30 years ago today, one of the most recognized, appreciated, and parodied songs to ever grace the face of the earth was recorded at the A&M Recording Studios in Los Angeles, California. Written by Michael Jackson and Lionel Richie, and recorded by some 45 musicians working under the charity supergroup called USA for Africa, “We Are The World” became became one of the biggest music singles ever released in history, and raised over $63 million dollars for African charities.
When the call went out that USA for Africa was looking for celebrity musicians to participate in the session, the response was overwhelming. Some 50 performers had to be turned away because there just wasn’t enough room to feature all the performers who wanted to participate. Even though “We Are The World” was very much an incarnation of the pop world, country music was well represented. Some of the early studio work on the song had been done at Kenny Rogers’ studio, and Rogers was one of the core artists of the “We Are The World” recording process. Willie Nelson also showed up, and was featured with his own solo in the song. But Willie’s old friend from Texas, and one of the biggest names in country music at the time, would forever shape a key decision about “We Are The World” that could have significantly affected the song’s eventual success.
If you watch the video for “We Are The World” (see below) or look at any of the pictures from the recording session, Waylon Jennings is nowhere to be found. That’s because even though he was selected to be one of the 45 artists to participate in the recording session, he walked out in a huff in a moment that would be the most controversial and contentious junctures in the song’s recording. This was despite Stevie Wonder and Ray Charles greeting all the performers as they arrived, and telling them to “check their egos” at the door, or they’d be “driving everyone home.”
For days before January 28th, 1985, songwriters Michael Jackson and Lionel Richie, and producers Quincey Jones and Michael Omartain had consternated over each line in the song, making sure it couldn’t be interpreted wrongly or would leave the song open for criticism. Subtle changes were made in the lyrics to make sure nobody was offended, or the singers weren’t portraying themselves as being judgmental or off putting. A similar song from 1984, “Do The Know It’s Christmas?” had failed to garner the support “We Are The World” eventually did because of criticism of the song’s approach on numerous grounds. Hoping to avoid similar controversies, “We Are The World” was painstakingly vetted.
But one artist out of them all was still not impressed with one of the key decisions about the song. When Stevie Wonder asserted that one of the lines should be sung in Swahili, Waylon Jennings raised a stink.
Why exactly Waylon protested the inclusion of the Swahili line is not included in the annals of the recording session, but we do know that Waylon was not alone in his opposition. Other performers in the session saw his point and sided with the country star, but were subsequently overruled by the majority. So Waylon, the consummate and eternal Outlaw, walked out of what was arguably the most famous recording session in the history of the world.
Some have used this Waylon Jennings moment to say that Waylon was being callous, or even racist. Remember, Waylon at the time was also the famous “Balladeer” on The Dukes of Hazzard TV show with its prominent Confederate Flag splayed across The General Lee. But if Waylon was being callous or racist, what had he volunteered his services to the a recording session benefiting Africa in the first place? Why would Waylon show such vehement and unpopular opposition to singing Swahili? Partly because he probably didn’t know how to sing in the language. Pitch issues had also bogged down the recording previously, when Waylon, Willie, Bruce Springsteen and others could not sing in the higher registers with the pop singers. Or it might have been because Waylon inherently knew having a line sung in another language might make “We Are The World” less marketable to America.
But the story was not over. Waylon Jennings walking out shook the recording session, and the debate about the use of Swahili raged anew. Eventually a new majority prevailed and the Swahili idea was stricken down. Why? Because Swahili was not even spoken in Ethiopia and many of the other African country where that majority of the “We Are The World” aid was targeted to go. Swahili is mostly spoken in African countries like Tanzania, Kenya, and Uganda, south of Ethiopia. Stevie Wonder had secretly brought two Ethiopian women with him to the session to thank all of the participants at the end, and they weren’t Swahili speakers. So eventually the song went forward all in English—a decision that may have not only saved the recording session from bogging down in debate, but likely made the song that much more marketable and successful, and allowed it to become the super hit we know today.
As for Waylon Jennings, though some reports say he never returned, others say he actually did return later to lend his voice to the chorus once he heard the Swahili line had been axed. Waylon had also sung numerous lines earlier in the session, before the Swahili issue presented itself, so when you listen to “We Are The World,” Waylon Jennings is probably in there somewhere. He’s also still listen in the credits of the song. But either way, Waylon’s decision and his hardline stance forever influenced a song that has since become an anthem to the world (however cheesy it is).