Music is a powerful medium of hope. It inspires change, a feeling to take action for the betterment not only of ourselves but the world around us. It has the ability to make us feel sadness, happiness, motivation, and similarly, it is a vehicle for social change as well. Some songs carry lyrics and tunes that drive social change – make a statement through a song. Many musical artists around us and all over the world have made strong anthems for a good cause or to raise funds for charity or relief projects.
We now take a look at some songs that were made for a good cause.
We are the World – USA For Africa
The biggest names in music joined forces in 1985 in an unprecedented outpouring of generosity. This was in response to the tragic famine wreaking havoc in Africa at the time. The stars created what became a worldwide phenomenon as the song remains the people’s anthem and continues to be revered and loved globally.
On January 28th, 1985, some of the most incredible stars of the music industry drifted into Hollywood’s A&M Studios to bring one of the most memorable songs into existence. Many of them came straight from the American Music Awards (AMAs) happening across town that same night.
Aware that they were all doing a charity record, a friendly warning was issued to all concerned: “Check your egos at the door.” Michael Jackson recorded his parts first around 9 PM, and by 10:30 the full session was underway. But the sessions continued for nearly twelve hours, and by 8 AM the following morning only Quincy Jones and Lionel Richie remained in the studio.
Apart from Richie, Stevie Wonder, Kenny Rogers, and Jackson, soloists included Paul Simon, James Ingram, Tina Turner, Billy Joel, and Diana Ross. The star-studded record also featured Dionne Warwick, Willie Nelson, Al Jarreau, Bruce Springsteen, and Kenny Loggins.
In addition to this Steve Perry, Daryl Hall, Huey Lewis, Cyndi Lauper, Kim Carnes, Bob Dylan, and Ray Charles lent their voice to the song along with an A-list backing choir of twenty was filled out by the likes of Bette Midler, Smokey Robinson, The Pointer Sisters, LaToya Jackson, Waylon Jennings, and Band-Aid architect Bob Geldof.
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What they had on their hands would break records and became the fastest-selling American pop single in history up to that point. ‘We Are The World’ was released on March 7th, 1985, selling 800,000 copies within three days of its release. The charity record eventually sold upwards of 20 million worldwide — making it the best-selling single of the decade and raised over USD 63 million (INR 4748845500.00) in humanitarian aid for Africa and the United States.
It became a highlight of Jones’ celebrated career, as he recalled while speaking to USA Today in an interview in 2015, “Here you had 46 of the biggest recording stars in the entire world in one room, to help people in a far-off place who were in desperate need.”
He added, “I don’t think that night, that experience, will ever truly be duplicated again. I know and believe in the power of music to bring people together for the betterment of mankind, and there may be no better example of this than the collective that was ‘We Are the World.’
Heal the world – Michael Jackson
‘Heal the World’ is not Jackson’s first socially conscious song, however, it is explicit in its humanitarian goals. The title of the track also became the name of Jackson’s charitable organization. Through this organization, the king of pop put his words into action. The ‘Heal the World Foundation’ was founded in the wake of the song’s release in 1992. Its aim was “to improve the conditions for children throughout the world”.
The charitable organization drew millions from Michael’s ‘Dangerous’ tour proceeds as well as the Super Bowl XXVII halftime show performance fees. It also included smaller donations from fans.
According to Rolling Stone, while speaking to fans during an Internet chat session in 2001, the star cited ‘Heal the World’ as the song he was most proud to have created. It was written in his “Giving Tree”. ‘Giving Tree’, is Michael’s favorite songwriting spot at the Neverland Ranch. The song has a simple melody. It’s the even simpler utopian message of healing the world that showcased Jackson’s wish for humanity.
1-800-273-8255 – Logic ft. Alessia Cara & Khalid
Logic’s first-ever hit 1-800-273-8255 is the phone number for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. Sung from the perspective of someone who wants to commit suicide and calls the hotline, Logic has called “1-800” the most important song he’s ever written.
He said that he wanted to create a song that would have a noticeable impact on others and it did as on the day of its release of the song that featured Alessia Cara and Khalid. According to the statistics provided, the Lifeline received the second-highest daily call volume ever at that time — over 4,573 calls.
“Fans that I met randomly, they’ve said things like, ‘Your music has saved my life, You’ve saved my life.’ And I was always like, ‘Aw, so nice of you. Thanks.’ And I give them a hug and s— but in my mind, I’m like, ‘What the f—?’ And they’re really serious,” Logic said in an interview with Genius.
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“When Logic released the song 1-800-273-8255, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline’s calls increased by nearly 50 percent. This was no coincidence. To have an artist and musician like Logic write about depression and advocate for suicide prevention is helping to create a culture that’s smart about mental health and suicide prevention,” said Robert Gebbia, AFSP CEO in a statement.
“With the help of celebrities and musicians like Logic, who use a public platform to open up about their own mental health, we can reach more people with the message that it’s okay to reach out for help when you need it. When this message is coupled with information on where to go for help, it’s life-changing for so many. Through his music, Logic is helping to save lives,” Gebbia concluded.
Logic (born Sir Robert Bryson Hall II) was raised by parents who struggled with addiction. The rapper battled anxiety for years before he decided to write a song that specifically addressed mental health. “I spent six figures of my own money to get a tour bus and do a fan tour for my second album,” he explained to Rolling Stone in 2017.
“I surprised fans at their houses, and we’d eat food and play video games. People kept saying, ‘Your music saved my life.’ I was like, ‘What the fuck?’ And then I thought, ‘What if I tried to save a life with a song?’”
Ronan – Taylor Swift
Taylor Swift’s tear-jerking single “Ronan” is about a toddler Ronan who was diagnosed with stage four neuroblastoma in the summer of 2010. Ronan’s mother, Maya Thompson, began blogging as a way of processing her grief and unbeknownst to her, Taylor Swift was among the millions who had started following Ronan’s story.
A site called Rockstar Ronan provided agonizing updates on the little boy’s condition to family and friends. “A few weeks into it, I remember writing that I had a feeling this blog was going to get dark and ugly and scary, because it’s a horrific thing to go through,” Thompson told the New York Times.
“I wasn’t willing to sugarcoat any of this. I think a big part of why nothing gets done with childhood cancer is that everybody wants to wrap it in a cute little bow with cute little bald kids. But it’s so sad.”
Thompson continued writing even after Ronan’s death. Then the following May — three days before Ronan’s fourth birthday, Maya penned raw and heart-rending open letters to her late son.
In November 2011 she got a call from the superstar Taylor Swift inviting her backstage at her upcoming concert in Phoenix. Thompson recalled their conversation, saying, “She told me how she had been reading our blog for over a year, and her parents had been reading it and they were all devastated and touched by it.” She continued, “I remember crying and she was crying.”
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The following September, the ‘Cardigan’ hitmaker reached out to Maya again. She said she had written a song for Ronan, with lyrics taken from the blog. Having secured Thompson’s blessing, Swift debuted the composition the next week on the 2012 Stand Up to Cancer telethon. The single version of the song was released on iTunes after a little while.
‘Ronan’ quickly became the number one song on the platform. It gained more than 220,000 downloads in its first week and Swift donated her profits to cancer charities. Maya, who was credited as co-writer on the record, put her portion towards a foundation established in her son’s name.
Taylor has performed the song only twice, once at the 2012 Stand Up to Cancer telethon and the second time at the Glendale, Arizona stop of her 1989 World Tour on August 17th, 2015, with Thompson in the audience. The song is also going to be on Taylor’s remastered ‘Red’ album as Maya revealed in a blog post recently that Swift, 31, asked her permission to include the song on her upcoming album, Red (Taylor’s Version).
Bangla Desh – George Harrison
George Harrison wanted to raise awareness about the plight of refugees from what was then East Pakistan in his song ‘Bangla Desh’ as Shankar, a native Bengal, asked Harrison to use the influence he has around the globe to render aid.
While working together on the documentary ‘Raga’ in 1971, Harrison’s longtime friend and mentor Ravi Shankar informed the former Beatle of a humanitarian crisis unfolding in South Asia as the nation of East Pakistan (formerly East Bengal) had endured a devastating cyclone the previous November, that left more than 300,000 dead.
Inaction and general lack of concern, apathy from the ruling West Pakistani government gave rise to a push for liberation. Eastern nationals declared themselves the independent country of Bangladesh and this move sparked a bloody war.
The West Pakistani troops committed genocidal acts against Bangladeshi citizens in this war and it added to the tragedy when the refugees found their passage to safe harbor in northeast India hampered by torrential rains and flooding.
“I was in a very sad mood, having read all this news,” Shankar told Rolling Stone. “And I said, ‘George, this is the situation, I know it doesn’t concern you, I know you can’t possibly identify.’ But while I talked to George he was very deeply moved … and he said, ‘Yes, I think I’ll be able to do something.’”
Over the course of six weeks, he hastily assembled a star-studded lineup for two benefit shows and on the first Sunday afternoon of August 1971, an excited crowd of New Yorkers flocked to the city’s iconic Madison Square Garden to witness a concert by “George Harrison and Friends”.
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Eric Clapton, Ringo Starr, Bob Dylan, Billy Preston, Leon Russell, and the band Badfinger all enthusiastically signed on for the show. However, George needed something more to earn some advance hype as well as the money.
“I got tired of people saying, ‘But what can I do?’ Also, the reluctance of the press to report the full details created the need to bring attention to it,” he wrote in his 1979 memoir I Me Mine, as per Rolling Stone. “So the song ‘Bangla Desh’ was written specifically to get attention to the war prior to the concert.”
The track was released in a hurry, as it hit the stands just days before the New York concert dates and its striking sleeve featured a startling UPI image of a mother with her starving child. Along with that it also featured news clippings detailing the atrocity and information on how to donate to the emergency relief fund. ‘Bangla Desh’ was the standout number at the Concert for Bangladesh shows.
It reached number twenty-three on the Billboard chart and helped make a difference. The ticket sales as well as the accompanying triple-disc live album, “Bangla Desh” not only helped raise millions for Bangladeshi aid but also helped establish a blueprint for rock charity singles and large-scale benefit shows to come.
“The Concert for Bangladesh was just a moral stance,” Harrison said. “These kinds of things have grown over the years, but what we did showed the musicians and people are more humane than politicians. Today, people accept the commitment rock ‘n’ roll musicians have when they perform for a charity. When I did it, they said things like, ‘He’s only doing this to be nice.’”
Tears are not enough – Northern Lights
After wrapping up the charity record “We Are the World,” Quincy Jones telephoned Canadian super-producer David Foster to ask him to record a similar song. Foster was asked for the song to be recorded with musicians hailing from the Great White North and Jones wanted to include the track on his full-length We Are the World album. However, the song could not make it on the album because the deadline was tight.
Foster worked with his manager Bruce Allen. They had just nine days to turn it around and Bruce set about securing the talent. David began adapting a song. This song was written by Paul Hyde and Bob Rock of the Payolas, a Vancouver New Wave band he was producing at the time. Foster used their title “Tears Are Not Enough” as a starting point and composed his own melody.
He then kicked it over to Bryan Adams and Jim Vallance for the lyrics wherein Vallance’s wife, musician Rachel Paiement, contributed a French verse for authentic Québécois flavor too! On February 10, 1985, a group of more than fifty of Canada’s biggest entertainers assembled at Manta Studios in Toronto for the session to record ‘Tears Are Not Enough’.
The stars included Adams, Gordon Lightfoot, Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, Geddy Lee, Anne Murray, and Dan Hill. “The West and East Coast of Canada weren’t exactly on the best of terms, musically,” Foster later told the CBC. “We were bringing them together for the first time.” This record was released as a single in May 1985, which went on to raise USD 3.1 million (INR 233624835.00) for famine relief projects in Africa and Canadian food banks.
Sun City – Artists united against apartheid
‘Sun City’ is a 1985 protest song written by Steven Van Zandt, aimed at both the South African policy of Apartheid as well as artists who broke the UN-sanctioned cultural boycott of the nation by performing at the titular resort ‘Sun City’ located within the bantustan in Bophuthatswana. Bophuthatswana was a nominally independent state created by the segregationist Afrikaaner government to forcibly relocate its black population.
It was during Zandt’s split from the E Street Band that he was journeying to the country in 1984. Steven Van Zandt, who hoped to learn more about the conditions that the American media only hinted at, told the Hollywood Reporter in 2013, “I couldn’t find out much about South Africa at the time. All I was hearing was they were putting in government reforms, and things were improving down there.“
“So I went down there twice in ’84, just to do the research. Of course, I found out that there were not any reforms really going on. Apartheid was not something you could reform; it had to be eliminated entirely. And so I decided at that point to sit down and figure out a strategy as to how this could be eliminated,” he explained.
Journalist Danny Schechter helped him write the song. And, Steven began writing a track that served as a rallying cry for the declining anti-Apartheid movement and approached a host of artists to participate in the recording along with Schechter and producer Arthur Baker.
Zandt was going to have just five or six artists on the record, “then it turned into 50 artists,” he said of the song that eventually was extended to a sprawling six-and-a-half-minute epic.
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The song ‘Sun City’ that featured Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Run DMC, George Clinton, Grandmaster Melle Mel, DJ Kool Herc blended rock with jazz and nascent hip-hop.
“Fifty-eight stars agreed to be part of it, and the fact is, many more wanted to be part of it when they found out about it,” Schechter said in a 2013 WBUR radio interview. “There were no more lines to sing.”
Luminaries including Jackson Browne, Bono, Lou Reed, Pete Townshend, Keith Richards, Ringo Starr, all agreed to participate. And Herbie Hancock, Miles Davis, Bonnie Raitt, Joey Ramone, and Pat Benatar too signed up to add immense power to the defiant refrain: “I, I, I, I, I, I ain’t gonna play Sun City!”
It was a little difficult for the record to be a radio hit since it blended genres. The runtime of the song being lengthy was another reason. However, sales from the project raised over USD 1 million for anti-Apartheid efforts.
Furthermore, the video’s regular broadcast on MTV helped make Apartheid a mainstream issue in the United States, and Zandt said, “We had that ability with that kind of firepower. They want to ignore you. It’s only when you get in their face and they can’t ignore you that you might get something done.” “It just completely re-energized the entire movement, which it really frankly needed at the time,” he reflected in 2013.
South African Apartheid policies were demolished following a series of negotiations in the early ’90s and the first free election was open to all South Africans. This election after decades of white minority rule resulted in the appointment of Nelson Mandela. Mandela was the nation’s first Black chief executive.
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