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Chart Rewind: In 1985, USA for Africa’s ‘We Are the World’ Topped the Hot 100

The all-star ensemble not only hit No. 1, but also helped launch a legacy of philanthropy that's still going strong.

On Dec. 20, 1984, Harry Belafonte placed a call to nonprofit consultant/music manager Ken Kragen in hopes of staging a concert to raise funds to fight hunger in Africa – specifically Ethiopia, where famine killed nearly 1 million people in 1983-84.

Kragen, who managed Lionel Richie and Kenny Rogers at the time, thought that a supergroup charity single would make more of an impact.

Kragen initially planned to recruit a dozen artists for the song, but industry response was so enthusiastic (seemingly inspired by the success of the then-current “Do They Know It’s Christmas?,” a similar charity single by British and Irish stars that would soon hit No. 13 on the Billboard Hot 100) that 50 artists ended up in the group, dubbed USA for Africa (with the “USA” officially short for United Support of Artists).


Richie and Michael Jackson wrote the song, producer Quincy Jones assembled the artists at Hollywood’s A&M Studios in early 1985, and “We Are the World” was born.

On April 13, 1985, the superstar-spangled single, released on Columbia Records, topped the Hot 100 in just its fourth week, becoming the chart’s fastest-flying No. 1 in nine years (since Elton John’s “Island Girl” also needed just four frames). It additionally ruled Billboard’s Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs, Adult Contemporary and Dance Singles Sales charts and dented Mainstream Rock Airplay and Hot Country Songs.

As impressive as its chart performances were, “World” has also helped raise more than $100 million to fight famine. Nearly three decades later, the USA for Africa foundation continues to raise funds and awareness for multiple African causes.

The week that “World” took over the Hot 100, Billboard noted that the song was touching not only consumers, but Capitol Hill, as the Recording Industry Association of America had mailed 12-inch copies of the single to each member of Congress that March 29. “Three working days later,” Billboard reported, “the [RIAA] had received 51 letters and personal notes of congratulations and appreciation from the nation’s legislators, including a number of Senate and House leaders.”

One congressman “even enclosed a personal check to help in the all-star effort.”