Playing for Change: A Musical Vision for a Better World

Adam Sennott

The music industry and street musicians from the beaches of Santa Monica California to the far corners of India are playing a tune of social change that is spanning the globe.

The Playing for Change Foundation is a nonprofit, grassroots organization whose mission is to deliver a message of social change through music. The foundation takes professional and street musicians from around the world, records them, and uses different segments of their performances for individual songs. Along with uniting musicians from around the world, the Playing for Change Foundation also offers music programs around the world, including one in Nepal, and their own music school in Guguletu, South Africa.

Playing for Change formed in 2001, after its co-founder, Mark Johnson—an award winning producer and filmmaker—saw a group of monks performing in a subway station. As he listened, Johnson noticed the variety in the age, sex, race, and cultural backgrounds of the audience members. After this experience, Johnson decided that moments such as these were
what he wanted to record and share with the world.

Johnson was later introduced to Whitney Kroenke, the other co-founder of Playing for Change, through a mutual friend.
The two discussed the idea of creating a mobile recording studio, and Playing for Change was born.

“He had an idea to put together a mobile recording studio and do a documentary, and just didn’t really know where to go forward from there,” said Kroenke. “So we sat down and talked, and it really spoke to me, the idea of capturing moments that were being passed by.”

Shortly after the two met and discussed the concept of Playing for Change, Kroenke and Johnson got to work, beginning with documentary of street musicians from across the United States.

“We found most of our performers via the Internet, or by word of mouth by other musicians, or just by literally passing them by on the street in Santa Monica and hearing them,” said Kroenke. “So it’s been a very organic flow process, but very worthwhile.”

Although Kroenke said they originally planned to visit every major metropolitan area in the United States, because of budget limitations, they were only able to travel to a few cities.

“We started at Santa Monica and we had this vision of going to like all of the major metropolitan areas in the United States,” Kroenke said. “And we filmed and recorded in L.A., and then we did New Orleans and New York, and then we ran out of money.”

Although they weren’t able to visit every major city in the United States, they did discover several of their most popular performers. One of these musicians was Roger Ridley, who according to was discovered on the 3rd Street Promenade in Santa Monica California playing his most popular song, Stand By Me. In 2003 Playing for Change released their first documentary, Playing for Change: A Cinematic Discovery of Street Music.

“We actually at that point in time had enough footage that we didn’t need to go any further to make a film, but what we realized is what Playing for Change has come to represent, is that we can make songs between musicians that have never met.”

Though they ran out of money during their first documentary, the film was inspiration enough to get private investors to join the movement. Over the next several years, Playing For Change exploded into an international phenomenon that not only connected musicians through the United States, but around the world. In 2008, Playing for Change released their documentary Playing for Change: Peace Through Music,” which was also featured on PBS.

“We always believed that we were tapping into something that was very special. But when we started out to make the film, the medium of the Internet, and YouTube, and people watching five minute videos didn’t really exist,” said Kroenke. “So it was something that [when] our video took off it was like the viral nature of it was really unbelievable to us. It still is you know, how quickly that spread.”

Playing for Change never forget their original goal of visiting every major city in the United States. But instead of filming another documentary to do so, they decided to bring some of the musicians they already had on tour.

“We had our most recent U.S tour last fall [in] 20 cities,” said Kroenke. “We’ve done a couple of shows in Spain, one in the UK. Then we had a five city U.S. tour last spring. So about 30 or so we’ve done now.”

Along with filming documentaries and going on tour, Playing for Change is also dedicated to ensuring people living in impoverished areas around the world have the opportunity to study music.

“We have five music programs around the world, two completed schools, two in development, and one program in an existing school in Nepal,” Kroenke said. “So we’re hoping that keeps growing. That’s the part that’s really exciting is that we’re now able to do something. It’s now kind of all come full circle.”

For more information on the Playing for Change or to listen to their music, visit

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