Charity mega-singles often feel less like attempts to heal the world with music and more like lame, indulgent means to stroke the egos of those celebrities involved. They’re the musical precursors to Tom Hiddleston’s Golden Globe acceptance speech in which he rambled about how he went to Africa to help medics from Doctors Without Borders and was told of the importance of his mini-series. That smug little asshole. . . . But I digress.
The most famous mega-single, at least by American musicians, is USA for Africa’s “We Are the World,” and no subsequent charity mega-single, including a remake of “We are the World” 25 years after the original, has come close to its success—or its level of indulgence. Quincy Jones may have famously told stars to “check their egos at their door,” but it’s hard not to hear ego in this 7-minute-long song that is full of clichés and soaring vocals, features over 40 singers, and is written by Michael Jackson.
However, I can’t ignore the song’s success. Though it hasn’t stood the test of time on the airwaves as well as Band Aid’s “Do They Know It’s Christmas,” it remains a tune familiar to just about everyone, and that is likely in part due to its overly general message of human kindness. Recorded in response to the Ethiopian famine, the song went on to raise over $60 million in relief for Africa and dominate the airwaves. And as harsh as I am on its lyrics and over-the-top celebrity performances, I applaud its unusual pairings. Unexpected duets, such as one with Dionne Warwick and Willie Nelson and another with Stevie Wonder and Bruce Springsteen, serve as the most moving method of communicating the song’s message of reaching across borders to become one.
After Michele Obama assembled powerhouse female musicians for 2016’s corny “This is for My Girls” to benefit Let Girls Learn, I wondered if it was possible to create a more modest charity mega-single. Was it even possible to put a bunch of celebrities together to make something genuine and not self-serving? But leave it to Hamilton creator Lin-Manuel Miranda to prove that a charity mega-single can actually be good—both as a song and as an effort to serve people in need. After the devastation of Hurricane Maria, Miranda called on Latin American superstars to record “Almost Like Praying,” benefitting the Hispanic Federation’s hurricane relief efforts. The song combines his penchant for catchy pop/hip-hop jams and love of musical theater, beginning with lines from West Side Story’s “Maria” and transitioning into an all-out reggaetón party that capitalizes on the success of the summer smash “Despacito.”
Lin-Manuel Miranda assembled Puerto Rican and Latin American hit-makers such as Rita Moreno, Camila Cabello, Daddy Yankee, Jennifer Lopez and Gloria Estefan who sang/rapped most of the song in Spanish, making the song more relevant to those immediately impacted by Hurricane Maria. Not that there is anything wrong with composing a song in English or gathering big-name non-Hispanic musicians, but by choosing to go a different route, the message of Miranda’s song is less “we are the world” and more “we are Puerto Rico.” It’s a fun, vibrant celebration of Puerto Rican culture, but there’s more to the tune than this.
By beginning the song with lines from “Maria,” Miranda gives us a sobering message that things will never be the same in Puerto Rico. The name “Maria” will never mean the same thing after the hurricane. Rather than praying for the love of Maria, Puerto Ricans are praying for rebuilding and a return to how things were before the disaster. Miranda’s voice singing “Maria” sounds alone and distant, indicating this drastic shift and the impossibility of Puerto Rico ever being quite the same.
When we transition into reggaetón, we hear the multiple Puerto Rican artists call out all 78 towns in the island. Miranda made this decision in response to what he noticed on his social media feed—people in mainland USA taking to Twitter to ask about the safety of friends and relatives in specific Puerto Rican towns. Additionally, naming the towns draws upon a tradition of Puerto Rican roll call songs. By naming each town and calling on the island’s musical tradition, Miranda sends a message that every area of Puerto Rico is still there, battered after the storm but resilient and proud. Though Puerto Rico will never be the same, the spirit of its people and culture stand strong.
It’s hard not to hear the word “praying” in this context without thinking of the constant “praying” in Washington. Many right-wing politicians have responded to crises, including Hurricane Maria, with more praying and less doing. Lin-Manuel Miranda hasn’t been shy about his contempt for the way the hurricane has been handled, so I wish he had a more politically charged tone in this song. While we rethink what Maria will mean in Puerto Rican culture, could we also consider the importance of praying while critiquing the idea that prayer counts as action? Charity singles tend to lack political critique, which makes sense; one of the purposes of these songs is to create unity. But it would be exciting to see if a charity single could rebuild pride and community while also pointing out faults in how crises are being handled—something which I believe Miranda could do.
The song hasn’t reached “We Are the World” success, but it did reach number one on the Digital Songs chart. Miranda proves that charity singles can do more than support causes financially; they can actually be fun to listen to and have a thoughtful message about the actual cause. Additionally, it indicates the exciting potential of using social media both to create music and bring people together for political and social causes. Miranda used social media not only to inspire the song’s lyrics but also to reach out to musicians to record it. Earlier this year, singer MILCK used social media for a similar purpose, reaching out to women across the U.S. to prepare a song for the Women’s March in D.C. The group rehearsed via Skype and performed “Quiet” several times throughout the day. It’ll be exciting to see how social media continues to revolutionize music and social causes—and, of course, to hear what Miranda will do next.
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