Mark Johnson is bent on changing the world through music.
The award winning music producer and film director is the creator of the “Playing for Change” project, in which musicians from diverse backgrounds come together to create inspiring musical recordings.
Last night I had the pleasure of talking with Johnson after a screening of his documentary “Playing for Change: Peace through Music” in MPR’s UBS Forum. Johnson said the idea for the project came from a desire to break through traditional boundaries.
There’s got to be something for everybody, we can’t all just be on teams. Rich, poor, black white, Christian, Muslim… we’ve got to be more than that – I don’t believe in just that.
I had a teacher who said to me “Before anyone was ever different, we were all the same – the human race. We created our differences to make sense of the world, so now we need to create our connections,” because it’s been blown way out of proportion.
For instance, you use the word “Chinese” and you’re talking about 2 billion people with one word. Who knows what they’re like – but I don’t think they’re all just one word. And I think this project has taught me that’s true – that this is a beautiful world with incredible people and no matter how many negatives they throw at us it’s never going to be stronger than the positives.
Musicians around the world perform a folk tune from Chennai, India
Johnson regards his Playing for Change recordings as a sort of microcosm of peace, bringing people around the world together for a common cause.
The interesting things about these songs is that there’s no ego – when you go to the studio, it’s about “how can I make that artist or that band better” so that there’s an ego involved – not that that’s necessarily a bad thing, but it exists. But with these songs it’s about “how can I make the planet better, how can I make the whole thing better” – they know they’re just a part of something bigger. They played less and listened more.
Johnson has now traveled to over 35 countries filming and recording musicians, which sometimes involved trekking to some very remote areas with heavy equipment.
In the beginning I had to use golf cart batteries to power everything, and car batteries, and then you hike up the Himalayan Mountains and find out the car battery wasn’t charged. All sorts of things that come with making a documentary, but that’s the joy of it, too.
Not content with just making compelling music, Johnson is also the co-founder of the Playing for Change Foundation, which is building music schools in small towns and villages in Africa and Nepal. Johnson says he sees the schools as a source of hope and happiness for people living in otherwise challenging times.
Johnson has also brought together some of the Playing for Change musicians to perform live and tour as a band. They’ll perform at the Ordway Center for the Performing Arts on February 12.