(FinalCall.com) – The year was 1984 and famine was raging in Ethiopia. Close to eightmillion people were affected and over 1million had died. A BBC news crew documented the tragedy, with Michael Buerk describing “a Biblical famine in the 20th Century” and “the closest thing to hell on Earth.”
The next year, Mikhail Gorbachev was elected, the Nintendo videogame system was released, the first Blockbuster Video store opened and superstar singer Michael Jackson responded to the famine by writing “We Are the World” with Lionel Ritchie, with the song produced by Quincy Jones and spearheaded by singer Harry Belafonte. The effort was designed to raise money for crises in Africa.
Forty well-known musicians organized by Mr. Belafonte and representing every genre from rock to country to soul to pop came together under the banner of United Support of Artists for Africa (USA for Africa).
The song immediately reached No. 1 on the Billboard Charts, sold out initial shipments, and went on to hit number one in nations around the world. Among the inter-racial group of performers were country stars Kenny Rodgers and Willie Nelson, along with Ray Charles, Diana Ross, Dionne Warwick, Whitney Houston, Tina Turner, rockers Billy Joel, Cyndi Lauper, Bruce Springsteen and Huey Lewis, jazz singer Al Jarreau and others. A documentary and video were also produced and shown on HBO and sold to the public.
“We Are the World” was followed later in the year with Live AID, a fund-raising effort headed by Bob Geldof. Profits from the song were given to the USA for Africa Foundation for relief work in Africa, in particular to combat famine in Ethiopia. A related benefit event, Hands Across America, which had people give donations to stand in a line across the country to support African relief. The combined efforts–including a concert that was one of the most widely viewed television broadcasts in history, with over 400 million viewers worldwide–raised more than $100 million.
The public media coverage of Michael Jackson often hid the humanitarian who cared deeply about the suffering of others and worked to lessen some of that suffering.
“Michael Jackson took celebrity giving to a higher level than anyone else with ‘We Are the World.’ People contributed millions because of his work. He raised the profile that we needed to support Africa,” Atlanta-based media consultant Yemi Toure told The Final Call.
“He used his skills and talents to support Africa. He was a gifted musician and he used what he had to change the condition of people. It had never been done like that before.”
He loved children and while touring the King of Pop would secretly visit sick children. In 1992, he started the Heal the World Foundation, which sent aid overseas but also brought needy children to his California home, the Never Land Ranch.
“Michael Jackson was one of the most beautiful people I ever met,” Joshua Farrakhan, son of the Honorable Minister Louis Farrakhan told The Final Call. “He would walk me around Never Land and show me the burn victims and cancer victims that were still there. There were children burned beyond recognition, they were so disfigured it was hard to look at them. But the children felt love there.”
“They were comfortable and relaxed. Michael had a theatre with hospital beds. He had plays for the children. He even had an emergency room set up in case anyone needed critical care. We would walk and he would talk about the problems in the world and how he wanted to make it better.”
Michael Jackson gave time and money to dozens of charities during his life, including the Minority AIDS Project, the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation, the NAACP, and the Motown Museum.
In 2000 the Guinness Book of World Records recognized Mr. Jackson for “Most Charities Supported by a Pop Star.” The magic number was 39.
Africa has since become a place for celebrity giving. Grammy winner Alicia Keys received the 2009 BET Humanitarian Award for her charitable giving with the Keep A Child Alive (KCA), a non-profit organization dedicated to providing life-saving anti-retroviral treatment to children and their families with HIV/AIDS in Africa and the developing world.
The list of celebrities who have used their star status like MJ did to serve humanitarian efforts gets longer every day. John Legend has the Show Me Campaign that brings mosquito nets, free meals and safe water plants to Kenya. Oprah Winfrey has a school in South Africa and singer Bono has his AIDS Relief Program Buy Red.
“Michael Jackson was a very special man. He truly loved all people. Most stories though about him won’t talk about his Black consciousness so I will say it for him. Michael would want the world to also know about his love for Black people and his love for Africa,” Leonard Farrakhan Muhammad told The Final Call. He also worked with Mr. Jackson.
“He wanted to become a developer for Africa, especially South Africa. He wanted to create theme parks similar to Disney Land in South Africa. He had big plans for things he wanted to accomplish when he could no longer sing.”