A California-based nonprofit foundation that celebrates the changemaking power of music won the prestigious Polar Music Prize last week, joining the ranks of luminaries like Paul McCartney, Dizzy Gillespie, Ray Charles, Led Zeppelin, B.B. King, Stevie Wonder, Bob Dylan, and Elton John who have earned the honor.
Founded by recording engineer Mark Johnson and choreographer/actress Whitney Kroenke, the Playing for Change Foundation aims to create positive change through music education. The organization has created 15 music programs in 11 countries, offering free musical education from qualified local teachers to marginalized and at-risk youth.
Those programs include the Khlong Toey Music Program, which provides a safe and uplifting space for children in the slums of Bangkok to learn instruments like the guitar, ukulele, bass and drums; the Musica Music Institute in Kathmandu, Nepal, providing music and vocal classes for more than 40 students; and the Star School Music & Sports Program In Masaka, Rwanda, where hundreds of children from at-risk backgrounds—including orphans and children of street beggars and prostitutes—live in on-campus dormitories and receive meals, clothing, medical care and education.
After working in the studio with superstars like Notorious BIG and Paul Simon, Johnson traveled the world recording talented unknown musicians—from Zulu choirs and Moscow violinists to street blues guitarists in the U.S.—and brought them all together in a rousing music video covering Ben E. King’s classic, “Stand By Me” (below). He and Kroenke created Playing For Change in 2002 with the belief that music has the power to break down boundaries and overcome distances between people.
The Polar Music Prize, considered the Nobel Prize of music, goes to at least two laureates each year, selected by an independent 11-member committee. The late Stig Anderson, a member of ABBA, founded the Polar Music Prize in 1989.
“When music plays, there’s no marginalized anything,” Johnson said during a workshop at last month’s Good Deals – Beyond Good Business Conference in London. “The marginality disappears when the music plays.”
In 2011, the Playing For Change Foundation launched Playing For Change Day, on which communities of musicians and music lovers from across the globe perform on stages and street corners and in schools, yoga studios and cafes to bring music into the lives of young people. Funds raised by the events help pay for free classes in dance, instruments, languages and music theory for kids. Playing For Change Day takes place this year on Sept. 21.
In accepting this year’s Polar Music Prize, Johnson and Kroenke shared the stage with Joseph Saddler, aka Grandmaster Flash, and acclaimed German violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter.