Madonna, Prince ‘We Are the World’ snub in 1985 explained by documentary director

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The musical performance of “We Are the World” on Jan. 28, 1985, was one of the biggest nights in music history – and now its being retold.

In an interview with Fox News Digital, “The Greatest Night in Pop” documentary director, Bao Nguyen, explained the decision process that led to Madonna and Prince being left out of the legendary musical performance. 

“The film explains it really well,” Nguyen began. “[Producer] Ken Kragen and his staff, [producer] Harriet Sternberg – Harriet wanted Madonna. Ken didn’t want Madonna because he thought that Cyndi [Lauper] sort of served the purpose of being the female pop icon at that time, and it was as simple as that. They wanted voices that really were distinct from each other and that represented their genre.” 

Madonna, Prince and Bao Nguyen

Madonna and Prince’s snub from the 1985 “We Are the World” performance is explained by documentary director Bao Nguyen. (Getty Images)

The 1985 performance of “We Are The World” – written by Michael Jackson and Lionel Richie – was produced by U.S.A for Africa to raise awareness and funds for a worldwide hunger relief program. 


Bao told Fox News Digital that this process led to Kenny Rogers’ role in the performance and Lionel Richie representing the pop genre. 

“You have a generational icon like Ray Charles, like everyone had a distinct voice,” Nguyen continued. “I think Ken, just from what I’ve learned in researching, is that at the end of the day, [he thought] ‘I can just pick Cyndi over Madonna.’”

As far as Prince being snubbed from the legendary night – which aired March 7, 1985 – Nguyen explained that he had conversations with Sheila E., a close friend of Prince at the time, who explained she couldn’t convince Prince to be a part of the performance.

“He wouldn’t work well in that room. That’s basically what happened, and it was just the environment that he wouldn’t feel comfortable in,” Bao explained.

WATCH: Bao Nguyen explains why Madonna and Prince were snubbed from the 1985 ‘We Are the World’ performance

Nguyen explained that he was surprised by rhe role of Sheila Escovedo – known as Shelia E. – in the production and how she felt “used” leading up to the musical performance.


“I think for me, the most, maybe not the wildest thing, but like, an eye-opening thing was definitely Sheila E’s role and trying to get friends to be part of it,” he began. 

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WATCH: Bao Nguyen shares ‘wildest’ moment filming ‘We Are the World’ documentary

“As she says in the film, feeling that she was being used to get Prince.” 

Nguyen continued, “Again, to Lionel’s credit, he had no comments about that scene. Again, it’s an honest story and that’s Sheila E.’s perspective.” 

Prince performing

Prince did not participate in the “We Are the World” performance in 1985. (Brian Rasic/Getty Images)

“So I thought that was a very vulnerable moment for her. She said she had never spoken about that moment on camera, and so she really opened up to us in a way that it broke my heart when she told me that story,” he said.

Sheila E.

Sheila E., seen performing in 1985, revealed that she felt “used” in the “We Are the World” performance. (Steve Campbell/Houston Chronicle)

“But she has no regrets about being part of the songs. She knows, like, how meaningful it is to her and her legacy,” Nguyen said of Sheila E.

WATCH: Bao Nguyen says Lionel Richie was able to tell the ‘We Are the World’ story from ‘beginning to end’

Nguyen hopes musicians of today could do their own “We Are the World” type of musical performance, but questions if there are “icons” nowadays like there were nearly 40 years ago.


“I think ‘We Are the World’ was such an amazing feat, an impossible feat as we see in the film,” Nguyen said. “These are like, you know, Ray Charles, Stevie Wonder, Michael Jackson, Diana Ross. I don’t know if we have the same type of icons nowadays.”

Autographed sheet music for the charity single 'We Are the World'

Autographed sheet music for the charity single “We Are the World” in January 1985. (Vinnie Zuffante/Getty Images)

Bao also pointed out social media that is present in today’s generation.

“Everyone is on social media, everyone has their managers and agents and to, like, make it a truly present moment, like the way it was in 1985, I think that’s hard,” he began. “To try to get people in a room together is difficult as well.”

WATCH: ‘We Are the World’ director Bao Nguyen reveals the most surprising moment filming the documentary

Nguyen hopes the newly released “The Greatest Night in Pop” documentary serves as an “inspiration” for the younger generation of musicians.


“I hope this film serves as an inspiration to this generation, a younger generation that if there’s a will, there’s a way,” he began. 

“The Greatest Night in Pop” debuts on Netflix on Jan. 29.

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