We Are The World by USA for Africa

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On Sunday, May 25, 1986, approximately 6.5 million people held hands in a human chain for fifteen minutes across the continental United States, and I was one of them. Only 6 years old at the time, my family participated in this once-in-a-lifetime event thanks to my Philadelphia employer. The line supposedly stretched from sea to shining sea without any breaks in the chain; however, in actuality there were miles and miles of gaps in the rural fields and across mountain ranges. Anyone would be hard pressed to realistically get an unbroken line across 3,000 miles of North America. Hands Across America made up for this fact by doubling and tripling up the lines within the major cities (in some places the chain was six people deep).

The entire purpose of the human chain was to raise $34 million dollars in aid for local and international homelessness and hunger. The event was a project associated with the previous year’s USA for Africa which produced the hit song, "We Are the World," featuring dozens of the top names in music, and raised almost $100 million dollars (combined with Hands Across America) to fight famine in Africa – predominately Ethiopia. Forty-four artists recorded the single in 1985 which reached No. 1 in the US and UK in April. The never-before-and-never-since group which came together for this recording featured Michael Jackson (the song's co-writer), Billy Joel, Lionel Richie, Diana Ross, Bruce Springsteen, Tina Turner, Stevie Wonder, Hall & Oates, Bob Dylan, Ray Charles, Cyndi Lauper, and Huey Lewis (among others).

Goat in the Hamer tribe village, Omo valley, Ethiopia
Photo: Dinozzaver, Dreamstime

In the 1980s widespread famine affected a large portion of the Horn of Africa leading to more than one million deaths in Ethiopia alone (by far the most). The Ethiopian economy is mostly based on agriculture, and the low rainfall in major provinces across the nation hurt both food production and employment. A combined effect of both civil wars as well as massive drought, the death toll raised international awareness of the continent’s troubles and spurred Bob Geldof (Boomtown Rats) to assemble Band Aid in 1984, with "Do They Know It's Christmas?" the UK precursor, which set the bar at $14 million for famine relief.

At that time, the nation was ruled by Communists – backed by the Soviets and the Cubans – and the various militaristic efforts to overthrow the Dergs only succeeded in hurting the general population. They were unable to provide relief to their own people, as the corruption funneled a majority of the funds into the hands of bureaucrats. Things got so out of hand that even the government’s supporters condemned the regime’s policy of withholding food shipments to areas occupied by rebel insurgents. In response, the Dergs opted to uproot vast quantities of peasants from the affected areas into the southern regions of the nation, and many chose to flee instead of allowing their families to be forced into settlements hundreds of miles from their homes. Tens of thousands died because of the required diaspora.

"We Are The World" single dust cover"We Are The World" single dust cover
Almost 30 years after "We Are the World" (Live Aid, "Do They Know Its Christmas?", and Hands Across America), human rights in the country have remained poor with minimal improvements. The government restricts freedom of the press and of assembly and ignores the privacy of their own citizens. Thousands of insurgent suspects are detained without charge and security forces harass, torture, and murder individuals at will. Violence and discrimination against women – including genital manipulation and marriage by abduction – are huge problems, as well as the sexual exploitation of children alongside human trafficking and forced labor. On top of that, the ratio of patients to doctors is 100,000 to 1 due to heavy globalization, drawing many educated medical professionals out of the country for better opportunities elsewhere.

And yet once every year Christmas arrives, bringing with it lots of toys for capitalistic societies, but bearing no relief for the poorer quarters. Because it's just so much easier to turn our heads away. Michael is now gone. Sir Bob made his statement, receiving equal parts glory and vilification. And the world revolves around and around. Who will be the next hero to step up to the plate for Africa? Or for anyone less fortunate than us?

Justin Novelli August 7, 2018 We Are The World Songfacts
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