U.S.A. For America – Why Not?

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What if 45 of today’s artists got together to record a charity single benefitting under-represented Americans?

U.S.A. For America – Why Not?

Just a few weeks ago, I wrote that it was 30 years ago that the one-time collective known as United Support of Artists For Africa reached #1 in America with their classic charity single, “We Are The World,” a tune whose proceeds primarily went towards assisting starving people in poverty-stricken countries within the African continent.  U.S.A. For Africa consisted of many of 1985’s biggest recording artists – all Americans – who felt it was time they did something for someone else (notably in another country, although some of the money went toward American charities), so they took just a few hours out of their night – or several days in the case of the song’s organizers – and got together for that noble cause.

With this week’s protests in Baltimore following the unexplained (and inexplicable) death of Freddie Gray while in the custody of that city’s police, it made me wonder, has there ever been an effort on the scale of “We Are The World” put together primarily for America’s own poverty-stricken, homeless, disenfranchised or otherwise disadvantaged people?  If not, why not?  And if there was to be such an effort today, what would it look like?

In researching the first question, the answer came quickly:  no.  Never before nor since “We Are The World” have 45 (or any number close to that) of America’s biggest A-listers come together to record such a charity single in order to benefit their own fellow citizens.  To be fair, there’ve been many one-off charity records by individual artists or bands, or even smaller-scale collaborations, to benefit such causes as AIDS and cancer research, world famine, Haiti earthquake relief, soldiers fighting overseas, post-9/11 victims, ending gang violence, and various other charitable foundations whose beneficiaries went unspecified.

To their credit, many American (and international) artists came together in 1985 for Farm Aid – a series of concerts designed to benefit America’s farming community.  And several recording artists even individually recorded charity songs to benefit the victims of Hurricane Katrina, a 2005 disaster that ravaged one of America’s most-beloved tourist stops, New Orleans, and other areas nearby – and one that largely impacted poor people, mostly African-Americans.  But the general portrayal of people affected by that natural disaster (initially as “refugees” as CNN once called them) and the perceived slowness with which governments and other entities rallied to the cause, led to an even larger number of artists who recorded songs criticizing America’s lack of response to one of this country’s greatest tragedies, with some even going as far as to criticize themselves in song for not doing more (i.e., “Minority Report,” by Jay-Z featuring Ne-yo).

However, even considering Farm Aid and the response to Katrina, there has not been anything close to the multi-genre, multi-cultural, and multi-generational collaborative effort on the scale of  “We Are The World” to give back to this country’s own poorest communities since 1985.

So the next obvious question for me was why?

My first attempt to answer this would beg another question: which top contemporary American artists on the level of the 1985 group could pool their resources to come up with such a recording?  While the answer is debatable, just as the omission of some of 1985’s biggest artists (Prince and Madonna for example) created a stir that year, I think many of the artists I could come up with today are names that would fall on other people’s lists as well.  And – unlike 1985 – many of today’s top artists are rappers – which would add another dimension to the recording should one ever be made.

Excluding non-Americans (like Adele, Drake, Rihanna, Sam Smith, Ed Sheeran and many others), just as the U.S.A. For Africa effort did, it’s much harder to come up with a group of 45 A-listers, but here’s an attempt (alphabetically by first names):

  1. Alicia Keys
  2. Ariana Grande
  3. Beyoncé
  4. Blake Shelton
  5. Britney Spears
  6. Bruno Mars
  7. Carrie Underwood
  8. Chris Brown
  9. Christina Aguilera
  10. Darius Rucker
  11. Eminem
  12. Fall Out Boy
  13. Flo Rida
  14. Imagine Dragons
  15. Jennifer Lopez
  16. John Legend
  17. Katy Perry
  18. Kelly Clarkson
  19. J. Cole
  20. Jason Aldean
  21. Jason Derulo
  22. Jay Z
  23. Justin Timberlake
  24. Kanye West
  25. Lady Gaga
  26. Ludacris
  27. Maroon 5
  28. Meghan Trainor
  29. Miley Cyrus
  30. Miranda Lambert
  31. Ne-yo
  32. Nick Jonas
  33. Nicki Minaj
  34. OneRepublic
  35. Pharrell Williams
  36. P!nk
  37. Pitbull
  38. Robin Thicke
  39. Sam Hunt
  40. Selena Gomez
  41. Taylor Swift
  42. Timbaland (as producer)
  43. Trey Songz
  44. Usher
  45. Wiz Khalifa

Okay, so the list arguably includes some B-list artists as well.  But so did the U.S.A. For Africa effort in 1985.  Now back to the point, why hasn’t a group consisting of even half these artists gotten together to create a charity event record for America’s own?  There could be many reasons, but I offer the following eight:

1.  Little Sympathy for the Cause.  Many people feel (with little or no basis to prove it) that this country’s poor and underrepresented are somehow to blame for their plight, unlike famine-stricken third-world countries such as Ethiopia, around which many American artists have rallied to provide their support.  Many U.S. citizens -including some of the artists listed above – feel that if they can pull themselves up by the bootstraps and make it, why can’t all Americans?

2.  Negative Imagery.  This is an extension of the no-sympathy answer in that U.S. media prefers to portray this nation’s poor as lazy, uneducated people more likely to resort to violent criminal means to get ahead.  Couple that with images of panhandlers seeking free handouts and taxpayers’ long-held views that this nation’s poor are already benefiting from social programs backed by the U.S. government, and one might rhetorically ask, why would people give of their time (or money) to a song designed to help those people?

3.  The Race Issue.  As much as many would like to, we can’t ignore it.   Whether the portrayal is accurate, exclusive, or even fair, blacks and poverty are usually associated with one another.  And while it is true in the U.S. that blacks and other minorities are disproportionately living below the poverty line, the disenfranchisement of black people in particular in America is centuries old and continues to exist today (maybe even more so than three decades ago).   Minorities have to overcome institutionalized disparities between public and private educational systems (the latter of which many blacks cannot afford), gentrification of many major cities where black-owned homes and businesses once thrived, and questionable “protection” of its communities by police forces as we’ve too often seen recently.  Yet, somehow, “socially conscious” American citizens (and our government) are quicker to rally against similar atrocities committed by oppressive entities in other countries like Venezuela, Thailand and other recent cases than they are in this one.

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Beyoncé made social media spin when she commented on the state of affairs in Baltimore, Md this past week.

4.  The Age of Twitter and Facebook.  These two terms didn’t exist in 1985, but they’re definitely part of the American vernacular now.  It’s much easier for an artist like Beyoncé to “speak” on a topic like this past week’s uprising in Baltimore by tweeting 140-character-or-less innocuous statements like “the city of Baltimore is hurting,” and feel good about it.  Her followers will praise her and she somehow is seen as already having done her part.  Now, I am unfairly targeting Beyoncé in this example because she is arguably the “Artist of the Century” (at least its first 15 years) and she issued that statement of obviousness at a time when more depth might have caused people to think critically about what’s happening in Baltimore.  But by no means is she alone in the list of celebrities who do this type of thing and once again remind their fans how much they’re “involved.”

5.  The Hybridization of Music.  In 1985, there was generally pop music and then there was everything else.  But the list of everything else – in terms of mainstream accessibility – was pretty much limited to R&B, country, and variations of rock music, all of which had seen some pop crossover success in that decade’s first five years.  In the decades since then, including the first five years of the 2010s, pop music has itself become a niche genre, and the other above-named music types have ebbed and flowed in popularity and have since splintered into various sub-genres (e.g., neo-soul, adult R&B, hip-hop/R&B, alternative rock, heritage rock, etc.), thereby dividing their fan-bases and listenership to levels never before seen in popular music.  Could a one-time charity effort by a group of 45 of today’s top artists even appeal sonically to enough people to be worthwhile?  And which type of music would it be?

6.  The Business Aspect: Record Labels.  I’m not sure how Columbia Records pulled it off in 1985, getting 40-plus artists signed to various other record labels to come together for that one event.  But it must have been a minor hurdle considering the speed with which they accomplished it (the song was recorded in late-January and released five weeks later), and it’s possible it could be done again, as evidenced by the many cross-label deals that are made today when certain artists are featured on other artists’ records.

7.  Tough To Market.  “We Are The World” was – as its title suggests – a worldwide event even though its artists were American.  The song was marketed as such and garnered worldwide sales of over 20 million copies.  I imagine it would be much harder to internationally market a song by Americans for Americans, especially given world views of this country as the land of unlimited resources and opportunity with images of wealth and materialism pervading social and other media.

8.  Egos.  No excuse.  Even with the recent parading of some of the world’s top artists across a stage during a press conference to market their own music streaming service (Jay Z’s Tidal) so they could get paid more, I’m sure the collective egos in the recording studio in 1985 would dwarf (justifiably) those that would fill a room if the 45 contemporary artists I listed above were to come together.

So why has it never happened?  It’s likely a combination of all the above.  Or maybe you have better answers than what I’ve offered.

DJRob

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