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The reason why Prince refused to perform at Live Aid

On July 13th, 1985, Live Aid united everybody in a bid to raise the much-needed funds for the disastrous famine that had torn through Ethiopia. In what was a momentous meeting of minds, Even Led Zeppelin set their differences aside to reunite. However, despite the unity, Prince couldn’t bring himself to perform live at the concert.

The historic event was heralded as the “global jukebox” as crowds packed into London’s Wembley Stadium and Philadelphia’s John F. Kennedy Stadium. For some clarity on the gargantuan scale of these events, an international television audience of 1.9 billion people viewed Live Aid —almost 40% of the entire global population in 1985.

Prior to that moment, there had never been a cultural event comparable to Live Aid – and it transcended music. It was a show of unity on a mass scale that brought everyone onto the same side, even if it was just for a night. Artists moved heaven and earth to make sure they were on the right side of history, yet, Prince had other ideas.

His Royal Badness not only refused to perform live at the concert, but he also turned down a feature on the charity single ‘We Are The World’. The track, penned by Michael Jackson and Lionel Ritchie, included the biggest stars in America. Even Bruce Springsteen, whose touring commitments prevented him from performing in Philadelphia, still found time to appear on the song.

The line “but if you just believe, there’s no way we can fall” was intended for Prince after he initially gave his word that he’d participate in the charity song. The simple truth is, however, that he simply detested ‘We Are The World’. Even though it was for a worthwhile cause, not even famine in Ethiopia would make The Purple One risk his artistic integrity.

‘We Are The World’ was recorded just hours after the American Music Awards in 1984, but rather than heading to the studio, Prince partied at a Hollywood club. He was later portrayed as a heartless villain for not taking part and accused of failing to see the bigger picture. 

His former guitarist, Wendy Melvoin, bluntly commented on the incident in Alan Light’s book Let’s Go Crazy. She said: “He thinks he’s a badass and he wanted to look cool, and he felt like the song for ‘We Are the World’ was horrible.”

“I mean, I sat on the phone with him for the longest time,” Richie later told Access Hollywood about Prince’s absence from the recording. “I said, ‘Prince, we’re all down [here] waiting on you.’ He says, ‘Can I do it in a separate room?’

“I would love to tell you that that’s different from anything else he’s ever done,” Richie continued. “That’s just Prince. Of course, he’s not going to be at a group of singers at the time when we want him to show up.”

Despite the no-show, he did donate his track, ‘4 The Tears In Your Eyes’, to the album project. However, in true Prince style, rather than play the track live in Philadelphia, he recorded a video performance for the broadcast.

The backlash to the snub was colossal, and it undoubtedly harmed Prince’s reputation. The Purple One was labelled selfish for acting as though he was too cool for Live Aid and, in truth, he didn’t come out of the saga positively. Yet, in his eyes, he made the principled decision.

Prince wasn’t one for sharing the limelight and had no ambitions to be a backing singer for Michael Jackson. If the song was good enough, then potentially he’d have made an exception, but on this occasion, it wasn’t to be. Not even the most unifying cause in the world could convince Prince to put his name to something that he didn’t wholeheartedly believe in.

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