Michael Jackson's forgotten star-studded charity single for 9/11 that his label axed is amazing

1 September 2021, 16:21

Michael Jackson's 'What More Can I Give' single
Michael Jackson's 'What More Can I Give' single. Picture: Michael Jackson/NBC

By Tom Eames

In 2001, Michael Jackson teamed up with a host of stars including Beyoncé, Celine Dion, Luther Vandross, Mariah Carey, and Justin Timberlake for the charity single 'What More Can I Give'. But what happened to it?

Following on from Michael Jackson's tradition of recording socially conscious songs such as 'Earth Song', 'Heal the World', 'Man in the Mirror' and 'We Are the World', he did the same following the harrowing scenes of September 11th, 2001.

Despite having the biggest names around on the song 'What More Can I Give', Michael's record label Sony Music declined to release it at the time.

It would eventually get a release of sorts, but it never had the focus it deserved. It also proved to be the "last" actual completed song and video that Michael Jackson had completed and approved for release before his death in 2009.

So what was the song about and what was the story behind it, 20 years on?

  1. 'What More Can I Give': Beginnings in 1992, meeting Nelson Mandela and 9/11

    Michael Jackson with Nelson Mandela in 1999
    Michael Jackson with Nelson Mandela in 1999. Picture: Getty

    Michael Jackson first started writing the song, originally titled 'Heal L.A.', with Brad Buxer after the riots that followed the Rodney King trial verdict in 1992.

    While making HIStory: Past, Present and Future and its subsequent tour in 1996 and 1997, he continued working on it. By 1997, work began on the Invincible album and the song was put on hold.

    However, it was said to be a passion project of Michael's and he didn't want to ignore it. He was inspired to finish the song after a meeting with Nelson Mandela in 1999.

    While speaking to Mandela, the idea of giving was discussed. Michael later revealed that it was here that the words "what more can I give" came into his mind.

    After completing the first version of the song, he intended to premiere it at his MJ & Friends concerts, staged in Munich and Seoul in 1999. However, he decided against it and it remained unreleased.

    Read more: The moment Michael Jackson did his first moonwalk on TV and changed music history forever

    'What More Can I Give' was then intended to be released as a charity single to aid the Kosovar refugees during the Kosovo War.

    Again, the song failed to gain a release as a single, and it was not considered right for inclusion on his 2001 Invincible album.

    In 2001, Michael held two concerts on September 7 and September 10, in celebration of his 30th year as a solo entertainer. Held in New York City, the shows featured performances by Usher, Whitney Houston, Liza Minnelli, Gloria Estefan, and others.

    Just hours after the second concert, the attacks on the World Trade Center in New York City, the Pentagon, and Pennsylvania, led to the loss of 2,993 lives.

    Annual Tribute In Light Marks Anniversary Of Attacks On The World Trade Center's Twin Towers
    Annual Tribute In Light Marks Anniversary Of Attacks On The World Trade Center's Twin Towers. Picture: Getty

    After 9/11, Michael rewrote 'What More Can I Give', and said: "I'm not one to sit back and say, 'Oh, I feel bad for what happened to them.

    "I want the whole world to sing 'What More Can I Give', to bring us together as a world, because a song is a mantra, something you repeat over and over. And we need peace, we need giving, we need love, we need unity."

  2. Recording the song: Which artists appeared?

    'What More Can I Give' was recorded in 2001 by several artists, mainly pop stars.

    It was held in Los Angeles, California, and other destinations reachable by Michael Jackson's private plane and mobile production unit.

    The all-star charity drive was similar to Michael's previous release 'We Are the World' in 1985, which was in turn inspired by Band Aid's 'Do They Know it's Christmas' the year before.

    Read more: Michael Jackson and Freddie Mercury's electrifying long-lost duets are heart-wrenchingly good

    A Spanish version of the song was also recorded, titled 'Todo Para Ti'. It featured several of the musicians on the English version, as well as Latin stars.

    The singers who appeared in the English version were (in alphabetical order):

    • 3LW
    • Aaron Carter
    • Anastacia
    • Beyoncé
    • Billy Gilman
    • Boyz II Men
    • Brian McKnight
    • Bryton James
    • Carlos Santana
    • Celine Dion
    • Gloria Estefan
    • Hanson
    • Jon Secada
    • Justin Timberlake
    • Luther Vandross
    • Mariah Carey
    • Michael Jackson
    • Mya
    • NSYNC
    • Reba McEntire
    • Ricky Martin
    • Shakira
    • Thalia
    • Tom Petty
    • Usher
    • Ziggy Marley
  3. Its only live performance in 2001

    'What More Can I Give' was performed live at the 9/11 benefit concert United We Stand: What More Can I Give.

    The concert was held at the Robert F Kennedy Memorial Stadium in Washington, DC on October 21, 2001.

    Read more: Remembering the beautiful moment Michael Jackson and Princess Diana shyly first met

    It was an eight-hour concert featuring most of the artists performing to a sell-out audience of 54,000 people.

    Michael Jackson also performed 'Man in the Mirror', before he and other singers such as Rod Stewart, Al Green, James Brown, Sean Combs, and Pink closed the show with 'What More Can I Give'.

  4. Why was it not released at the time?

    'What More Can I Give' was planned for release as a charity single to help survivors and families of victims of the September 11 terrorist attacks.

    Michael Jackson said that he hoped to raise around $50 million for those affected and that it would be released as a physical single as soon as possible.

    However, the song failed to get an official release. Several different allegations were reported as to who was to blame for this.

    Read more: Michael Jackson's mind-blowing last performance 48 hours before his death - watch video

    Michael Jackson would soon start a public feud with his record label Sony over the release of his then-scheduled Invincible album.

    In 2002, Michael called Sony Music chairman Tommy Mottola "a racist, and very, very, very devilish," and someone who allegedly exploited black artists for his own gain.

  5. An eventual release (sort of)

    One year after the recording of 'What More Can I Give', the song was played for the first time on the radio.

    WKTU-FM, a radio station in New York, debuted the song without permission and played it many times.

    WKTU-FM's Program Director Frankie Blue said: "This song is a gift to the world. Michael and everyone donated their time for it, and it deserves to be heard. The song is called 'What More Can I Give', and I can give the world a song they can cling onto and hopefully make them think about what they can give."

    It is unknown how the station had a copy of the song. Before this, at least 200 promo copies of the song were sent to the musicians who took part in the recording, and to their representatives.

    Read more: When Michael Jackson invented the robot dance on live TV - video

    It was finally made available for a short period as a digital download on October 27, 2003. The websites whatmorecanigive.com and musicforgiving.com sold the song at a price of $2 per download, with a portion of the proceeds going towards children's charities.

    The music video (see above) finally premiered at the 2003 Radio Music Awards.

    As of September 2021, the song is not officially available on any download or streaming service.