COVID-19: These Songs Were Created To Promote Unity and Hope During Past Crises

As the coronavirus pandemic continues to loom, the world is looking to inspiring entertainment outlets to inject some positivity to combat the daily scary news cycle. Aside from the variety of challenges and memes on social media to keep us laughing – and an increase in content made available on streaming service, music lovers have been treated to viral concerts and parties to boost their spirits. 

Recording session for "We Are The World"
Recording session for “We Are The World”

The saying “music is healing” has proven to be true time and time again. In times of uncertainty, there have been thousands of songs to help get the world through hard times. A look back at past crises – from wars to ongoing racism – will show that there’s a song for every situation to promote unity and hope. 

Sam Cooke – “A Change Is Gonna Come” (1964)

“A Change Is Gonna Come” is regarded as Cooke’s greatest work. The song was a result of Cooke’s personal experiences with racism, most notably when he and his entourage were refused entry at a “whites-only” motel in Louisianna.

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News of the incident spread, with The New York Times writing about it the following day with the headline Negro Band Leader Held in Shreveport, causing an uproar with African American readers for its categorizing of Cooke. The publication later apologized to Cooke and awarded him the key to the city. 

Two weeks before the release of the song, Cooke was fatally shot. The song became an anthem for two reasons: its confrontation of racism and tone of hope – and an outcry over Cooke’s murder. It’s also noted as one of the anthems of the Civil Rights Movement.

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Former President Barack Obama referenced the song after his 2008 win, saying, “It’s been a long time coming, but tonight, change has come to America.” 

In 2019, over 50 years after the incident in Louisianna, Cooke’s family was given the key to the city in Shreveport and offered a formal apology from the Mayor. 

Curtis Mayfield & The Impressions – “People Get Ready” (1965)

Released a year after Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come,” Mayfield’s “People Get Ready” is considered a Black freedom song, an extension of traditional hymns sang by African Americans as a cry out and hope for equal rights. Infused with gospel elements, Mayfield wrote the song as a response to his increased social and political awareness of racism and oppression. 

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It called for unity amongst all races, as well as a song of faith. The song was also named the unofficial anthem of the Civil Rights Movement by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. 

Rolling Stone magazine named “People Get Ready” on their list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time, landing at number 24. The song has been performed by artists of all genres. Some who have recreated their own renditions of the song include Alicia Keys and Lyfe Jennings, Bob Marley, and George Benson.

Marvin Gaye – “What’s Going On?” (1971)

“What’s Going On” was the beginning of Gaye’s transition from international sex symbol to a more socially conscious artist. The song was inspired by his label mate Renaldo “Obie” Benson’s witness of police brutality in Berkey, California during a protest orchestrated by citizens in opposition to the Vietnam War. 

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Gaye had also begun to become disheartened by social and economic injustices both in the U.S. and abroad, including racism and poverty. The 1965 Watts Riots marked a turning point in his life. Gaye’s brother Frankie also fought in the Vietnam war and was forever changed from his experience, which helped Gaye in terms of writing the song.

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Gaye’s label, Motown, was not initially supportive of Gaye writing his own material. The song was released without the label’s owner, Berry Gordy’s, approval. Critics and fans were immediately receptive to the song as it registered with the country’s frustration over related issues. It was a huge success on the Billboard charts, peaking at number one on the R&B charts and number two on the Billboard Top 100.

“What’s going On” sold more than two million copies, becoming the fastest-selling Motown single at the time. The song was revamped as an all-star tribute after the events of 9/11 and the threat of war with over a dozen artists, including Destiny’s Child, Gwen Stefani, Mary J. Blige, Christina Aguilera, and Gaye’s daughter Nona. 

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Michael Jackson, Lionel Richie and Friends – “We Are The World” (1985)

“We Are The World” was unlike any other song before its time, equipped with 46 powerhouse vocalists all banned together for a charitable cause. The song was spearheaded by producer Quincy Jones – with Michael Jackson and Lionel Richie as co-writers. Diana Ross, Stevie Wonder, Kenny Rogers, and Bette Midler are some of the artists who participated.

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The song was created to assist with relief efforts in Africa and was part of a larger fundraising campaign that included books, posters, and t-shirts. For promotion, a music video was created with all contributing artists involved and a special VHS tape was released that included the making of the video, special interviews and more. The campaign raised over $60 million.

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The song sold more than 20 million copies worldwide, making it the eighth best-selling single of all time. It was recreated in 2010 for the song’s 25th anniversary by a modern all-star ensemble following the 7.0 magnitude earthquake in Haiti under the title “We Are the World 25 for Haiti.”