What are the impacts and challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic on people of African descent and their communities?
On Thursday 23 July, UNFPA Executive Director Dr. Natalia Kanem was joined by government and civil society leaders and other experts to discuss this question in the latest Nairobi Commitments/ICPD25: What’s Next? Global Thought Leadership Conversation. Participants reflected on how we can build a better world, one that breaks the cycle of systemic inequalities and brings us unequivocally toward equal societies, free from discrimination, marginalization and racism.
The virtual moderated event featured music and other performances by people of African descent and the African diaspora and Playing For Change co-founder Mark Johnson joined the conversation to share some exciting news!
Promote the conversation on your social media channels using the hashtags #ICPD25 and #WhatsNext4Women so we can engage a large global audience and continue our march for change.
On June 11th, Playing For Change co-founders Whitney Kroenke and Mark Johnson accepted Sweden’s Polar Music Prize alongside hip-hop pioneer Grandmaster Flash and German violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter at the Grand Hotel in Stockholm.
Polar Music Prize
Regarded as one of the foremost honors throughout the international music community, the Polar Music Prize is bestowed annually to influential individuals, artists, and organizations who break down musical boundaries and bring together people from all the different worlds of music. First awarded to Sir Paul McCartney in 1992, there have since been more than 50 laureates, including such greats as Joni Mitchell, Patti Smith, B.B. King, Bob Dylan, Ray Charles, Stevie Wonder, and many more. Laureates from a wide range of countries, cultures, and continents have received the Prize in Stockholm from the hand of His Majesty, King Carl XVI Gustaf.
According to the Polar Music website, the prize is “awarded for significant achievements in music and/or musical activity, or for achievements which are found to be of great potential importance for music or musical activity, and it shall be referable to all fields within or closely connected with music”. This qualification has taken many forms, from rewarding individuals for outstanding musical innovation, to acknowledging significant careers in music and performance within local, national, and global communities, as well as honoring those for their service to humanity in leading positive change through music.
Each year, the Polar Music Prize Committee organizes the event in coordination with Sweden’s Royal Family, hosting various live performances, onstage “Polar Talks” with each of the Laureates, a red (pink) carpet and banquet, award ceremony, and additional pre and post-ceremony celebrations.
In their acceptance speech for the Polar Music Prize, Whitney said:
“Everyone here knows the power of music. That it can not only heal, but motivate. That it can not only give opportunity, but lift us out of that which holds us down. We see it every single day in the work we do with Playing For Change. By using their culture, their community, and their own history to strengthen next generations and build success and happiness. All it takes is music. All it takes is one spark.”
To view their full acceptance speech, click below.
Playing For Change
For Whitney Kroenke and Mark Johnson, the honor of accepting the Polar Music Prize on behalf of the Playing For Change Movement cannot be understated. Yet, to them, the accomplishment goes far beyond their work as co-founders, and is a reflection of the worldwide support and appreciation that has fueled the organization for the past 15 plus, years. Playing For Change could not have become what it has without the generosity of thousands of musicians, the dedication from countless individuals and partners, and the belief from millions of human beings around the world that we are all connected through music.
In speaking with the co-founders about the Polar Music Prize award and ceremony, they had this to say.
Whitney: To have a music movement, a music project, honored alongside heroes of ours that inspired us and Playing For Change was really, really humbling…. to me it means that the “small” musicians are being seen and heard, and being recognized, and that is SO exciting because it means people are paying attention to each other!
Mark:I felt proud for all the people and communities who have worked so hard to support our project around the world and I was especially honored for PFC to be in the company of so many legends and musicians who have inspired us in so many ways.
Are there any notable past laureates that you are honored to share the stage with?
Mark: So many of my musical heroes are included, too many to list but my new favorite is Grandmaster Flash!
Whitney: YES!!! All of them! But I was especially blown away by being in the company of Bruce Springsteen—I’m a huge fan!
What does the Polar Music Prize mean to you?
Mark: During our first trip recording and filming street musicians in New Orleans back in 2001 we met a percussionist named R1 who told us “Music gets to the sentiment behind the words…” and I always loved that perspective of music as a window into something deeper. The Polar Prize is similar as they are recognizing the sentiment behind the process of making music and spreading music education. It explores a deeper understanding of where we are coming from and where we are going with Playing For Change.
Can you describe what took place at the ceremony in Sweden?
Whitney: It was incredible! First, we walked the Polar Prize “red (it was pink this year!) carpet outside the Grand Hotel. Upon entering, we were ushered to a room for private cocktails where we met the Swedish Royal Family. After the pre-ceremony cocktails, we were escorted into the theater, where we were seated in the front row along with Grandmaster Flash and Anne-Sophie Mutter (the other laureates). The awards ceremony took place, a video of our work was shown and then we accepted the award for PFCF on behalf of all of the musicians, staff, program coordinators, friends who have been a part of our work for the past 18 years. It was extremely emotional, and very surreal, to accept this award from the King of Sweden! And in a room filled with such a rapt, passionate audience.
As an organization dedicated to changing lives and connecting the world through music, how do you hope to double down on your mission following this international achievement?
Mark: Fortunately for us Playing For Change was always a combination of a big global idea combined with a mission to make deeper personal connections and focus on one person, one child at a time…This rhythm gives us a chance to expand what is working and continue to grow our project while also maintaining deep personal connections with everyone we meet along the way.
How will the Polar Music Prize award support the Playing For Change Foundation and organization as a whole in the years to come?
Whitney: Well, first of all, the cash award of 100K is going to be a massive help in sustaining our current programs. We are excited to put the award funds to work immediately to guarantee that the work we have been doing in each program will be continued through the next several years. We will also be using the international platform of the Polar Prize to leverage new relationships into expanding our reach globally.
To Mark and Whitney, thank you for your years of dedication to Playing For Change. To all those who love and support the Playing For Change Movement, thank you for helping to make their dream a reality for all of us.
In April, the members of the Playing For Change Band made their 6th appearance at the Byron Bay Bluesfest in Australia. This was the festival’s 30th year anniversary, and it featured a lineup of renowned world musicians such as Iggy Pop, Norah Jones, George Clinton, Mavis Staples, and Gary Clark Jr., as well as some PFC favorites like Jack Johnson, Keb’ Mo’, and Larkin Poe.
Byron Bay Bluesfest
From humble beginnings, the Byron Bay Bluesfest has grown to become one of the world’s largest venues for live blues music. The festival has attracted international attention by featuring some of the biggest names in music, routinely drawing in global audiences numbering in the hundreds of thousands.
In the past, Bluesfest has been headlined by the likes of Bob Dylan, BB King, John Mayer, John Legend, Angélique Kidjo, Robert Plant of Led Zeppelin, and many more outstanding artists. It has also led rise to the annual Boomerang Festival, a ground-breaking Indigenous arts festival for all Australians featuring an array of music, dance, theatre, comedy, and film, all to celebrate the heritage of first nations people.
As the Byron Bay Bluesfest continues to grow, its yearly celebrations of music, culture, and community have grown far beyond their blues, jazz, and roots beginnings, becoming a world stage home to Australia.
Playing For Change Band
For the past 6 years, the PFC Band has been honored to connect with international audiences on one of Australia’s greatest stages. Although the band has seen many new faces and friends throughout the years, the mission to “connect the world through music” has always remained the same.
With Titi and Tula, Mermans and Tamba, Keiko, Roberto, Robin, Chantz, and more, the band was in full swing by the time they arrived in Byron Bay, having just played together in Bahrain a few weeks prior. They also managed to play a second show while in Sydney that same weekend, sharing the music with as many people as they could.
At the heart and soul of the PFC Band, we were overjoyed to see Grandpa Elliott make his way down under, gracing the Australian audiences with his profound bellowing voice and uplifting harmonica chimes.
In anticipation for the band’s 6th appearance at the Byron Bay Bluesfest, organizers wrote:
“Playing for Change is back to share their powerful live performance with everyone at Bluesfest this Easter 2019. The unique fusion of influences and music from more than seven countries allows for an extremely special performance. United in purpose and in chorus, everyone is touched by music’s unifying power!“
The last time we spoke to A Brother’s Fountain, they were gearing up for a musical expedition to South Africa with no money, food, or outside support whatsoever. All they had were their instruments, the clothes on their back, and an unbreakable spirit and determination to put the power of music to the test.
Now that they have returned from the journey of a lifetime, we’ve reconnected with these explorers to document the experiences they had, to learn about the people that made their mission a success, and to discover what is next for the band with their newfound faith in the power of music!
Can you tell us about your average day while busking through South Africa?
The unique thing about this trip was that every day brought something completely new, and we never really had an average day. One thing we always did, was when woke up we would all get together, make some coffee, and then have some quiet time before the day started. This was pivotal as it gave us an opportunity to chat through how we were feeling with each other, and also get some crucial alone time to meditate and pray to reset ourselves and be grateful for each day.
From there we would make a plan and go do it. Music was our currency and connection tool so most days revolved around music. Mornings after quiet time we might research and call places we could play. Then we would go out and play music on the streets, for people we stayed with, at a pub, or in a hostel.
Tell us about the people!
The South African people were some of the kindest we’ve met in the world. So open to meeting someone new, and always down with some live music. We felt really privileged to meet South Africans from a lot of different backgrounds and walks of life and still felt so welcomed by them all. We were also blown away by the hope shown to us by the South African youth! Every kid of any age we met was always kind, engaging, and genuine towards us and each other. Looking us in the eye, asking us about our trip and always encouraging us in our musical journey.
The Playing For Change Foundation’s Imvula Music Program in Gugulethu
On one of the many stops for A Brother’s Fountain, the band was able to connect with the students and teachers at the Imvula Music School in Gugulethu, South Africa.
To top off a stellar performance and a memorable experience for all, the band chose to donate their instruments to the students, leaving a lasting impact on the Imvula Music School and demonstrating their own generosity granted through the power of music.
“We can’t say enough great things about the people of Gugelethu and the Playing For Change Foundation music school. We were welcomed with open arms and had such a good time playing music and hanging out with the kids and adults there. The connection in Gugs was the perfect icing on the cake for the journey. We were so happy that we were able to give them a few nice instruments to help keep the music alive and thriving there amongst the youth. We can’t thank them enough for welcoming us with such open arms.”
-AJ Fountain, A Brother’s Fountain
Were you able to perform with any new friends and fans?
We did have a few magical moments with other musicians. We had a great sunset beach jam in Cape Town with a South African saxophonist and an Argentinian ukulele player who we also met down by the beach. The feeling is indescribable to look out over the ocean and watch the sun setting with the sand beneath your toes as you play your heart out with total strangers who feel like best friends.
What did you learn in your travels?
The greatest highlight of the trip was having nothing. The feeling of waking up with no idea where each day was going. It made every day a grand adventure and every little blessing seem like a miracle from God.
We learned to not let them tell you it can’t be done, to dream bigger. We learned to never underestimate the power of a stranger. To stay grateful for every little thing and life will become so much more magical. We learned to keep the faith to make your story epic and worth telling.
Would you recommend more musicians go on similar adventures to test the power of music?
Absolutely we would. It is such a raw, invigorating and renewing experience to have nothing but your instrument to get around. The weird thing is although we played every day, and sometimes multiple sets a day, we never really got sick of the music. Playing music gave us a purpose, it allowed us to provide something to those who helped us, and it was tied in with surviving as our main focus every day. This reshaped how powerful music is to ourselves and others. It was our expression of who we were and what we were about, and our ability to bring down walls and bare our soul. It was such an honor and gift to play under those circumstances, and I’d definitely recommend it to any musician.
When will we be able to experience the trip with you? Will you be creating a documentary of your adventure?
Follow along for teasers at ABrothersFountain, but hold tight because it might be around 6 months of intense editing before the full short film will be coming out. This trip was so special that we want to make sure the short film about it is done right, so we can’t rush the process.
[UPDATE] The first teaser has been released. Check it out:
Next for us is to take these lessons we learned and apply them into our day to day lives in the states. We fell in love with the concept of ‘Only Music’ and are now planning on continuing in that theme with more trips and episodic content. This could include traveling internationally again, but we’re also looking to go out on some tours in America with only our instruments.
In the next couple months, we’ll be finishing up another documentary similar to Only Music / South Africa which we’re calling Only Music / Alaska. It features my brother, Justin Fountain, who hitchhiked up to Alaska from his house here in Fort Collins about six months ago, with nothing but a backpack and a mini guitar, again bringing no money and no food to start his journey. What happens is epic and magical and we can’t wait to show that journey to the world soon.
Until then, we’ll just have to wait. For now, we encourage you all to stay close to A Brother’s Fountain as they continue on their musical journey, crossing borders, bridging divides, building relationships, and connecting the world through music. This band has embodied the mantra of their mission, to not only survive, but to THRIVE through music. We are excited to see what’s next for ABF, and we grateful for their willingness and openness to share the songs and stories from their travels. Hopefully, their faith and trust in the power of music is something we all can learn from.
With decades of experience to show for it, Vasti Jackson‘s love and admiration for the blues is undeniable. Throughout his vast career, he has shown himself to be a true “Bard of the Blues,” telling stories of the genre’s roots, teaching audiences about the struggle from which the blues was born, and carrying on the soulful tradition for new generations to grab a hold of.
Born in McComb, Mississippi, Vasti Jackson was bound to be indoctrinated into the blues. First by family, and then through his surroundings, he gained invaluable experience growing up surrounded by the influence of the Delta blues. With a strong attraction to the guitar, Vasti began performing at local churches and juke joints while studying music at Jackson State University. As his artistry developed, Vasti was employed as a session musician working for various labels until he was named musical director for the television show, Blues Goin’ On. Throughout this period, he continued to perfect his craft, moving effortlessly from blues to soul to jazz to funk to gospel to pop, and more.
The early 90’s is where Vasti would find his rhythm, writing many songs from his life, releasing his debut album Vas-Tie Jackson, and partaking in recordings with other notable musicians such as B.B. King. In 2012, Vasti was inducted into the Mississippi Musicians Hall of Fame, forever leaving his mark on the Mississippi Delta Blues.
“As an artist, Vastiis known for sweat-drenched, soul-ripping performances marked by some of the most stunning and innovative guitar playing in Blues today. Vasti’s talent has been enlarged by an amazing array of musical experiences over 35 years of his vibrant career. Jackson’s Recordings “No Borders to the Blues”, “Live In Nashville” and “Mississippi Burner” present audio buffet of Vasti’s limitless energy and boundless imagination. It spotlights his talents as singer, and composer, and his utterly thrilling guitar mastery.”
Wherever he goes, the blues seems to follow, and wherever the blues are, you’re sure to find Vasti.
Career with PFC
For more than 5 years, Vasti Jackson has been involved with the Playing For Change Movement, first through live performances with the PFC Band, and eventually joining in a few Songs Around The World as well. With his wealth of knowledge and boundless musical talent, his contributions to Playing For Change have impacted the lives of thousands of supporters, as well as students from across the world.
Recently, Vasti traveled to the Saharan Desert with the PFC Foundation to visit the Joudour Sahara Music Program. Meeting with local musicians from the M’Hamid el Ghizlane region of southern Morocco, Vasti and Maya Kyles, a young drummer also from Mississippi, taught lessons and performed together, working to find the connection between blues from the two continents.
When he isn’t traveling the world, VastiJackson continues to educate audiences on the history of the blues and African culture in America. From January 29th through February 10th, Vasti served as musical director and a performer in the Marcus Gardley story, “Hell in High Water.” This play relives the account of the Great Flood of 1927. Set in Greenville, this story follows the social, economic, and political realities of an entire city of people who are subject to the powerful will of the Mississippi River.
Along with his fellow cast mates, Vasti recently hosted a PFC live stream while on set:
As a musician who continuously pushes himself beyond borders, across cultures, and into the lives of new world audiences, Vasti Jackson is the embodiment of our mission to connect the world through music. We look forward to reuniting with him again soon, and encourage you to keep your eye on Vasti.
In the 50 years since its release, “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay” has become a timeless classic of Otis Redding‘s and a permanent landmark in our world’s musical history. By the age of 26, his music had reached the heights of Ray Charles and Sam Cooke, and touched the ears of millions of listeners from across the world. Despite his passing at an early age, Otis Redding left a legacy of music that will continue to span the generations as songs like “Dock of the Bay” retain their relevant nature and timeless touch.
As a young artist, Otis Redding was already bursting with talent. He began as a gospel singer in the Vineville Baptist Church choir where he also picked up the guitar and the piano, and later, drums. By age 10, he found weekly employment singing on WIBB radio in Macon, Georgia, and later, compete in a radio talent show called, “The Teenage Party,” which he would go on to win 15-consecutive times. Having left school at a young age to support his family, Otis Redding‘s future was now beginning to reveal itself, and upon leaving his home in Georgia, he and his sister, Deborah, would make the move out to Los Angeles where he could officially begin his career.
It did not take long before Otis found his rhythm, first through his recordings of popular ballads, and later by writing, recording, and performing his own songs. Some of his greatest work includes, “These Arms of Mine,” “Try A Little Tenderness,” “Respect” (yes, that Respect), “Mr. Pitiful,” and “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay.” At the height of his career, “Dock of the Bay” would become Otis Redding‘s most successful song, with its final version recorded just days before his untimely death at the age of 26. “Dock of the Bay” marked a transition in Otis’ career that was highlighted by his masterful expression of soul, coupled with the gentle despair of the blues. Throughout his career, Otis Redding maintained an articulate simplicity in his songwriting, filling the space with just as many words as emotions, once saying:
“There is beauty in simplicity whether you are talking about architecture, art or music.”
At Playing For Change, our appreciation for the work of Otis Redding goes back to the very beginning with Roger Ridley‘s unforgettable performances of “Stand By Me” and “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay.” In honor of his influence within our organization, and in light of the impact his legacy has had on connecting the world through music, we partnered with the Otis Redding Foundation and Princess Cruises to celebrate the 50th anniversary of “Dock of the Bay” with its very own Song Around The World. Featuring artists Jack Johnson, Corinne Bailey Rae, Aloe Blacc, Otis Redding III, Dexter Redding, Otis Redding Foundation Students, and more; this video takes you from the San Francisco Bay to the streets of Barcelona to the seas of Jamaica and beyond.
“This was such a wonderful way to celebrate 50 years of ‘(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay,’ and certainly an appropriate and heartwarming way to honor and remember the legacy of my husband.”
-Zelma Redding, President of Otis Redding Foundation
Peace Through Music
With special thanks to all those who participated in the 50th anniversary tribute to Otis Redding‘s “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay,” we are proud to announce that the proceeds from this video will benefit the Otis Redding Foundation and the Playing For Change Foundation. Both organizations support youth empowerment through music education, and further our mutual dream to bring peace through music.
In a vast world brimming with genuine talent, Taimane Gardner is among the most remarkable and awe-inspiring performers to take on the ukulele, breathing life and energy into her music that can only be described as a true force of nature.
Receiving her name from the Samoan word for “Diamond,” Taimane is a Pacific Islander herself, born in Honolulu, Hawai’i to a Samoan mother and European-American father. In tune with her name and heritage, Taimane cannot help but shine in the spotlight, pursuing her passion for music and expression of sound to its fullest extent throughout her 15 year career. By the age of 5, Taimane was learning and practicing the foundations of the ukulele, but soon found herself reaching far beyond the instrument’s traditional capabilities by introducing a wide range of genre’s and play-styles that were fueled by her inner rockstar. As her talents grew, this young and inspired musician soon caught the attention of many well known ukulele masters, and at the age of 13, she was invited to join Don Ho as part of his show at the Waikiki Beachcomber. Through this opportunity, her investment in her music soon became intertwined with a new passion for performance, and just as her technical abilities would grow, so too would her powerful stage presence become an impressive facet to her music.
“With the fierceness of a rocker, and the grace of a dancer, Taimane and her music are wowing ever-larger audiences.”
From Bach to rock, flamenco infernos to tribal hymns, Taimane focuses her songwriting and performances on bringing feelings and visions to life. Sharing her music with fans across the world, Taimane continues to tour extensively throughout the Hawaiian Islands, still finding time to play shows in Australia, Germany, Japan, France, China, and mainland U.S. among other locations abroad. Three years after her first show with Don Ho, Taimane would debut her first album, Loco Princess, and has since completed four additional album’s, the most recent of which, Elemental, released in 2018.
On Elemental she celebrates the energy of each element with songs entitled water, fire, air, earth, and ether. Recognizing her connection to the strength and beauty of nature, she possesses a unique ability to translate the objects our environment into audible energy, with soft finger-plucking to mimic the repetitive sounds of flowing water or dark and densely rhythmic strumming to simulate the violent storms of Mercury. Coupled with this enigmatic approach to the ukulele, Taimane can also be found shredding through covers of AC/DC, System of a Down, and “Stairway To Heaven” by Led Zeppelin.
Here is Taimane performing “Bodysurfing” at the Staples Center in Los Angeles, California:
The vibrantly expressive nature of Taimane’s ukulele is in many ways a response to the limitations that were put on her as a young girl with a big dream. She wanted to disprove the assumptions of how a true ukulele virtuoso looked and sounded, and in doing so, she has expanded the possibilities of the instrument for a new generation of musicians to learn from. Yet, as a renowned composer, performer, and masterful musician, Taimane’s impression of her music is much more lighthearted.
“The ukulele, although maybe underestimated, can definitely blow some minds”
Run In With PFC
In August of last year, Taimane and the PFC team first met at a BBQ at Mark Johnson‘s house prior to her performance at The Mint later that night. Upon meeting, both parties found an immediate connection, and spent the evening eating, talking, singing and playing together until Taimane had to leave for her show. In the months following this introduction, we were able to coordinate two Live Outside performances with Taimane and her fellow musicians, Jasmine “Jazzy” Skurtu (guitar), Windy Weather (violin), and Jonathan Heraux (percussion).
Here is their performance of “The Moon,” filmed in Kualoa Ranch, Oahu:
Taimane also has a history of playing with other PFC favorites, Jack Johnson, John Cruz, Paula Fuga,and Lopaka Colon Jr., all featured in our Songs Across Hawai’i series. While truly dedicated to her local Hawaiian community, Taimane’s talents have certainly not gone unnoticed, as she is currently on the Grammy ballot seeking a nomination for Best World Music Album. Heading into the future, Taimane will be releasing two new music videos later this year from her Elemental album, as well as a new song about her love of Yoga. She will also be writing and recording three songs for an indie feature-film being shot in Hawai’i in 2019, and is preparing for tour dates in the U.S., Israel, and Europe for the coming year. To learn more about her upcoming projects, please visit her website here.