You may have seen Phillip Christopher - AKA Philadelphia Phil -playing with one of his bands around town over the years. What you might not have seen is the work he does when he trades his instrument for a MacBook and organizes Playing for Change Day Indianapolis. The event brings musicians from around the country to play on the street to raise money for the Playing for Change Foundation. I sat down with Phil to get the lowdown on the event.
How does Playing for Change Day work?
Phillip: All of the money that gets donated goes to the Playing for Change Foundation. Then the Foundation takes that money and they've opened nine music schools around the world. They're in places where a parent has to choose between maybe food and a music education.
This money goes so far - in these places a music teacher only costs $1,500 a year salary. If 100 people donate $15, we've hired a school teacher in Nepal. With $50 we can get a playable guitar for a school in South Africa to preserve the Zulu tradition. Our goal this year is $5,000; it's the most they'll let you set. And every penny goes to the Foundation, and they run those 9 schools with 22 people (and some interns).
How did you get involved with Playing for Change?
Phillip: I saw the original video in 2009, and I was struck. In that few minutes, they summed up every reason that I personally started playing music.
As musicians, we get to play and get the music to people. We'd be playing anyway, but this way we get to help people. I do acoustic meet ups, and when we learned about the Playing for Change Day, we put it together in three weeks. And we've been doing it every year since.
Street music is a big part of his year's event, why is that?
Phillip: One of the reasons I got so excited about Playing for Change was that they were involved in that organic, street-level of music. They went out and found these great musicians. I have had that experience, in like New Orleans, where you'll walk down the street and just see great musicians.
One of our missions is to bring musicians who are accustomed to playing behind that invisible wall of the stage, out to the street, to the people. And also to start to condition the people of this city to understand that everyone is deserving of their respect. A musician on the street is not someone to be afraid of.
Why do you think experiencing music that way is getting more popular?
Phillip: Music on the street is becoming very glamorous with millenials now because I think young people are looking for a more authentic music than they're getting from the air waves and the internet.
Why don't we see more of that kind of street performance in Indianapolis?
Phillip: Yeah, we don't do it very much, and because of that musicians are uncomfortable with their audiences. Audiences are uncomfortable with musicians, and we're all uncomfortable with people on the street who aren't on their way to work or shopping. As a result it makes that consciousness of music being a community thing very difficult.
If Indianapolis wants to be a real, international music city, it has to have that indigenous street culture. Busking is about making yourself available freely to people without pretentions. We have to break down a lot of shyness and separation - fear - that's endemic.
You've got a lot performers coming from out of town, what's the draw?
Phillip: Play for Change Indianapolis is so watched by Playing for Change at the national level. We're sort of putting Indianapolis on the map that way. The musicians who come and play for us consider it a great honor to get to play for us.
Why are you raising money for music education instead of, say, helping feed people?
Phillip: People who think we should just buy food instead of helping spread music are saying "we're so content in our affluence that these people should have no joy." They think people should be happy with whatever crumbs we send, and have no joy in their communities.
Music isn't a luxury. Self-expression isn't a luxury. The creativity that a culture needs in order to thrive in the 21st century isn't a luxury. I think if we had more of those kinds of outreaches - creativity, harmony - music brings people together.
How can our readers help with Playing for Change?
Phillip: Well you can always make out a check payable to Playing for Change. You can also go to the website and donate there. We're always looking for volunteers, even for this year, so if you're interested feel free to contact us. We're still looking for sponsors for this year's event - we'll send a group to play for you in return for your donation.