Playing For Change

Playing For Change co-founder Mark Johnson’s energy is so upbeat it practically slaps me in the face when we met via Skype in late July. With a fitted military cap pulled down over his head and an unbuttoned shirt hanging over a t-shirt, he sits alert on a couch in his Venice home. Essentially a human-shaped beaming smile, he’s an individual who not only dreams big, but has an acute awareness of his sense of connection to, and place within, the world around us. 

A Grammy Award-winning music producer/sound engineer and award-winning film engineer, since 2005 Mark has travelled the world recording and filming musicians to create what he calls Songs Around The World. Essentially sonic and visual collages of musicians from different countries and backgrounds performing the same song, they’re telling reminders of the power of music to break barriers and close the distances. Kicking off with a rendition of ‘Stand By Me’ led by street musician Roger Ridley, they took Roger’s casual comment to Mark, ‘I’m in the Joy business, I come out to be with the people,’ as their starting mantra and never looked back. 

The success of Songs Around The World allowed Mark and his collaborators to unite many of the musicians they met and form The Playing For Change Band. Together, they’ve toured the world, raising money for the Playing For Change Foundation, a non-profit organisation committed to building music and art schools for children around the world. Having visited over 50 countries and earning the trust of communities across the globe, Mark and Playing For Change believe sharing the world through the lens of music and art is crucial to fighting against the propaganda and fear that keeps us divided and robs us of living our lives.

There is a school of thought that says you are only as great as you can help other people become. How important is this to you? Ultimately, I believe that giving is getting. We’ve veered away from this and designed our whole being around money. I believe in something better, or bigger than that. If I can help a child get a guitar and watch him play it, it gives me something far greater than anything I could buy. I’ve seen the happiest people with nothing and the best musicians with nothing. It’s not really about what you have in life; it must be what you do with it.

Could you walk us through how this project has changed your understanding of music as a universal language? In the beginning with the Songs Around The World videos, it was about showing every type of person in them, so everyone can see someone they relate to relating to other people in a great way. You could watch those videos and be done with racism if you wanted to be. We learned about music for joy. We learned how Native Americans use music to connect to their ancestors, nature, and build community. We learned about the role of music in forgiveness in South Africa. We learned about music as a survival tool and a way to bring people together. Humans invented music, and all of these different reasons are part of who we are as people.

I guess during these experiences you developed a sense of connection with the places you visited and wanted to do more for them, hence opening the schools? Absolutely. The way to make change is inside communities. People will work with other people they would normally never work with if it is for the good of their children. We wanted to incorporate music education with something that would put the next generation ahead. In 2007 we assembled a bunch of musicians from our videos to play a benefit concert to build our first school in South Africa. Musicians from nine different countries came together on the same stage. Since then The Playing For Change Band has played 300 concerts to raise money for schools. We just opened our thirteenth school.

Playing For Change makes sense on paper, but when I think about it, it must take some amazing acts of kindness and giving to make it happen? There have been a lot of magic make-or-break moments. One of our mentors and partners is a 94-year-old man named Norman Leer. He invented sitcom televisions in the 1950s. It was basically the first use of media for social commentary. You know how you’re gonna get rid of racism? You make people watch a fat version of themselves be racist on TV. They laugh at it, and you might suddenly realise some of it is them. By laughing about it, they get through it and move forward. Norman brought us all these amazing opportunities and really elevated the consciousness of the project. We had some top 10 success with our songs at Billboard and Starbucks got behind us, so we were able to give all the featured musicians royalties. That changed communities and built trust. Then Keith Richards contacted us and wanted to work with us; that helped keep things going. 

Chris Blackwell is a partner with us as well. He founded Island Records and worked with Bob Marley. We met him when we were clearing our Songs Around The World of ‘One Love’. He said, ‘This idea of changing the world, you’ve got to keep it in perspective. Why don’t you just go out there and tip the scale a bit? Make the good better and the bad less bad and know you’ve done a lot.’ In a similar way, one of my heroes is Keb' Mo'. He said, ‘The important thing in life is to get up in the morning and let the inspiration take care of itself.’ You’ll never really know if what you’re doing is making change, but if you believe, your impact will keep rippling outward. This is the kind of thing we need to be doing to combat the giant wall of fear and propaganda. 

Words by Martyn Pepperyll

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