joel, Stevie Wonder, Steve Perry, Paul Simon, and dozens more to help raise funds to support the humanitarian efforts. 

Artists were told from the beginning that they would have a solo part and would either be on-camera solo or in the choir in the final version, according to Richie in a recent interview.

“Check your egos at the door,” read a sign on the studio doors when the song was recorded on Jan. 28, 1985. Written by Jones, the sign was a message to big artists who were about to enter the studio because he had one night to record the song.

In 2010, “We Are the World” was revisited with a slightly new version, to aid those impacted by the earthquake in Haiti and featured Justin Bieber, Barbra Streisand, Rob Thomas, Pink, Wyclef Jean, Jamie Foxx, Jeff Bridges, and a duet between Janet Jackson and her late brother Michael, by the Jackson family’s request. 

The recording of the original single sold more than seven million records worldwide and generated more than $60 million, which has been used to assist Africa and Africans affected by the famine and other critical issues since 1985, according to USA for Africa. Founded in 1985, USA for Africa has raised more than $100,000,000 to combat poverty and hunger in Africa and within the United States.

Asked if he would write another “We Are the World,” Richie said it wasn’t necessary, because the lyrics of the song are still relevant today.

“You don’t need any new words,” said Richie. “What we were trying to say back then was ‘let’s take care of our brothers and sisters over there because one day it might just happen over here.”

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

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