SEATTLE — Even though the world may be polarized over politics and may not agree on every issue, music remains a constant mean in inspiring change and connection between people and communities. Playing For Change is a project that was founded on the belief that music can “inspire and connect the world because it has the power to break down boundaries and overcome distances between people.”
Founded in 2002 by Mark Johnson and Whitney Kroenke, Playing for Change started as a mobile recording studio and filming organization looking to reach the heartbeat of people on the streets in America. This resulted in an award-winning documentary, “A Cinematic Discovery of Street Musicians.”
The Borgen Project spoke directly with Johnson, who shared personal stories about his life, people who have inspired him and his thoughts on what makes great music. Ultimately, he believes that great music inspires change and can come from anywhere.
After graduating from the University of New Hampshire, Mark worked at New York’s Hit Factory, then the largest recording studio in the world. He worked with a diverse group of musicians from Biggy Smalls and Paul Simon to a 70-piece orchestra.
“You become a part of their joy. If they could see in each other what I saw in them, what I was able to see out there is something I believed could unite us all.”
Johnson tells the story of seeing two monks playing music on a subway platform. He was unable to decipher what they were singing, but what he observed was more important. The monks held the attention of a small girl, a Wall Street banker in a suit, and a homeless man. No one moved.
“It occurred to me in that moment that great music occurs anywhere in time and connects us all back to our humanity. I decided I wanted to bring great musicians in natural spaces to all people in live moments; this was the birth of Playing for Change.”
Playing for Change started in the United States with a mobile recording studio and a project called Blues Across America. Mark and Kroenke recorded street musicians from Santa Monica to Harlem over the span of a year, culminating in the release of an award-winning documentary.
After completing the U.S. tour, Johnson was working on a recording for Jackson Brown. He heard a man on the street singing like Otis Redding and asked him why he was singing for free. The man replied: “Man, I am in the joy business.”
This man’s name is Roger Ridley. He was singing “Stand by Me” in 2005 when he met Johnson, who would call this a music moment, as it launched the global movement of Playing for Change along with “One Love” by Bob Marley.
The group’s first trip was to Guguletu, South Africa to record a bass player. When they arrived, there had been radical devastation from HIV and Johnson wondered if they had overstepped their capacity, but a local musician taking part in the project was overjoyed to see them. Their arrival produced a complete transformation in the village, and Johnson said “the music lifted the sadness and took the village from darkness to light.”
The people in Guguletu asked them to give their children hope and choice and to offer help to have someone believe in them. This prompted the second phase of the organization’s work. Johnson and Kroenke created a second nonprofit and built a music school in Guguletu run by the community where children meet each other through the lens of music. Playing for Change musicians now teach at 12 different schools around the world.
Before the Hit Factory and Playing for Change, Johnson asked himself a question: how do people create their identity? He has been living with this question ever since. Today, he plays the guitar, is a sound engineer, edits, and directs and produces all of the videos of the organization. He is involved in as many music moments as possible.
“They are transcendent and a chance to be a part of something bigger than yourself. I think it is important to go inside and find the compassion to give more. We can be a part of giving more and bring out the best in each other. It is important to have a context like music and art where you have connection and unity everywhere. It helps us to persevere. You can always persevere.”
– Addison Evans