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Here’s today’s dispatch from the crossroads of faith, media and culture.
Music makes the world go round. For the past decade, Mark Johnson, a Grammy Award-winning producer/engineer and award-winning film director, has worked with some of the most renowned musicians and producers in the music, film and television industries. As the co-founder of Playing For Change (with Whitney Kreonke), he has been perfecting an innovative, mobile technique for recording for the outdoor recording of musicians from all over the world. He has compiled many of those recordings to create Songs Around The World.
In collaboration with the United Nations, Playing For Change has created an original song and video called A Better Place which features 29 musicians from 13 countries performing in their native lands in celebration of the universal God-given right to live in freedom, dignity and peace.
A Better Place was commissioned by the United Nations’ Millennium Development Goals Achievement Fund (UNMDGAF) to draw attention to issues of social and economic inequalities based on race, religion, ethnicity, gender, and even location.
I recently spoke with Mark about the video and what he hopes to accomplish with it. Here are some highlights from our conversation:
JWK: I’ve listened to the video of A Better Place. Great song you’ve got there.
MARK JOHNSON: Thank you, very much.
JWK: Did you write that?
MJ: No. It was written by my producing partner Enzo Buono and he wrote the song with Mermans Mosengo and Jason Tamba. They’re two musicians from the Congo featured in the Playing for Change band. We set out to just kind of mix reggae with a New Orleans feel and then use that rhythm to kind of bring up the social issues that were important to the campaign.
JWK: How did Playing For Change come about?
MJ: Playing for Change started about ten years ago. I started traveling around the world recording and filming musicians with the Stand By Me video. That started when I first met Roger Ridley, a street performer here in Los Angeles — in Santa Monica. And I heard him singing Stand By Me and just thought it would an incredible song to take around the world. And, since then, it’s turned into a movement, you know, of people coming together through music. We record and film musicians around the world (and) we build music schools. We have eight of those as part of the Playing For Change Foundation. And then we also have the Playing For Change band which is the tangible example of the whole project. What happens when ten countries meet on the stage and build something bigger than themselves which is really the idea of the project…There’s about 160 million views of our songs around the world. It started with Stand By Me about five years ago and that one got over 50 million (views)….It’s been many years of building a family around the world of musicians and their communities and then using all these musicians — whether they’re famous, like Bono or Keith Richards are involved in the songs, or whether they’re street musicians or when you travel you find a lot of people are more what I would call native musicians. They play in villages, in Indian reservations, in the Himalayan mountains and so on…It’s not just (songs) you hear on the radio or buy in the store. Great music is everywhere. That’s why I mentioned Roger Ridley. Because when you hear him, he has a voice like Otis Redding, one of the best singers of all time. And you say to this guy “Why were your singing on the street with a voice like that?” And he says “Because, man, I’m in the joy business! I come out to bring joy to the people!” And so that’s really kind of the origin of the whole project.
JWK: Do people all over the world get the concept of what you’re doing?
MJ: Just like breathing and drinking water. The other most natural thing is to connect with other humans in a positive way and that’s really what we build off of.
JWK: What do you hope this project accomplishes in the long-term?
MJ: Well, long-term, I hope it gives a voice to the voiceless because politics and economics don’t mean anything if they’re not thinking about the people. And, often times, music can get to the sentiment behind the words. So, in politics it’s a speech but in music it’s a feeling — and that feeling is one heart to another. So, I do think it’s one of the best tools we have to make social change and really to make people care more about themselves and then the rest of the world around them. That’s kind of the way it happens and it’s gotta be from inspiration — not from tragedy and not through prejudice. It’s gotta be something that comes from each person and how they make sense of the world. And I think music is the best tool we have to accomplish that.
JWK: Tell me about the work of the Playing For Change Foundation.
MJ: As we started traveling around the world about five years ago. we were realizing that so many people in the world…just need hope. So, we were recording music. That was the context. So, we decided to work with the community…to build and support a music schools (and) created the Playing for Change Foundation. There are currently eight music schools around the world — four in Africa and four in Nepal. And we work to connect all these schools together. They’re all owned and operated by the community. We funded them and support them. They create the curriculum, make the ultimate decisions and it’s really an incredible way of creating a way to preserve their history and their culture. But also a way to move forward and connect with the rest of the world. And then these schools evolve — into recording studios. Many of the best musicians are in the poorest places. It evolved into telemedicine centers. For instance, we work with Harvard (School of) Medicine. (We provide) a microphone and a speaker, (they provide) the telemedicine. And I think what’s important to look at is the foundation from which all of this was built — it’s the pride of every culture, it’s their music. So, it brings about such a joyful, positive way of connecting cultures. (From) that root, you’re able to bring in technology, unite the kids together. We’ve done that in the past through MIT in Boston. And when you see kids in Boston meet kids in a township of South Africa. you know, after the music and the slide shows and the interviews, you watch prejudice disappear, you watch stereotypes disappear. And I think that’s all because of the context.
Note: For information on how you can participate in Playing For Change, click here.
Encourage one another and build each other up – 1 Thessalonians 5:11