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“We Are the World” and Benghazi

“We Are the World” and Benghazi

by William H. Benson

January 28, 2016

     Late in 1984, the calypso singer Harry Belafonte decided to raise funds for the famine-starved Ethiopians in Africa. First, he approached Michael Jackson and Lionel Richie and asked them to write a song. Then, he asked several dozen of the biggest musical artists in the country to assemble in a studio one night and sing Jackson and Richie’s song.

     The resulting album and video’s sales Belafonte would turn over to United Support of Artists for Africa, or USA for Africa, a non-profit foundation. The artists would give their time and talent.

     According to Jackson’s sister, La Toya, it was Michael who wrote the lyrics and the music to “We Are the World,” with limited help from Lionel Richie. Jackson said, “I couldn’t wait. I went in and came out the same night with song completed: drums, piano, strings, and words to the chorus.” Quincy Jones agreed to conduct, and Stevie Wonder joined them to sing. So far all were African-Americans.

     Invitations went out, and on the night of January 28, 1985, after the American Music Awards in Los Angeles had concluded, forty-four musicians arrived at the studio. Each read a note on the door that Quincy Jones had tacked there, “Check your egos at the door.” Recording began at 10:30 p.m.

     You can watch the video on YouTube. There you can see Lionel Richie, Stevie Wonder, Paul Simon, Kenny Rogers, James Ingram, Tina Turner, and Billy Joel each sing a line from the first verse:

     “There comes a time / When we heed a certain call / When the world must come together as one.  / There are people dying / 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, somehow can 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.”

     Then, Michael Jackson and Diana Ross sing the chorus:

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

     Dionne Warwick, Willie Nelson, and Al Jarreau sing the second verse, and then Bruce Springsteen, Kenny Loggins, Steve Parry, and Darryl Hall repeat the chorus. Then, Michael Jackson, Huey Lewis, Cyndi Lauper, and Kim Carnes sing the third and final verse, and Bob Dylan and Ray Charles repeat the chorus. The structure is said to “create a sense of continuous surprise and emotional buildup.”

     Other stars sang behind the soloists that night: Harry Belafonte, Dan Akroyd, Michael Jackson’s siblings, Waylon Jennings, Bette Midler, John Oates, the Pointer Sisters, and Smokey Robinson.

     Released on March 8, 1985, the song became the “fastest-selling American pop single in history,” and after thirty-one years, total sales for the album and video now exceed “$63 million.”

     One critic said it was a “distasteful element of self-indulgence.” Then, another said, that because of the phrase, “We’re saving our own lives,” the artists were proclaiming “their own salvation for singing about an issue they will never experience on behalf of a people most of them will never encounter.”

     The movie “Thirteen Hours,” opened in America’s theaters two weeks ago. It is a haunting re-enactment of the attack on Benghazi, in Libya, on the anniversary of 9-11 in 2012. At 9:40 p.m. Islamic militants attacked the American diplomatic compound in Benghazi, overran it, and set it on fire.

     The Americans took refuge at a CIA annex a mile away, and there, in the early morning hours, six brave CIA agents, former Navy seals, stood on the annex’s rooftops and withstood a series of vicious ground assaults, plus several rounds of mortar fire, in order to defend the American men and women trapped inside the compound from a most certain annihilation. Those six men were heroes that night.

     The militants killed four Americans, injured two: Mark “Oz” Geist, and also David Ubben.

     It is ironic that in 1985, American musicians, both black and white, raised money for the starving Africans in Ethiopia, but that in 2011, Islamic militants in Africa killed four Americans stationed in Benghazi, Libya, and injured David Ubben, an African-American.

     It is easy for American performers in the free and safe confines of California to sing, “We are the world. We are the children. We are the ones who make a brighter day.” Yet, the world is a far more dangerous and dark place than their words would suggest. Once an American steps onto another’s land, walks into their world, anything can happen. “Whom do you trust?” becomes the key question.

     Differences have divided people throughout the ages—gender, race, culture, theology, and religion—and they still divide people today. It is foolish not to recognize that fact and prepare for more than “Love is all we need.” Men and women, both black and white, have bled for America throughout its history. Many have died, and more will die. Yet, Americans are still free.

     Bruce Springsteen said it best, “Born in the USA.”