Alumni Profiles

Sound Effect
Mark Johnson '96 works for world peace through music

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Armed only with portable recording and camera equipment, Mark Johnson '96 and his colleagues traveled the world, recording more than 100 musicians from Tibet to Zimbabwe. The result was the critically acclaimed film, "Playing for Change—Peace Through Music," which debuted at the Tribeca Film Festival. In the film, the musicians adhere to their own ethnic traditions while performing the same piece of music, "Stand by Me." Some are on street corners, some in clubs, and some under the blazing heat of an African sun. Their version of the song may be underscored with a rhythmic drum or a sitar, but the overall melody is the same. With one song, the global power of music is brought home.

The film helped launch Johnson's foundation by the same name, which is now developing music schools and providing resources for musicians around the world. Already, PFC is building an arts center in Johannesburg, South Africa, a music school in Guguletu and enhancing Tibetan refugee centers in India and Nepal. The ultimate goal is to work toward world peace through music.

In 1999, Johnson moved to Los Angeles, where he worked for Jackson Browne, recording his music and forging a friendship. Recording gigs continued, including a collaboration with blues artist Kep' Mo', which led to a Grammy Award in 2004. In 2006, he traveled across the United States to record street music in cities like New Orleans, Los Angeles and New York City. The experience reinforced his belief that music is a unifying force and led him to explore that idea through world travel.

"There are so many warring nations and clashing cultures today," says Johnson. "Where is there a spark of hope? I believe music is that spark. Music brings people together, it tells their stories. As people, we typically come together for births and for deaths; what brings us together in between is up to us. If we can come together in music, maybe we can recognize the fact that no matter where we live, we are all one community."

Johnson continues to travel the globe, recording musicians and developing more schools and educational outreach. What keeps him going? "The unbelievable people I meet, and the incredible experiences I'm having," he says. "We built one of our first schools in South Africa, and to see an upright bass being played in what is essentially a ghetto was amazing. Music gives people hope—and that's what this effort has given me—hope. Nothing prepares you for what you see in some of these places, the poverty, the malnourished children. Yet some of the best music I've ever heard has come from the worst places. Even there, music feeds the soul and lifts the spirit."

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