New York City Golf Family Sparks “We Are the World Challenge”
By Bob Denney, PGA Historian
You may not recognize Amelie Phung, the 12-year-old lead soloist. But, you definitely know what she’s singing: “We Are the World,” the 1985 mega hit recorded by Michael Jackson, Lionel Richie, and a supergroup of other stars to aid African relief.
The words are as compelling today, in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic, as they were 35 years ago. Which is why Phung – along with her eight-year-old sister Alexandra (Alexa), and 14-year-old brother Leo – are promoting the “We Are the World Challenge” across a wide spectrum of social channels.
Amelie had originally adopted the famed song to raise awareness for such issues as poverty, health and autism. As COVID-19 spread around the world and to the Phungs’ hometown of New York City, she rededicated the song to battling the disease. She is using the family-produced video to help reduce suffering and support those making personal sacrifices, like those in healthcare, including her mother and other relatives.
But for all that, the month of April was supposed to showcase the two girls’ golf skills. Amelie and Alexa each began playing golf at age 7, and rapidly advanced as member of the PGA Jr. League team from Trump Golf Links at Ferry Point in The Bronx. This year, both earned berths in the sixth Drive, Chip & Putt National Finals at Augusta National Golf Club. It was to have been Alexa’s second straight trip down Magnolia Lane.
The championship had to be cancelled until 2021 due to the pandemic.
Amelie and Alexa attend Tag Young Scholars, a school for gifted students in East Harlem. Their father, Tam, a 49-year-old electrical engineer, said his daughters had long been aware of other peoples’ struggles. Some of their classmates couldn’t afford lunch. Before COVID-19, the family was going to use the song to bring the attention to the problems of East Harlem; as COVID-19 spread, Amelie’s vision turned to reducing suffering and support healthcare frontline workers, firemen and veterans.
Tam’s wife, Jenny, who trained at Juilliard, is a clinical pharmacist for PipelineRX, a startup tele-pharmacy supplying support to beleaguered healthcare professionals at hospitals.
“With success comes failure, which ultimately drives the children to be better,” said Jenny. “They have good hearts, and it is seen on and off the golf course. As a healthcare professional, I see the importance of outreach to those suffering during this pandemic and I fully support their endeavors.”
Suffering and Sacrifice are the keywords in the family project, or as Leo and Amelie nickname it, “S and S.”
“We Are the World” is owned by the Michael Jackson Family’s Trust and the Lionel Richie Family. Its original release featured a 43-member superstar group in a Los Angeles studio and became the eighth best-selling physical single of all time. It was an iconic fundraiser for African famine relief as part of the USA for Africa campaign.
How Amelie was granted a mechanical license to remake the hit is a story all its own. After initial rejections and back-and-forth discussions about changing the words, Amelie decided to keep the original lyrics. Her version was released on April 5, which would have coincided with the Phungs heading to Augusta.
The family self-produced a video featured Amelie singing with Jenny providing the piano accompaniment and Alexa the background chorus. The website –WeAreTheWorldChallenge.org – launched April 23.
Leo, a talented ballet dancer, who attends Regis High School in Manhattan, has caddied for Amelie in several high-profile junior golf events. He’s now helping promote the song through a grassroots social media campaign. The family used the word “Challenge” as incentive for attracting online supporters to be their own creative selves.
To participate, anyone can sing the chorus — or dance to it — record it and post it using the hashtag #WeAreTheWorldChallenge. The Phungs’ version was released on iTunes for $0.99 and on Amazon Music and Spotify for streaming. Funds are raised through sales of the song and donations.
Even before the website launch, responses poured in from around the world. A woman in Spain sang the song in three different languages. A Norwegian saxophonist, a fivesome of Nigerian singers nominated by Ghanaian actress Juliet Ibrahim and numerous junior golfers are among other challenges. The challenge videos can be viewed on Instagram - @WeAreTheWorldChallenge, Facebook - or the website.
“I didn’t realize that it would become this big,” Amelie said. “I expected it to be more of a home project, something that I take part in when I have time. Now that the pandemic has come, I have more time at home and it’s become a hobby for me and I’ve been able to put more effort into it.”
“These folks supported Amelie because she's from New York City, the COVID-19 epicenter,” said Tam. “She released an official remake of the song; and she had aggregated all the challenges into a strong united movement to support New York and the rest of the world.”
Said Leo, “It’s amazing how we have participants and followers speckled all across the globe. I’m hoping to continue to help in Amelie’s movement going forward.”
The Phungs plan to donate money from all the money to New York City food banks and World Kitchen, and will work with hospitals and local foundations to support healthcare professionals. They will also direct visitors to other sites supporting COVID-19 relief, including the Annika Foundation, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the United Nations Foundation.
“As their father, I was hoping to instill some qualities my parents instilled in me, like humility, generosity and empathy,” said Tam. “I can’t explain how proud I am of them to pull this movement off and culminate the world’s voices with the need to stay together in this crisis.”