Mark Johnson is a Grammy Award Winning Producer/ Engineer and Award-Winning Film Director. For the past 20 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, Robbie Robertson and Ringo Starr. 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 60 countries and he has dedicated his life to connecting the world through music.

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’s Story

A very simple concept about bringing people together through music came about when Mark Johnson, a sound engineer working at The Hit Factory in New York City, took the subway on his way to work; something he always did. His recording days were filled with different styles of music, with musicians from all different backgrounds. Musicians like Biggy Small, Paul Simon, and even a seventy piece orchestra from Broadway. Mark was always inspired by the passion of creating something that brought so much joy to the performer and the people who listened. On this particular day there were two monks, one playing a guitar, and one singing. There was a mob of people watching and listening. Mark realized that great music and art exist anywhere and everywhere. It was not just about famous people. All the things that can divide us disappear when we connect through music. Mark attests that some of the greatest music he heard was often on the way to the studio and not in the studio. His love of street music developed and he wanted to build something from the ground up, something that had no ego. That was the first spark of inspiration for Playing For Change, the organization that has developed over the last twenty years to become known as a movement created to inspire and connect the world through music.  Believing that music is the best tool to unite hearts, souls and minds, Mark travels the world with a small crew, recording rig, and video cameras to record musicians playing the same song. The end result is innovative, collaborative,  and amazing videos/albums called “Songs Around The World”.   

Playing For Change’s first recording came about when Mark had moved to California. Again, on his way to the recording studio, he heard an incredible voice singing “Stand By Me”.  That voice belonged to Roger Ridley. Mark asked Roger why he was singing on the street with such incredible talent? Roger replied “Man, I am in the Joy business. I come out to bring joy to the people”. It was Roger Ridley who inspired the notion of taking the song around the world. Mark came back with recording equipment and they recorded the song which launched the journey of Playing For Change. Mark wanted to go to places where music was a necessity and one of the places he chose was based on a photograph from a book given to him from his brother. A photograph that had hung on his wall for some time and was of musicians playing in South Africa.  The location was a township called  Gugulethu and because of limited access to the internet at that time, all Mark could find was that  the base player and leader of the band was called Pokie Klaas. It was during a recording session with “Joe and the Ganja Muffins” (Joe Petersen is one of Cape Town’s most legendary street musicians) that led Mark to Pokie Klaas  in Gugulethu.  The township was undergoing immense hardship from HIV and mothers and children were suffering. Mark had realized that maybe this was not at all appropriate and that they shouldn’t record. However Pokie insisted. Once instruments were set up to play, everyone, including the women and children, began to sing and dance. It was an incredible display of joy.  The township had gone from the saddest place Mark had ever seen, to the happiest. Music had transformed everyone, and the power of music was evident. Mark wanted to give back to the community and it was Pokie who said “why don’t you build a music school for the kids here”.  From a simple idea, a simple photograph, and the implicit beauty of music, two years later, the first music school of the Playing For Change Foundation was built in Pokie’s backyard. Today, the school is playing a significant role in bringing positive change to the area that the rest of the world seemed to have forgotten.

The Playing For Change Foundation

An international non profit organization operating fifteen music programs across eleven culturally rich and diverse countries around the world. The Playing For Change Foundation is dedicated to  positive change through music and arts education. Playing For Change uses the power of music and art as a catalyst for tangible and long lasting impact,  positive social change, and community development. Employing local teachers, where all young children are welcome to participate. The schools are free and run by the  communities themselves. Each school determines what they get paid and how many teachers they need. The only thing that is asked in return, is that there is a one person advisory board who is not paid, so that every neighbourhood has somebody thinking about just the kids, the music, and the dance.  They become more than just schools.  They become community centres that address larger social issues like clean water and solar power.  

Mark shares that “the foundation was formed to ensure that music does not just inspire  or make someone feel good, but that it actually gives back to the people  who have invited us into their homes, told us their stories, played us their music. To  give them the opportunity to bring their own identity and culture together and to be the driving force behind creating change”. In a span of twenty years an idea and passion for music developed into a global entity dedicated to peace,  social and racial justice. Not once has Playing For Change swayed from its original grass roots belief in the power of music to bring people together and  empower local leaders with the resources and strategies to drive positive change in their communities. 

The foundation employs over 200 staff, teachers, and community leaders and was named a Polar Music Prize winner in 2019. The Polar Music Prize is one of the most prestigious music prizes in the world, awarded to individuals and groups for exceptional achievements.   

Peace Through Music: A Global Event for Social Justice

Playing For Change partnered with the United Nations Population Fund to create the online music event called Through Music: A Global Event for Social Justice. This was in honor of the United Nation’s 75th Anniversary and was created in an effort  to inspire people to act for peace, justice, and equity, everywhere and for everyone. 

With over four million views during the successful 48 hour premiere, this virtual concert brought together over 200 musicians across 193 countries. The concert  featured performances from some of the world’s most iconic artists. When watching the online event, some of the striking and captivating highlights, in addition to the incredible music, were:  The  Drum Dialogue, the History of the Banjo, and Alfred Howard reading his spoken word called “I Love America”.  Some stand outs in the stellar line up of musicians were Gary Clarke Jr. performing “This Land”,   Aloe Blacc singing ‘Higher Ground”,  Peter Gabriel joined by Angelique Kidjo and  Yo-yo Ma with a powerful remake of  “Biko”, Juan Carlos Santana, Keith Richrds, a hauntingly beautiful rendition of Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are a-Changin’” by Brandi Carlile with Mike McCready of Pearl Jam, and many many more.  

Music is a wonderful medium to raise awareness about our collective quest for peace, justice, equality, and dignity – the noble ideals of The United Nations. It is a powerful unifying language that can help build bridges and advance social justice in all its forms”  says Dr. Natalia Kanem, executive director of the United Nations Population Fund. 

All contributions and donations raised from the event went to support the Playing For Change Foundation, United Nations Population Fund, Sankofa, The Bob Marley Foundation, Silkroad, and the Rock n Roll Hall of Fame. These organizations all strive to promote equality and eradicate injustice. 

When the credits role it is apparent that a tremendous amount of people came together from  musicians, poets, dancers, producers, directors, technicians, to editors, engineers, and writers.  Demonstrating that we all have a stake in social justice and that global cooperation is needed to protect human rights, and  humanity must unite in the universal language of peace.  

Because the Playing For Change Foundation has many employees, board of directors and staff across the world, not everyone can be individually recognised in this article. However, co-founder Whitney Kroeke deserves to be mentioned as she has been involved with the organization from its inception, alongside Mark, from crew member to producing PFC films, to president of the Playing For Change Foundation. Whitney has been and continues to be an advocate for social justice with the adamant belief that music can and will unify humanity and bring about positive change.  

To find out more about Playing For Change and the Playing for Change Foundation you can check out the websites:

You can click here to enjoy one of my favourite songs from Playing For Change  “Chan Chan”

Peace Through Music: A Global Event for Social Justice | 200+ Musicians Unite for Peace