Roots | Mark Johnson

Irie Magazine World Edition - October 2015 - Roots - Mark Johnson

Mark Johnson

Playing For Change

Mark Johnson is a Grammy Award Winning Producer/ Engineer and Award-Winning Film Director. For the past 15 years, Mark has worked with some of the most renowned producers in the music, film and television industries, and with such musical artists as Paul Simon, Jackson Browne, Keith Richards, Sara Bareilles, Bono, Taj Mahal, and Los Lobos. 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 he 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.

It all began about ten years ago when Mark and his producing partner, Whitney Kroenke, assembled a group of like-minded people with cameras and a mobile recording studio and embarked on a journey across the globe. With their innovative mobile technique for recording street musicians around the world and skill in editing their performances together, Mark and the crew created Songs Around The World videos. After accumulating over 60 million views on YouTube, the first video, “Stand by Me”, laid the foundation for the best selling CD/DVD set ‘Playing For Change: Songs Around The World’. This CD/DVD debuted at #10 on Billboard’s Pop Chart in April of 2009. Two years later, Playing For Change released their second album ‘PFC2 Songs Around The World,’ which debuted at #1 on Billboard’s World Music Charts.

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. Mark Johnson has also been a keynote speaker at the United Nations, TED Global, the University of Michigan’s Martin Luther King Day Celebration, the World Economic Forum in Davos as well as the Million Dollar Round Table and a featured guest on “The Colbert Report”, “Tavis Smily”, “Bill Moyer’s Journal and CNN heroes. Playing For Change has been supported by such icons as Norman Lear, Chris Blackwell and Howard Schultz and the PFC movement continues to grow one heart and one song at a time.

Official Website:

The Interview

IRIE. Can you tell us a little bit about yourself?

Mark Johnson: My name is Mark Johnson, Co-Founder of Playing For Change. I started PFC with Whitney Kroenke back in 2001 and we have been traveling the world recording and filming music ever since.

IRIE. How did the inspiration for Playing for Change first come about?

Mark Johnson: The inspiration for Playing For Change was born from the idea that we can make a much better world if we all come together and music is the best way to make this happen.

About 10 years ago I had an experience in NYC that opened my eyes to the power of music. I was on my way to work at the Hit Factory Recording Studio when I witnessed two monks performing in the subway, painted all in white. They were wearing robes and one of the monks was playing a nylon guitar and the other monk was singing in a language I had never heard before.

When I entered the subway platform it was packed with people all taking in this music and I saw a homeless man and a businessman, a young girl and an elderly woman all enjoying this beautiful music. I realized that great music and art are just moments in time and they exist everywhere. We can use the energy from these moments to connect people in a deep way.

This is when I had the idea to bring the studio to musicians in their natural environments and record / film them live and in the moment wherever they happen.

In order to truly unite and inspire the entire planet we need to include as many different cultures, races, religions, political views and economic status as possible. We realized we could connect all these different groups with Songs around the world such as (Stand By ME). This vision was the birth of the global movement that is Playing For Change.

IRIE. How many members our in the PFC band to date?

Mark Johnson: The PFC Band changes from time to time but the current touring band features 12 musicians from 10 different countries. They have so much love and respect for each other through the PFC videos and this energy they create gets transmitted to the audience and together they build a world where we are going to make it as a human race.

Each musician brings his or her own unique musical style and life philosophy to the band and these components combine together to create something new.

IRIE. Each music project delivers an extraordinary lineup of musicians. How do you choose each destination to record a new music project?

Mark Johnson: The process of finding different artists around the world begins with a look at a map and discussions about what instruments and vocal styles we can put together to create something new. With PFC, world music is when the world plays music together and so we select diverse places and search for a music guide that can introduce us to musicians within each community. The idea with the Playing For Change Songs around the world is to record as many different musical styles and cultures as possible and then combine them into something where people can see we are all connected with music. The songs help us choose the locations and then, as they develop, we choose where to go next. For example with ‘One Love’ around the world we wanted to combine the steel guitar with the Sitar and roots singers with a Zulu Choir and from these initial ideas the songs take shape and tell us where to go next.

IRIE. How do you come up with the song’s ideas? And do you record all the songs on the road?

Mark Johnson: We choose songs based on themes such as connectivity (“Stand By Me” / “One Love”), celebration (“3 Little Birds”, “La Bamba”) and urgency to make a change (“Gimme Shelter”, “Get Up stand up” etc…). The songs help us decide the musical direction to take and then we set out on the journey to find the musicians. We record and film all the music live outside with a mobile recording studio and cameras.

IRIE. Playing for Change mission is to spread peace through music. Why do you think music is such an effective media for promoting change?

Mark Johnson: “We live in a world that walks over homeless people on our way to work like they don’t exist. We have far too many starving children and warring nations. What is there to remind us of the power of the human spirit? We are hitting the streets to connect to our hearts. As a Human race we come together for birth, we come together for death, and what brings us together in between 
is up to us. Stop and listen to the universal power of music and bring that positive energy with you everywhere you go.”

IRIE. You’ve also established a foundation to create music schools throughout the world. In which countries are these schools located?

Mark Johnson: As we traveled the world the musicians and the communities we were visiting invited us in their homes, played us their music and shared with us their stories. We knew we wanted to give back and that is why we created the Playing For Change Foundation in 2007.

As we traveled we would ask the communities we were visiting what we can do to give back and help them leave each location better than we found it. We learned that all over the world there is a need for music schools to offer the children, the future of our planet, hope. We currently support 12 music programs in South Africa, Mali, Ghana, Rwanda, Nepal, Thailand, Bangladesh and Brazil. This is just the beginning.

IRIE. Can you share with us a memorable moment from a past PFC projects?

Mark Johnson: For years I have had a photograph on my wall at home of musicians playing in front of a shack in Gugulethu Township South Africa. In the photo the musicians had so much soul. I researched and found the name of the bandleader was Pokie Klaas. A few years ago we where recording music in South Africa and we asked a group of musicians if any of them knew Pokie. One of the singers jumped up real excited and said, “Pokie, he is my Best Friend”.

The next day we got in a van and traveled from the city through thousands of shacks to Pokie’s house. We met him and while he was watching one of our videos I walked behind his house to see four little shacks with families living in them. The atmosphere back there had so much sorrow and desperation. We were reluctant to film the music but as soon as the band arrived and they all set up the instruments everything changed!! The music started to play, the children and the mother’s began to come outside and the next thing I witnessed felt like an exorcism. All the negativity, death and sorrow went away and were replaced by singing, dancing and love. We made such a strong bond with Pokie and the community that we asked what we could do to help them, they asked for a music school and instruments and then one year later we returned to this exact spot and built the first PFCF Music School!!! It is named after Pokie’s Grandfather, “The Ntonga Playing For Change Music School”.

IRIE. What do you hope fans take with them from experiencing the music of Playing for Change?

Mark Johnson: Everyone in life has had to persevere through something, and in that lies our humanity. Playing For Change shows the world that no matter how many things divide us they are never as strong as the power of music to bring us together.

IRIE. What’s next for Playing for Change?

Mark Johnson: The greatest thing about Playing For Change is that it never ends. There are always more musicians to discover, places to visit and schools to build. Playing For Change is born out of the idea that in a world with so much division, we need to focus on our connections. With music we can communicate from one human heart to another heart.

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