My husband shared with me a TikTok video in which a high school teacher is showing her students the old music video of “We Are the World.” You know, the hit single recorded in 1985 to benefit African famine relief that featured many of the musical greats of that era, including Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder, Diana Ross, Tina Turner, Bruce Springsteen, Billy Joel, Cyndi Lauper, and more.
The teacher pauses the video each time one of those megastars approaches the mic, and asks her students, “Who’s that?” Most of the time, the answer is bored silence or comments like, “No idea.” At least one kid did correctly identify Michal Jackson, though.
Think about this for a minute . . . many of these people were at one time referred to as “living legends.” Some of them still are. But can you really be a living legend, or any kind of legend, if half the people in your own country don’t know who you are?
In fact, I now wonder how many people who were over the age of 50 in 1985 could’ve named many of those singers back then. On the flip side, I watch the music award shows today and wonder, “Who are these people?” My kids know, but I don’t.
So maybe it’s not really all that big of a deal to be a “living legend” after all. When I think of those singers I mentioned, some of their songs may live on long after they’ve died, and those songs may enter the realm of legend. And some of the artists themselves will likely be remembered for generations, but only by those who care to know.
Many of us, for example, may recognize a well-known piece of classical music but not be able to tell you which composer wrote it. Most of us can name at least one Shakespeare play, but I know many people who have no desire to see one performed. We can declare someone a living legend, but we can’t really predict whose names or works will maintain legendary status. Time and history will decide whether our names or works live on for a generation or two, or for a century or two, but even if they do, many people just won’t care.
So maybe think of your work as being for the now, because that is the only thing that’s guaranteed. When that contingency of megastars gathered to record in January of 1985, they were creating an anthem to raise money for famine relief in Africa, specifically Ethiopia, which was experiencing a devastating drought. When the single was released, I and many thousands of other people rushed out to buy the record, helping raise millions of dollars for the relief effort. That song impacted me greatly. As a seventeen-year old moving toward adulthood, I’d already decided helping others was something I wanted to do. And here were these musical idols creating something in unity and bringing me and everyone else into that recording studio with them. It wasn’t just their effort, it was our effort, at least that’s how it felt to me.
I wasn’t naïve enough to think we were going to solve the problem of hunger in Africa, or even that we were doing it in the right way, but I thought maybe the few dollars I put down for that single might help one person half a world away.
So, write your songs and plays and stories and paint your pictures for today, for what’s happening around you, for what you care about, for what currently gives you joy. Create your art because it wants to enter the world through you, right now – and maybe just for now. Don’t censor yourself, don’t try to predict the trends, and for God’s sake, don’t sell out. Stay true to your art as it presents itself to you today.
It’s probably an overstatement to say any piece of art can change the whole world, but it can change you, and it might change someone else in ways you’ll never know. Your work may shine brightly while you’re on this earth, or it may be discovered long after you’re dead. It may be appreciated in the future by the masses, or by just one of your descendants. It might get destroyed in a fire or live on in a video that people will someday watch and say, “That’s kinda cool. I wonder who that was.”
It’s not for you to say what happens. It never was. It never will be.
All you’ve got is today. So why are you sitting there, you living legends? Go create!
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