Who Wrote the Charity Single “We Are the World”?

“We Are the World” is one of the biggest charity singles of all-time and for good reason—it was co-penned by two of music’s enduring icons, Michael Jackson and Lionel Richie. But how did these two heavyweights end up penning the all-star track that raised money for people experiencing hunger and homelessness in the U.S. and Africa?

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Origins of the Concept

In a group known as USA For Africa, Ray Charles, Billy Joel, Paul Simon, Stevie Wonder, Cyndi Lauper, Bob Dylan, Jackson, and Richie are among the 47 music giants who lent their voices to the song. But it may have never come to fruition had it not been for “The Banana Boat Song” singer and activist, Harry Belafonte. Belafonte was inspired by the charity song, “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” written by Bob Geldof and Midge Ure and recorded in 1984 by several popular UK acts at the time, including Bono, James Taylor and Robert Bell of Kool & the Gang, Boy George and Sting, as a benefit for famine relief in the impoverished African country of Ethiopia. Belafonte wanted to replicate the model in the U.S. to benefit United Support of Artists for Africa, a nonprofit created to alleviate hunger across the two continents.

From there, a domino effect occurred when Belafonte contacted his then-manager, Ken Kragen, who reached out to his clients Richie and Kenny Rogers to be a part of the initiative. After they signed on, they reached out to Stevie Wonder, who also agreed to participate. Adding to the power of the song was Quincy Jones, who was tapped to be the producer, and contacted Jackson to be a part of it. (Jones and Jackson co-produced Jackson’s blockbuster album Thriller). Jackson expressed interest to Richie that he wanted to help write the song, and the two worked together at the Jackson family home in Los Angeles.

In Lisa Campbell’s book, Michael Jackson The King of Pop, Jackson is quoted as saying  “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.”

“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,” Jackson’s sister La Toya Jackson recalled in Campbell’s book about being present the night the song was written. “It was very emotional for them.”

Jackson and Richie completed the song on January 21, 1985, and recording began the next day at Rogers’ studio in L.A. with more than 40 artists singing 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. Recording concluded on January 28 at A&M Recording Studios in Hollywood. The song was officially released as a single on March 7, the first off the album of the same name that dropped on April 23.


“We Are the World” was a month-long No. 1 hit on the Billboard Hot 100 and also topped the R&B Singles chart and Hot Adult Contemporary Tracks chart and became the best-selling single of 1985 and was the first single to be certified multi-platinum.

“The song, the effort, the cause…it was meaningful,” Richie recalled in a video interview on the USA For Africa website in honor of the song’s 30th anniversary. “It was actually meant to be ‘how do we give back? With all that talent, what do we do with all of that fame and power?’ And we decided to make a country out of ourselves. And it worked.”

“In 1985, the music industry and the world came together in an unprecedented outpouring of generosity in response to the tragic famine wreaking havoc in Africa at the time,” Bellafonte explains of the song’s impact. “The biggest names in music ‘checked their egos at the door’ to create what was and still is a worldwide phenomenon. The recording of the original We Are The World sold more than 7 million records worldwide. The worldwide sale of that record generated more than $60 million which has been used to assist Africa and Africans affected by famine and other critical issues since 1985. The song became and remains the people’s anthem and continues to be revered and loved globally.”

Twenty-five years after the release of “We Are the World,” it was re-recorded after a 7.0 magnitude earthquake decimated Haiti, with more than 75 musicians taking part, including Justin Bieber, Jennifer Hudson, Josh Groban, Tony Bennett, Mary J. Blige, and Lil Wayne.

To date, USA For Africa has raised more than $100 million to help people impacted by poverty in the U.S. and Africa.

Photo by FRANCIS Sylvain/AFP via Getty Images

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