Music stars from all genres, all around the world have been coming together to make music for a cause for decades. Whether it’s to raise awareness for apartheid or funds for famine relief in Africa, benefit concerts and songs have rocked the hearts, minds, and ears of activists — and helped make real and lasting change.
Here are ten music collaborations that show how some of the world’s biggest artists used their voices for the humanitarian issues of their time:
1. Concert for Bangladesh (1971) – George Harrison, The Beatles, Bob Dylan and more
This sold-out concert, organized by George Harrison and Ravi Shankar, was the first benefit concert that brought artists ranging from the legendary Beatles to Bob Dylan for a humanitarian cause. The concert, held in New York City’s Madison Square Garden, raised awareness on the refugee crisis in Bangladesh after the 1970 Bhola cyclone, and more than $200,000 dollars for relief efforts. Most notably, it set a precedent for music as a tool of social change.
2. Gift of Song (1979) – Various, including ABBA, Rita Coolidge, Elton John and more
Pop music artists, including ABBA, Earth, Wind & Fire, Rod Stewart and Donna Summer, gathered at the United Nations General Assembly in New York City to sing a “Gift of Song” to the world’s children. Broadcasted in 60 countries and reaching over 200 million, the event served to kick-off the International Year of the Child, a year that brought awareness to children’s issues and eventually led to the first universal declaration of children’s rights. The single also raised $4 million dollars for UNICEF’s life-saving programs.
3. “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” and Live Aid (1984) – Band Aid, including Bob Geldof, Bono, Paul McCartney and others
Band Aid, a charity band founded by Bob Geldof and Midge Ure, first released “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” (1984) to raise money for the famine crisis in Ethiopia. It was no surprise that the collaboration with rock stars like Bono, Paul McCartney, Paul Young and more resulted in more than six million copies sold, raising $14 million dollars for relief. The single also peaked at No. 1 in more than 15 countries.
In 1985, the band held “Live Aid,” one of the most influential charity concerts. Two decades later, Geldof organized Live 8 Concerts (2005) which brought together more than 1,000 musicians in the US and UK. The concerts also served as political actions that coincided with the G8 summit on world poverty.
4. “We Are the World” (1985) – USA for Africa, including Willie Nelson, Diana Ross, Billy Joel and more
Following Band Aid’s “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” single, USA for Africa produced “We Are the World,” a song produced by Quincy Jones and written by Michael Jackson and Lionel Richie. The song features a number of renowned artists like Willie Nelson, Diana Ross, and Billy Joel. The collaboration generated more than $100 million dollars to fight a famine that killed nearly 1 million people in Africa between 1983 to 1984. USA for Africa foundation continues the legacy of philanthropy.
5. Farm Aid (1985) – Various, including Bob Dylan, Billy Joel, B.B. King, Tom Petty, and more
Inspired by a remark by Bob Dylan at his performance at Live Aid, “Wouldn’t it be great if we did something for our own farmers right here in America?” Willie Nelson, Neil Young, and John Mellencamp organized Farm Aid. The concert, first held in Champaign, Illinois brought 80,000 music-lovers to raise awareness about the issues farming families faced and raised more than $9 million dollars to assist America’s family farmers. To this day, Farm Aid acts as an advocacy platform and resource network for farmers, while still producing an annual benefit concert.
6. “Sun City” (1985) – Artists United Against Apartheid, including Bono, Bruce Springsteen, Lou Reed, Peter Gabriel, and others
Known as the most fervent political music single, “Sun City” brought 54 artists from across genres to take a stand against apartheid. From rock stars like Bruce Springsteen to hip-hop pioneers like Kurtis Blow, this collaboration drew attention to apartheid and urged artists to stop playing at venues that practiced the racist policy.
7. “Blackfella Whitefella” (1985) – Warumpi Band
1985 was sure the year of music collaborations for social change, and it did not stop there. Like “Sun City,” “Blackfella Whitefella,” a song by Australia indigenous group Warumpi Band, served as a political statement on racism against indigenous groups in Australia.
8. A Conspiracy of Hope (1986) and Human Rights Now! (1988) – Various artists including Bruce Springsteen, U2, Sting, Peter Gabriel, and more
Organized by Amnesty International, “A Conspiracy of Hope” (1986) and “Human Rights Now” (1988) were a series of global benefit concerts raising awareness on human rights atrocities around the globe and in 1988, the 40th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Artists included Tracy Chapman, Youssou N’Dour, The Police and local guest artists from each host country that participated. Most notable? The venues included countries like Hungary, Costa Rica, India, Argentina, Zimbabwe, and more.
9. “America: A Tribute to Heroes” (2011) – Various artists including Tom Petty, Willie Nelson, Neil Young and others
On the 10-year remembrance of September 11, 2001, artists from across genres came together for “America: A Tribute to Heroes.” The concert was not just a tribute to those who lost their lives but also a benefit for the September 11 Telethon Fund. The telethon raised more than $150 million for the victims of the terror attacks. In the video above, Willie Nelson closed out the telethon with an ensemble version of “America the Beautiful.”
10. “Cocoa na Chocolate” (2014) – Various artists, including D’Banj, Femi Kuti, Tiken Jah Fakoly, Judith Sephuma
In 2014, Africa’s hottest recording artists came together to support ONE’s Do Agric campaign, and together wrote and recorded the track “Cocoa na Chocolate.” The artists involved include some of the hottest artists from Africa, including D’Banj, Femi Kuti, Tiken Jah Fakoly, Judith Sephuma, Diamond, and Omawumi. And get this – it was one of the biggest music collaborations in Africa’s history. Their message was simple: Agriculture in Africa has the potential to provide food, create jobs and boost economies, but African leaders need to invest now.