Q&A with Mark Johnson of Playing For Change, created to inspire, connect, and bring peace to the world through music

"The similarities are easy because everybody around the world is looking for the same things in life, like happiness, health and joy for their family and friends and their community, that is universal."

Mark Johnson: Playing For Change

Mark Johnson is a Grammy award-winning producer/engineer and award-winning film director. For the past 20 years, Mark has worked with some of the most renowned producers in the music, film, and television industries, and with such musical artists as Keith Richards, Paul Simon, Jackson Browne, Bono, Jimmy Buffett, Buddy Guy, Taj Mahal, Keb’ Mo’, Sara Bareilles, Los Lobos, Andrés Calamaro, Carlos Vives, and many more. In 2005, he earned a “Contemporary Blues Album of the Year” Grammy as producer/engineer of the Keb’ Mo’ album Keep It Simple.  In hopes of showcasing musical talent found on the streets, Johnson parlayed his musical knowledge and technical skills to turn his vision into what is now known as Playing For Change. Mark has recorded and filmed music around the world in over 45 countries and has dedicated his life to connecting the world through music. Playing For Change is a multimedia movement created to inspire, connect, and bring peace to the world through music. The idea for this project arose from a common belief that music has the power to break down boundaries and overcome distances between people. Mark’s vision became an effort to share this truth with the world.        (Photo: Mark Johnson / Playing For Change)

It all began about fifteen years ago when Mark and his PFC Co-Founder, Whitney Kroenke, assembled a group of like-minded people with cameras and a mobile recording studio and embarked on a journey across the globe. Mark and the team created an innovative mobile technique for recording and filming musicians live outside all around the world and edited their performances together, creating Songs Around The World videos. Mark’s first documentary film, Playing For Change: A Cinematic Discovery of Street Musicians, won honors at several international film festivals and his following project, Playing For Change: Peace Through Music, received awards and critical praise at the Tribeca Film Festival. Mark also sits on the Board of Directors for the Playing For Change Foundation, a separate 501(c)3 nonprofit organization created in 2007 in order to bring music education to children in communities the team had visited while traveling. His resume as a keynote speaker includes the United Nations, the University of Michigan’s Martin Luther King Day Celebration, and the World Economic Forum in Davos as well as the Million Dollar Round Table.

Interview by Michael Limnios / Transcription by Anna McBride

Special Thanks: J. Marie Jones, Mark Johnson, Anna & Kenny McBride (McBride Arts)

What is the story behind the namePlaying For Change”?

Mark: The story behind the name playing for change is that I first discovered street musicians when I was recording music in New York City. I would record music in the studio and on the way to the studio I would see great musicians in the subway and on the street corner and that they were playing for change, to make money to survive. They were playing to change the world to inspire people that walk by them to have a better day, so it was really that the music on the street is the voice of the people. It works both ways you play for money and you play to change the world, that’s how we got the project name, Playing For Change.

What have you learned from your experience with the Playing For Change project?

Mark: What I have learned is that no matter how many things in life that divide us, music can bring us together. Everywhere I go, when I record a song around the world, we unite together different religions, politics, different races, everything is different. The thing with music is that the things that make us different are what makes us stronger. So, experiences, they put their own experiences into their instruments they put those experiences into singing and so people become more united around the world through the music. It doesn’t matter if politics divide us or religion divides us. The music brings people together.

How has music influenced your views of the world and the journeys you have taken in your life?

Mark: Great question. The philosophy I have is that music brings you the joy of the world; the inspiration. When you see the world through the lens of music, you see the world as a beautiful place, it’s a new adventure and you learn that fear is the enemy. Fear is the problem and music can break down the fear. You get to see the world how it was meant to be. We’ve created this divided world but originally people had been living together since the beginning of time. We need to get back to humanity; the one group we are all a part of. Music makes it easier for us to see that as a reality.

"I think happiness for me is trying to experience as many inspirational music moments as I can in my life. That was my goal when I set out as a young man, to get out and get involved with as many inspirational musical experiences as possible. That’s going to lead you to so many great moments in life." (Mark Johnson with Playing For Change crew & Grandpa Elliot / Photo by Jonathan Walls)

What have been the highlights in your career and what have been the low times?

Mark: OK, so one of the greatest moments in my life was with Grandpa Elliot. Grandpa Elliot is an amazing street musician from New Orleans, he’s a blind man, and he’s played around the world, also touring in the Playing For Change band. And he has been performing on the streets of New Orleans for 60 years. Performing for a few people that walk by you and each time singing a song. But this moment was a chance where we got to take Grandpa Elliot out to play a concert for 20,000 people in Brazil. We walked him out onto the stage and in Brazil Grandpa Elliot is treated like a super star, like Elvis. They have billboards, they have him on T-shirts and everybody loves him. So when he goes out onto the stage with 20,000 screaming fans and he can’t see them but he can hear them, he squeezed my hand as I raised his hand up to the crowd and I’ll never forget that moment because it shows the true power of music and that the greatest music in the world isn’t about super stars, it’s about soul and the things that really connect you. That’s what Grandpa Elliott is all about so it’s great to see that type of support from all around the world. A few people knew him on the streets and now millions of people know him around the world. I think that just really shows the power of music.

The low point is that the mantra that I went by when I started the project is “supreme success through perseverance”. So, let’s just back up, I think every low point I’ve had with this project has turned into a high point. I’ll be in some of the most dangerous places in the world being concerned for the safety of my crew and then because we are there for music we end up being invited into this whole world and then a negative ends up being a positive. Any problems we’ve had here have just been an opportunity to grow.

In traveling all around the world, what are your conclusions from the local folk music scenes? From flamenco, tango, son, reggae to soul, blues, and other genres around the world...

Mark: I love that because I love seeing where music has traveled. One thing about music is that it is everywhere. Different styles being passed around the world. A lot of what I record is blues and a lot of blues comes from West Africa. I love to work on music that reunites musicians that were separated from the slave trade. So starting with music in Ghana, Mali, Senegal and onto the Caribbean, Jamaica, Haiti and into Mississippi you put all these lineages together and you get the blues. Each local tradition feeds like a river into the ocean, the ocean being the blues. You can see the same thing happening with flamenco and the gypsies,. .. also a lot of music that comes out of the Congo ends up being a big influence on South American music, particularly the rumba. And so I love making music that reunites all of these cultures that have been separated from their local traditions and then making this a bigger part of the picture of music and then telling that story around the world.

"The music that we make is sincere and people can feel it. It’s innovative in the sense that it’s bringing this high-quality studio to the world and it gives you the chance to see the world with all of it’s amazing music, instruments, color and different types of humanity. I think that everybody feels it." (Mark Johnson with Playing For Change crew & Manu Chao / Photo by Jonathan Walls)

What do you miss most about music from the past and it’s feelings?

Mark: What I love about music from the past is that it was based on a performance. A moment in time with different musicians together performing a song that would then have all of the energy of these different people playing together. Modern music is made a lot more in parts and in pieces. Using a computer to create a rhythm and then a singer to provide a certain amount of bars, use a guitar player separated from a bass player. It’s the separation that changes it. I preferred the music that used to be made where it was more of just a performance. And then that performance has feeling, and music is always a feeling before it’s a sound. “If it feels good it will always sound good”, that is what Keb’ Mo’ said. He is one of my heroes and a legendary blues musician. He said that music comes from feeling first. I love music that’s made on a feeling, whether it’s from the past or the present.

How do you want Playing For Change to affect people?

Mark: The idea of making music is just to make people feel something. They feel inspiration, they feel connection, they feel alive! So what I would like Music to do, our music, is to inspire people, make them smile more. Those are the type of things that change the world.

Do you have a project that you would most like to accomplish?

Mark: There are so many. One of the projects I am excited about at the moment is that we are working with Yusuf Cat Steven’s on the 50th anniversary of his song, Peace Train. Including musicians from five continents all playing together. In the future I look forward to bringing more live concerts featuring musicians from all around the world to celebrate this concept live on the stage.

What do you think will be a major change in the near or far future of the world?

Mark: Well you know technology is a big thing but it seems like everything goes in it’s cycles. So, what I’m hoping for is that human connection continues to be the most important thing. A lot of times when you’re living through your phone or computer it’s not easy keeping in connection with other people. I just think that it’s important that we keep our soul in whatever direction that we continue as a planet. That’s why I support music education, the more musicians we have on this planet the better the world is.

"The story behind the name playing for change is that I first discovered street musicians when I was recording music in New York City. I would record music in the studio and on the way to the studio I would see great musicians in the subway and on the street corner and that they were playing for change, to make money to survive. They were playing to change the world to inspire people that walk by them to have a better day, so it was really that the music on the street is the voice of the people." (Founders Mark Johnson and Whitney Kroenke with a young student / Photo Courtesy of Playing For Change)

Where would you go if you had a time machine?

Mark: Otis Redding‘s last concert or Bob Marley 1973 at the Roxy. You know that live performance of Woman Don’t Cry? ...That is where I would like to travel in time to.

What do you think is the key to a life well lived? What is happiness for Mark?

Mark: Another great question. I think happiness for me is trying to experience as many inspirational music moments as I can in my life. That was my goal when I set out as a young man, to get out and get involved with as many inspirational musical experiences as possible. That’s going to lead you to so many great moments in life. You get to learn so many lessons and you get to learn them smiling and with people that are able to become a part of something that is bigger than yourself. If we believe in something bigger and in each other that is what I think is the key to a life well lived and I would like to take that journey.

You have met so many great musicians and local musicians. Which meetings have been the most important experience for you? And what was the best advice anybody ever gave you that you keep like a motto in your life?

Mark: So, there are a couple of questions. The greatest music experience for me was meeting a local street musician, Roger Ridley. He is a featured street musician in a bunch of our videos, and he was in the Stand By Me video. First of all, I’d never heard a better singer in my life. Second, I’d never heard a better musician on the street. I asked him with a voice like yours, like Otis Redding, what are you doing singing in the streets? It’s to bring joy to the people. When you have that much talent and your goal is to bring joy to the people the impact you make can never be measured. He’s changed so many people's lives every day because of his talent and his desire to bring joy. That’s why we call Playing For Change the joy business. Because it’s about honoring that legacy of Roger Ridley and also that conviction to do something with your life that lifts people up.

That leads to the greatest advice I’ve been given and it’s from a friend of mine who is 98 years old, he is a legend here in America, his name is Norman Lear. Norman told me there are three things in life that remind us that we are all connected: music, laughter and transcendence. And so that’s my motto is to be involved in music, laughter and something bigger than myself.

"The idea of making music is just to make people feel something. They feel inspiration, they feel connection, they feel alive! So what I would like Music to do, our music, is to inspire people, make them smile more. Those are the type of things that change the world." (Photo: Mark Johnson & Roger Ridley)

What is the impact of your project? What is the impact of music in general on human rights, civil rights, political, spiritual and sociocultural implications?

Mark: Music is the voice of the people, but it’s more than that; it’s the feeling of the people. So, think about that for a minute... the feeling of the people. That’s going to give you an opportunity to understand what’s going on and then actually make changes. In every part of society that needs to change, to evolve, to get rid of fear and greed. Those aren’t just individuals; those are systems around the world that are enemies of any society. The thing that can help people understand that is music. It can give you the tools to persevere in a positive way through hard times. You can’t go through your hard times in life feeling negative because then it just creates more negative. I think that what Music does, whether it’s social rights, civil rights, everything we face as a society when it’s through the lens of music is to move through it positively. That’s what we need is positive solutions we can feel. That’s what Music does for us that’s why we invented music as people; for these opportunities to go through hard times as people and lift each other up.

Where does your creative drive come from?

Mark: I think that comes from that I always wanted to try to see the light in the eyes of other people and try to find the good inside of somebody, because if you can find the positive in somebody then you have this connection. I believe that we could be so much better to each other. I have the drive because creativity gives you the ability to make change. Changing myself too, you know, trying to be a better person, trying to listen more and understand more and see things through other people’s experiences. Creativity and art, those are always tools to be able to see the world in a new way and to help reinvent hope and opportunity. I believe we are going to make it as a human race; that’s my motivation.

How do you choose the songs that Playing For Change projects?

Mark: There are so many different reasons for choosing a song. Like choosing the song “Stand By Me” or “One Love” to encourage unity. Or songs like “Gimme Shelter” or “Get Up Stand Up” because life is happening now and there are children starving, people suffering and useless wars happening. I try to pick music that matches the human emotions we are all experiencing. Sometimes you need songs to lift you up and move you forward. You can’t just stand still; it starts with each one of us individually. We want everyone in the world to feel a part of this project because music is truly for every one.

"The philosophy I have is that music brings you the joy of the world; the inspiration. When you see the world through the lens of music, you see the world as a beautiful place, it’s a new adventure and you learn that fear is the enemy. Fear is the problem and music can break down the fear. You get to see the world how it was meant to be." (Mark Johnson / Photo Courtesy of Playing For Change)

Why do you think that Playing For Change continues to generate such a level of following?

Mark: I think that it’s because it’s sincere. The music that we make is sincere and people can feel it. It’s innovative in the sense that it’s bringing this high-quality studio to the world and it gives you the chance to see the world with all of it’s amazing music, instruments, color and different types of humanity. I think that everybody feels it. Playing For Change is a good example of that because you can watch the videos and listen to the songs but it’s really the feeling you get that makes it different from something else. That feeling is what I think helped us develop a following around the world. Last year our YouTube channel went over 1 billion views and 10 years ago it was at 10 views. It goes to show that the world is looking for ways to be inspired and to connect.

What are the similarities and what are the differences between nations and between countries around the world? Do you find that it is different from Central America to South America; from West Africa to Asia to Eastern Europe?

Mark: The similarities are easy because everybody around the world is looking for the same things in life, like happiness, health and joy for their family and friends and their community, that is universal. Before there was nations there was a universal desire for those things; a better life for oneself and everyone around them. You see that everywhere, that is why I get invited into all these homes, in villages and places I could never have dreamed of because everybody around the world shares in this idea of let’s do something positive together. When you show up in the context of music all these doors open. I get to see that we’re all the same, the one group that we are all a part of is the human race.

First and foremost we are the human race and the differences that we have often times are what makes us special. If you go to West Africa there is poverty but there is also an amazing amount of joy. They are the happiest people you will meet and with owning very little possessions. That can teach you a lesson. What does it mean to be happy? You can go to other countries where they are more modern, like Japan. They have their traditions that go back thousands of years and the West African traditions go back also for thousands of years. They have their own histories and though they can each be different their connections to it are the same. The fact that they honor their ancestors and look to create a better world for their kids; that’s universal. It’s the day to day lives that are different.

Exactly. One world, one love.

Mark: Yes! One world, one love.

Playing For Change - Home

(Mark Johnson / Photo Courtesy of Playing For Change)

Special Thanks: J. Marie Jones (Director of Communications / Producer / Playing For Change), Mark Johnson, Anna & Kenny McBride (McBride Arts)

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