PFC Day, UNICEF, Landfill Harmonic And More: Chatting With Playing For Change's Whitney Kroenke And John A. McKenna

A Conversation with Whitney Kroenke

Mike Ragogna: So what's been happening with Playing For Change over the past few years? I've seen some interesting musical celebrities become attached to the cause.

Whitney Kroenke: Well, since "Stand By Me" launched in 2008, we've released multiple albums. We always get excited when we get big people to join the cause because we get more eyes on the project, but they are treated the same way any other musician on the bill is treated. They take the same royalties as anyone else, and that's terrific. It's exciting to have Keith Richards and Bono and those people involved but the project as a whole, it's so consistent. We keep going on the road, keep meeting more musicians, keep recording more songs, that's still happening right now. The band is probably one of the greatest things that happened since the launch, it's made up of musicians that we've met along the way. They perform all over the world, it's a very consistent gig for them, which is great. In South America, they'll perform to crowds of twenty thousand people, they're really well-received and well-liked.

MR: What's the mission statement these days? How has it evolved over the years?

WK: We've tried to stay consistent with the broader mission of connecting the world through music. At the beginning, it was connecting people quite literally through the songs. Then through the work of the foundation and through the work of the band, it's become a face-to-face connection. We've always thought that music is more the language of the heart and it's just about connecting people, especially on a positive, non-religious level. There's just so much negativity in the world; this is something that's positive. We try to focus on the similarities in people as opposed to focusing too much on the differences and try to remember that we're all part of the same human race.

MR: How about the band? How has that evolved?

WK: At first, it was just an idea. We've connected these people virtually through song, but they've never met. We brought some of them to New York during the Tribeca Film Festival in 2009 and just kind of experimented to see what it would be like if they played together on the same stage. It's just the most beautiful expression of the project live. The band has traveled to almost all the edges of the world, and it kind of ebbs and flows with who participates. It's a very flexible group because we know so many musicians. They started out coming together from very different backgrounds doing a lot of covers and now they do a lot of their original music. They're an incredible family of people. I forget where they are right now, honestly they're so busy that it's kind of crazy. I think they're going to New York right now.

MR: How do they create their original music?

WK: As individuals, they all have their own material, but when they were initially coming together and had five hours to rehearse before a show it obviously would make more sense for them to do stuff they all knew. At first, they didn't know each other and they weren't completely comfortable with each other musically. But now, you get the beautiful Congolese reggae mixed with Israeli influence and so on. They improvise, they write their own stuff and bring it to the table. It's really beautiful. They still do some fun covers every now and then, but the show has evolved to something that's much more unique to their backgrounds.

Mark Johnson & Whitney Kroenke with one of the Playing For Change kids
Mark Johnson & Whitney Kroenke with one of the Playing For Change kids

MR: You and Mark Johnson are co-founders of Playing For Change. What's it like the behind the scenes of the organization?

WK: Mark is much more involved on a daily basis now. He is always with the band and always recording. I currently live on the east coast and Mark lives in Venice, really close to the office. But he is on the road 24/7 pretty much recording stuff for Playing For Change, working with our partners in Japan or in Europe or in South America, meeting new musicians, recording new musicians. He still mixes all of the music, he works with the band, he's their artistic director. He's in there on the street level. I'm much more of a thirty thousand-foot view now. I was the first Executive Director of the foundation, more out of default than anything else. We love to say Playing For Change was totally organic and that we started the foundation out of a desire to give something back to the communities that we were visiting and recording in and meeting these incredible musicians in, but we had never done anything like launch a foundation. I became the Executive Director of that and I was there for a couple of years until we brought in someone who had a background of experience as the foundation grew. We hired John McKenna who is an incredible Executive Director, and we're hoping he'll take the foundation into the next level of growth and expansion and support. I'm definitely overseeing it more, helping with fundraising, helping to support the band emotionally and physically when I can. I'm not in there on a day-to-day basis, but neither is Mark. He's always on the road so we're very fortunate that we have a team in L.A. who are working around the clock on all this stuff. It's terrific. It has its own legs now.

MR: Can you see any concrete change the organization has made?

WK: We see it happen on a person-to-person basis all the time with the work. I sometimes think we're so fortunate because we're around it all the time and get to see how much a person's demeanor changes when they're around something so positive. We've seen concrete things happen, we've not only seen schools being built and jobs being provided and positivity increased in communities, but we've seen something so simple as a village we worked with in Nepal didn't think that girls could play instruments until we gave a girl an instrument and they went, "Oh my goodness, girls can play music." When we started the project, there wasn't the technology we have nowadays. Now you can show people who they're singing with. Just seeing people of different skin colors that used to fear one another go, "I'm not scared of them, they sing the same song as me." On a very simple level, some of the places we work with don't have basic education, so to see them use the videos to teach the kids geography, it's very tangible. It's small things, but they add up, and that's what we've always hoped for. I always say I feel like music is a Trojan horse. You come in with music and people communicate heart to heart. It's not all this head stuff, like "Why are you trying to help me? We don't want your help," and you can get at the root of the issues. We've dug wells and provided water to the maternity wards in the middle of Mali and things like that because we went there to discover their music.

Whitney Kroenke
Whitney Kroenke

MR: As all things evolve, what’s the goal for Playing For Change now?

WK: We'd love to be everywhere, in the sense that we would love to connect all these communities to one another. We've always thought of the globe like a web where people are actually tied to one another through technology and share music and share education and things with each other like a huge network of musicians. There's always something else to discover, so there's never an end, which is the beautiful part of it. Immediately, we're working on individual musicians' albums; long term, we're working on going to every community we haven't gone to. Conflict regions are always of interest in the hope that you could change perspective or connect to conflict areas with one another through music. It's been done in Northern Ireland and it's been done in Israel and Pakistan. Out of great tragedies often comes beautiful art and you just want to be there to be a voice for people so they can share it with one another.

MR: Are there any obstacles that you've had to overcome?

WK: Well, not an obstacle, an opportunity. As a foundation, we're constantly fundraising, and I think there's a perception about our organization because we have such a wide reach that we are very profitable. We're still a 501(c)(3) out there trying to raise money and grinding every day on that. Getting funding for arts, I wouldn't say it's an obstacle, but it's a constant challenge that we're always working on so that it's sustainable for the long-term.

MR: Is awareness of Playing For Change rising?

WK: I have been on an island somewhere on a totally unrelated family vacation and it's playing in the bar. A friend of mine just messaged me from Lyon, France, and was like, "Playing For Change just came up in conversation." It's definitely out there. It's funny, when it started to go viral, it was really hard to explain to my friends what it was I'd been working on all this time. I got the video "Stand By Me" sent back to me so many times saying, "Oh, this looks like something you'd be really interested in," and I said, "That's it! That's what I've been doing." I find that people have definitely seen it and enjoyed it. It's a very personal thing for people, which is interesting, people have a very strong reaction and take it very much to heart even though it's just something they're watching on a computer, which is beautiful. I'm always astounded by how much it just continues to blossom.

MR: Do you have an anecdote of looking at someone inside the organization who has changed?

WK: Grandpa Elliott's reach, how many people he touches, has been incredible to watch. This is a man, and incredible musician with a huge heart, who has touched so many people from the corner in New Orleans he has played on for his whole life... But now, now he is blind and he's on stage in front of fifty thousand people and they're just absolutely going nuts for him. He's probably the most well-known, and to have given Grandpa independence... He'd been around New Orleans playing the same block forever, so to be able to see him travel and play for these audiences and touch them on such a deep level in every corner of the world—Australia, Brazil, Italy—it's incredible.

MR: How can people get involved beyond contributions?

WK: I think the most concrete way is to participate in the upcoming Playing For Change Day somehow. Go out and see music on that day. Go onto the https://playingforchange.com site and see what's happening in your area. Go out and support events. We created Playing For Change Day because we have a ton of musicians around the world who want to participate and we obviously can't have them all on all of the recordings and videos, so we created this platform where they could create their own event on one day around the world and engage their communities around the positivity of music.

MR: Do you see Playing For Change evolving into a musical entity with influence like at the Grammys and other award shows, maybe even reality shows like The Voice, etc.?

WK: We would love to. I know that we've touched around that sort of thing in the past. I find that we would love to involve anyone and everyone in the work that we do if they're interested in the mission. We have dreams of a playing for change festival; we have dreams of a whole library of music. It would especially be wonderful to touch the Grammys because then we would get that validation and have far more peoples' eyes on our project.

MR: And the more a concept like Playing For Change gets associated with more traditional award outlets. the more entrenched for the future it will become.

WK: Exactly.

Transcribed by Galen Hawthorne

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Marita Perceval, UNICEF LAC Regional Director with PFCF Executive Director, John A. McKenna at the United Nations 9-16-16
Marita Perceval, UNICEF LAC Regional Director with PFCF Executive Director, John A. McKenna at the United Nations 9-16-16

A Conversation with John A. McKenna

Mike Ragogna: John, creatively speaking, how has Playing For Change evolved over the years? How has your role in the organization changed?

John A. McKenna: The growth has been inspiring on several fronts. From the perspective of a movement, tens of millions of views of PFC content continue to raise spirits and awareness globally, all from the genesis of an idea from our co-founders Mark Johnson and Whitney Kroenke. What was an idea and vision fifteen years ago, to capture in song the united spirit of artists on the streets, is today a worldwide consciousness with scores of productions, albums as well as legions of artists as advocates for world peace and positive change. Our practical and tangible application of this has been the establishment of the Foundation in 2007, which is creating, broadening and investing in music programs for children in many of the most challenged regions on the planet. Creatively, bridging and uniting these amazing children, in community and online, with the rest of world is an angle to the change we are rapidly pursuing with great enthusiasm.

The Executive Director's role has evolved from one of school site selection and development on three continents to discovering existing programs well-positioned to join the movement. We are in active "Partnership" mode, recognizing our foundation of success now has us in the exciting place to up the ante in terms of impact. The recent, multi-year partnership with UNICEF is indicative of this sea change in our outreach and operational model.

MR: Since its creation, what Playing For Change achievements are you most proud of?

JAM:  We are extremely proud of a record of long-term commitment in the school communities where we serve, from Africa, Latin America, to Southeast Asia. We remain in every country where we have started, sometimes against the most improbable odds. We are risk-takers, for we intentionally seek to make the most impact for children most in need. Reaching the 100 million views online, globally, from the first song production, "Stand By Me," is an amazing milestone in the movement. More recently, being recognized by the world's foremost advocate and protector of children's rights, UNICEF, as a viable partner in the offerings to children in Latin America and the Caribbean, is one that brings pride, but more importantly, a tremendous degree of earned responsibility and commitment to make a difference on a huge scale. Of course, we are most proud of the growth, happiness and joy reflected daily in the kids. This is what change really looks like.

MR: Playing For Change joined with UNICEF for last Friday’s 2nd Annual United Nations Youth Summit. It seems there’s a natural synergy between the international organizations and Playing For Change. How did the group's participation begin with UNICEF?

JAM: It was part synergy and part magic. The regional director of UNICEF Latin America and Caribbean, Marita Perceval, is a fan and has an affinity for the arts in her DNA. She has made it a priority to bridge efforts in the celebration and investment in arts for the children as a fundamental component in healthy communities. Just as she was seeking to play with us, we were ready to play with them! We found each other this past summer at this perfect intersection, and we readily swept down to their Panama City regional office to map it out and make it happen. In the first weeks of the partnership, we staged events in Honduras to help the children cope with the extreme violence through music expression, then off to Ecuador to assist the kids and communities impacted by the massive earthquake there. They learned to make instruments out of rubble and compose and play their own songs. Now we are moving toward special programs in Mexico as well as creative channels to partner with our existing programs in Brazil and Argentina. The spirit all around with UNICEF is positive and contagious, a beautiful match of missions.

MR: Ultimately, what effect would you like Playing For Change to have on the international stage?

JAM: In symmetry with UNICEF's values and principles, and certainly in their charter, is the global vision that children everywhere be given the space, opportunity and channels for recreational play and artistic expression.  This is no longer a vision based simply on joy, which in itself is meritorious. The studies are in and concrete:  such investment pays off across a wide spectrum of measurable benefits in terms of what we conceive to be healthy communities. We envision Playing For Change be a global wave of consciousness and applied programming in schools in every country, uniting the children not only in song, but unleashing a global form of peaceful expression to a world that has too often failed in that promise. It may sound cliché, but music is the international language, so why not truly imagine it so at a time when the world can be reached, linked and united through our communications?

MR: PFC also is associated with PFC Day, Landfill Harmonic, and The Recycled Orchestra of Cateura. How did this come together?

JAM: The producers of the amazingly moving documentary, Landfill Harmonic, found us. These children in Paraguay literally grow up in the huge landfill in the outskirts of Asuncion. Making instruments from discarded materials and led by astounding teachers and parents, they are playing Mozart, Bach, and even heavy metal!  Their resilience and grace should be a lesson to us all. Once we saw what these children were doing, truly Playing For Change in the most profound and compelling way, we were more than thrilled to jump on the opportunity for their participation here in Los Angeles on Playing For Change Day, September 24. I challenge anyone to keep a dry eye after experiencing these kids.

MR: What does the future bring for Playing For Change? What’s the vision?

JAM: Playing For Change is a state of mind, a consciousness and movement above all else. While we can measure some of our impact in real numbers, the future will not be a scoreboard of schools and programs developed, children performing and funds raised. The vision of the movement is to see a world in three, four or five decades embracing music, peace and change, not as an afterthought, but as fundamentally central. With global partners we are not afraid to dream this high, nor should we.

MR: What advice do you have for new artists?

JAM: Regularly carve out time to play with, and for, children. They are not only the best audience, they are the future and they are listening. Are we?

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