MJ Studies Today XCVIII

Abstract: This month MJ Studies Today takes a look at the new Netflix documentary The Greatest Night In Pop about the recording of the charity single “We Are The World” in 1985 to provide famine relief in drought-stricken Ethiopia. Columnist Kerry Hennigan looks at the crucial role played by Michael Jackson in the all-star cast of singers and musicians who came together for a worthy cause.


Column by Kerry Hennigan, editor of the free monthly newsletter A Candle for Michael, administrator of the fan group “Michael Jackson’s Short Film Ghosts” on Facebook, and an MJ blogger on WordPress. Kerry is a life-long student, has Certificates in the Archaeology of the Ancient World and the Archaeology of Ancient Britain from Cambridge University in the UK and is currently focused on the Viking Age.


REFERENCE AS:

Hennigan, Kerry. “MJ Studies Today XCVIII: The Greatest Night in Pop. Michael Jackson’s role in the creation and recording of “We Are The World” as portrayed in the 2024 Netflix documentary.” (14-02-2024). The Journal of Michael Jackson Academic Studies Vol 10, No. 3 (2024). https://michaeljacksonstudies.org/mj-studies-today-xcviii/


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The Greatest Night in Pop. Michael Jackson’s role in the creation and recording of “We Are The World” as portrayed in the 2024 Netflix documentary. 
By Kerry Hennigan

Photo montage © Kerry Hennigan

“It’s all about love and caring and sharing,” – Michael Jackson talking about “We Are The World.” [1]

The 2024 Netflix documentary “The Greatest Night In Pop,” directed by Bao Nguyen and narrated in part by Lionel Richie, charts the creation of the hit song “We Are The World” which was written by Michael Jackson and Richie, and recorded by an all-star group of singers and musicians in A&M Studios, Los Angeles, on January 22, 1985. It was the night of the American Music Awards, which Richie hosted, and which Jackson chose not to attend in preference for getting an early start at the studio in preparation for the recording session later that night. [2]

With the initial impetus provided by Harry Belafonte, the USA for Africa (United Support of Artists for Africa) project aimed to raise funds to help alleviate famine in drought-stricken Ethiopia. This major humanitarian crisis had already prompted the Bob Geldof-led “Do They Know It’s Christmas” hit song with a collection of major UK artists (“Band Aid”) and would lead to a series of Live Aid concerts. “The Greatest Night in Pop” includes footage of Geldof addressing the assembled US artists, musicians, and studio technicians at the start of their recording session, emphasising the importance of the project on which they are about to embark.

The reactions of his audience can be read in the sombre faces; Michael Jackson, standing with downcast eyes, looks introspective and on the verge of tears while contemplating what was happening to children in Africa. What the documentary doesn’t show is just how much Jackson had creatively invested in the project. He had shut himself away to record a solo demo of “We Are The World” based on ideas he and Richie had put together and which Michael turned into a complete song. [3] Musician and composer John Barnes helped further develop the song, and would be credited for keyboards, programming, and arrangement on the final recording. (Barnes, who had known Michael since 1982, would continue to work with him on Captain Eo, the Bad album and tour – for which he was musical director – and on the Dangerous, HIStory and Blood on the Dance Floor albums.) [4]

The result of their collaborative efforts was a powerful anthem, produced by Quincy Jones and sung by a group of chart-topping artists of the day, some of whom had won awards at the AMAs a few hours earlier. Instead of attending after parties to celebrate, they were in the studio until the early hours of the following morning, donating their time and talents to the USA for Africa project. Such a gathering of pop luminaries was itself something of a party, with hugs and autographs being exchanged, prompted by Diana Ross asking Daryl Hall for his signature.[5]

The documentary reveals some minor moments of drama, but these are outweighed by the positive memories of participants like Bruce Springsteen, Cyndi Lauper and Huey Lewis. In one scene, Lewis explains how he found himself in the unenviable position of having to sing the next line of the song after Michael Jackson. Lewis admits to being terrified but was put at ease by Michael’s “sweet” nature. [6] When interviewed by Entertainment Weekly after Jackson’s death in 2009, Lewis reflected on this one opportunity he’d had to work with the King of Pop. “Obviously, what can be said about the guy? Super talented, and super fabulous, and super sweet at the same time. He was very comfortable. He was just really nice, man. Michael was just a really sweet guy.” [7]

In his 1988 autobiography Moonwalk, Jackson talks about singing notes in a dark room and asking his sister Janet what she saw when hearing the sound. She responded with: “dying children in Africa.” Michael confirms, “That’s what I was dictating from my soul.” It is from this place in his heart that Jackson’s vital contribution to “We Are The World” and the USA for Africa campaign had its genesis. [8]

The Greatest Night in Pop premiered at Sundance Film Festival on 19 January 2024 with minimal advance fanfare, gained positive reviews, and shot to No. 1 on the Netflix list of top movies in many countries when released on the streaming service on 29 January. It serves as a reminder of what individuals can do when they come together in common cause, one of whom would later (in 2020) earn an entry in the Guinness Book of World Records for the most charities supported by a pop star. Of all the accolades and awards he earned during his lifetime, this was the one of which Michael Jackson was most proud. [9]

Kerry Hennigan
14 February 2024

Postscript: “We Are The World” was a massive international hit, earned four platinum records from the RIAA and raised millions of dollars for famine relief in Ethiopia. [10]  In 2009, in paying tribute to Jackson, ELias Kifle Maraim Beyene, 50, of Djibouti, East Africa said, “I won’t ever forget Michael Jackson because his contribution to the song ‘We are the World’ had a very significant effect on my life. I am 50 now but 25 years ago I was living in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, which at that time was suffering from a long drought and famine. It was a terrible situation. Lots of people became sick and many more died. Around one million people in all were killed by the famine. In 1984 Michael Jackson, along with a number of other leading musicians, made the song ‘We are the World’ to raise money for Africa. We received a lot of aid from the world and I was one of those who directly benefitted from it. The wheat flour that was distributed to the famine victims was different to the usual cereal we bought at the market. We baked a special bread from it. The local people named the bread after the great artist and it became known as Michael Bread. It was soft and delicious. When you have been through such hard times you never forget events like this. If you speak to anyone who was in Addis Ababa at that time they will all know what Michael Bread is and I know I will remember it for the rest of my life.” [11]

Sources:

[1] Landry, Martin. “The Meaning Behind The Song: We Are The World by USA for Africa.” Published electronically and updated 12 Oct 2023. https://oldtimemusic.com/the-meaning-behind-the-song-we-are-the-world-by-usa-for-africa/ Accessed 14 Feb 2024.

[2] Vogel, Joseph. Man In the Music: the Creative Life and Work of Michael Jackson. Vintage paperback edition. 2019, page 143.

[3] Ibid.

[4] MJ World Net. “Producer John Barnes Passes Away.” Published electronically 20 March 2022. https://www.mjworld.net/news/2022/03/20/producer-john-barnes-passes-away/ Accessed 14 Feb 2024.

[5] DeSantis, Rachel. “Diana Ross Asked Daryl Hall for His Autograph While Recording “We Are the World”: ‘I’m Your Biggest Fan.’” Published electronically. People via Yahoo! News. 29 Jan 2024. https://au.news.yahoo.com/diana-ross-asked-daryl-hall-150000518.html  Access 10 Feb 2024.

[6] Smooth Radio. “Huey Lewis opens up about his friendship with ‘sweet’ Michael Jackson.” Published electronically 31 Jan 2024.  https://www.smoothradio.com/artists/michael-jackson/huey-lewis-friendship/  Accessed 10 Feb 2024.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Jackson, Michael. (1988) Moonwalk. Arrow paperback edition, 2010, page 261

[9] Guinness World Records. “Most Charities Supported by a Pop Star.” https://www.guinnessworldrecords.com/world-records/105188-most-charities-supported-by-a-pop-star. Accessed 14 February 2024.

[10] MJ Tunes Music Database. USA for Africa, “We Are The World” http://www.mjtunes.com/modules/mydownloads/singlefile.php?lid=240 Accessed 14 February 2024.

[11] BBC News. “Jackson death: Global fans’ reaction.” Published electronically 26 June 2009. http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/entertainment/8120745.stm  Accessed 14 February 2024.

Illustration: Photo montage by Kerry Hennigan. No infringement of photographic copyright is intended in this not-for-profit, educational exercise.

Additional reading:

Associated Press. Lifestyle/Entertainment. “Netflix documentary The Greatest Night in Pop tells the ‘honest story’ of how Michael Jackson, Bob Dylan and co made 1985 charity single We Are the World.” Published electronically 2 Feb 2024. https://www.scmp.com/lifestyle/entertainment/article/3250527/netflix-documentary-greatest-night-pop-tells-honest-story-how-michael-jackson-bob-dylan-and-co-made Accessed 10 Feb 2025.

Rédaction Africanews with Kwabena Adu-Gyamfi. “Lionel Richie reflects on iconic We Are The World collaboration with Michael Jackson.” Published electronically 20 Jan 2024. https://www.africanews.com/2024/01/20/lionel-richie-reflects-on-iconic-we-are-the-world-collaboration-with-michael-jackson/ Accessed 10 Feb 2024

Perez, Rodrigo. “The Greatest Night in Pop review.” Published electronically 20 Jan 2024. https://theplaylist.net/the-greatest-night-in-pop-review-a-deeply-entertaining-music-doc-about-pop-hit-we-are-the-world-sundance-20240120/  Accessed 10 Feb 2024.

Hennigan, Kerry. “‘Heal the World’/ ‘We Are The World’ – Michael Jackson’s legacy of inclusion.” Published electronically 10 July 2016. https://kerryhennigan.wordpress.com/2016/07/10/heal-the-world-we-are-the-world-michael-jacksons-legacy-of-inclusion/