Interview: Mark Johnson, Co-Founder of Playing for Change


Every once and a while you find something that changes your life for the better. In my case, I discovered a musical collective that unbelievably tied right into my inner workings. Music is created by a myriad of performers and artists around the world. However, many of these artists are true to their form and natural aesthetic. They do not seek fame and fortune. Simply put, they make music for the sake of music. Luckily, two individuals, Mark Johnson and Whitney Kroenke founded an initiative to not only enlighten the world to great music, but to create a collective of these artists together to what has been proudly been called, Playing for Change. Mark was kind enough to chat with me via Skype last week to discuss this amazing endeavor.

Back around the year 2009, I had just returned from a semester abroad in New Zealand. Exploring online music, as I often do still today, I found these special music videos of admired songs. However, the famous artists who wrote them were not performing these classics. Instead, the music was being performed via a large group of global musicians each contributing their instruments and voices to the one lovely ballad. I was blown away to a point where I obsessively re-watched and listened to these great renditions, much to the dismay of my neighbors on campus. Naturally, the next step was to buy all of these songs and follow Playing for Change forever. To this day, Playing for Change has been not only one of my favorite musical escapes to listen to, but the videos continue to inspire me all the time.

I was so curious to learn about how such a powerful and hopeful project came into being. Mark gave me the whole run down. “Well, Playing for Change was born out of the question of how can we find one thing in the world that inspires and [brings] people together? [There must be something that] didn’t divide people by color, race, money or religion. I felt like there was something stronger that transcended these things. I was working at The Hit Factory in the 90s as a sound engineer recording artists like Biggie Smalls, Broadway artists, Paul Simon, etc. What I learned is that all of these people just loved music and just did it because it was their thing. [One day] I walked on the subway and saw two monks playing their own music. One was playing a nylon string guitar and the other was singing in a different language. [What I noticed was that] everyone on the train was captivated. [Everyone was enjoying this together] from the homeless man sitting next to the businessman to the young and old women staring with their jaws dropped. Many were smiling. [That was the] epiphany moment when [I saw that] music was the one thing that mattered. [That was one of those times where] the music was better than what was being done in the studio.”

To give you a taste of Playing for Change’s magic, watch and listen to their cover of Stand By Me. I’ll give you a moment…Ok, now that you have seen that glorious video, you can hear about how something like this came together. “I was traveling to Santa Monica, California and came across this street musician, Roger Ridley, who was singing Stand By Me. I was amazed by the soul in his voice and asked him why he wasn’t in the music business. He replied, ‘I am in the joy business.’ He should be a professional singer, but no, he didn’t choose that life. We then headed down to New Orleans right after Hurricane Katrina and met Grandpa Elliott singing Amazing Grace. It was one of those moments where it felt like he was telling us it was going to be all right.”

Roger is the first musician you meet in the Stand By Me video and his voice and spirit captivates you. Grandpa Elliott, who may be one of the most iconic musicians of the Playing for Change crew, provides a tone of tenderness and feeling to the song as well. Throughout the song I get goose bumps. Every musician adds onto the tune which makes it’s meaning that much stronger. It is my favorite rendition by the Playing for Change collective.

Grandpa Elliott is currently quite famous. “Now, this blind man is touring across the world with ten other Playing for Change musicians from eight different countries. He is everyone’s grandpa: old, young, white or black. It does not matter and he has been doing it for 60 years. He cannot see but I remember one show he was gripping my hand because he could feel and hear the joy of the music from the fans watching him. In other countries he is like Elvis with standing ovations and billboards of his likeness spread everywhere.”

Since then, a huge part of the Playing for Change effort has been focused on music that is already popular throughout the globe and to all musicians. “I wanted to do songs that the world knew with each cultural touch embedded. That is what makes the videos so fun to watch and the music so interesting to hear. Each musician is playing their own musical instrument and is connected to their culture which is tied into it.”

Being a seasoned pro, Mark shared his views on music’s role in life. “I think the music business is meant to be about humanity and not about money and business. All art is about humanity and expression. I try to encourage that as much as possible with important things like talent and soul. What I would love to see is lessons learned from what Playing for Change has done. Countries should use these music lessons and offer children to see the world via the lens of music and art because we need to inspire the kids who care more about each other rather than focusing on politics and war. We can use music as a catalyst to connect everyone to see that we are all one. The differences in our lives make us stronger and build upon the will to connect people via one human heart …We will continue discovering and that connection will be ever strong. Let music bring us all together.”

Mark enlightened me on his plans moving forward even though he has accomplished so much. “I plan to just keep on going and it will never end because there are always more musicians to record… People like what we are doing and we will continue to work on more songs around the world. Plus, fans can catch the global tour featuring the Playing for Change band! Seeing all of these talented musicians live on the stage for all to see opens the door to the tangible examples in front of you. It makes fans feel more connected to the planet. We also have the Playing for Change Foundation as a way to give back to the people. [Through this foundation], 11 music programs around the world have been created to benefit thousands of children which then gives back to musicians and their families. Music will live on for the next generation.”

To end, I want to share with you another reason Playing for Change has been an important musical inspiration to me. Over the years through my obsession with music and the characters behind it, I created my own batch of musicians who are part of this musical group, The Fuzz. No, they are not my band or my actual friends who are musicians. They are creatures that are aimed at being a mix between The Muppets meets Pixar. (Take a look at my design below of J.W. thanks to my good friend and artist Steven Boyar and my collage of the whole group) Each one of my creatures are an assortment of monsters, humans, animals and a myriad of other beings bent on one goal, making great music for the world. Some of the people are musicians, some are the roadies, other provide the transportation and so on. Even some of my creations match up with Playing for Change’s band! They have a Grandpa Elliott and I have a Grandpa Joe. Might I point out, I had no idea Playing for Change was a thing when I created Grandpa Joe! Each person of my collective has his or her own style, instrument and individual talent that adds onto the group. Thanks to the work of Mark and his amazing team, Playing for Change has now become one of my greatest influences when constructing and conceptualizing the world of The Fuzz. For that, I will remain ever grateful and a true fan. Thank you Mark and all of the Playing for Change artists for this musical joy.

JW Screenshot

The Fuzz Screenshot

Below you will find a compendium of my favorite Playing for Change songs and renditions. You can also buy their music on iTunes as well.

Jam On World.