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Q&A: Shepard Fairey On Why He Lent His Talents To Playing For Change Foundation — Music And Education – Forbes

Two Playing For Change Foundation wearing the new Shepard Fairey shirts specially designed for the … [+] organization
When you are one of the most renowned visual artists in the world, like Shepard Fairey, everyone wants to work with you. Especially in these crazy times, artists can align themselves with a different cause for every day of the year.
So it can be tough to choose what organizations to team up with. However, some decisions are easier than others. For Fairey, lending his talents to Playing For Change Foundation, an organization that builds music schools for underprivileged children, often in places that would never otherwise be served — like Mali, Ghana, Bangladesh, Nepal and Rwanda — was a no brainer.
The shirts he designed for PFC represent two of his greatest loves, music and education. Which, for him, are very personal causes. “I would have been in a lot more trouble if I didn’t have art as an outlet,” he says. “I was just an angry kid and it would have manifested a lot more recklessly I think for me.”
I spoke with Fairey about the importance of arts education, why the Clash’s Joe Strummer was his hero, the universality of Bob Marley and much more.
Steve Baltin: What attracted you to working with Playing For Change on these shirts?
Shepard Fairey: You know that music as a democratic cultural model is a bigger influence on my fine art and on my street art than most art movements. So it made perfect sense for me to work on this project also because it’s a bottom-up style organization, not a top-down style. So the idea that finding people in regions that have amazing culture but not a lot of economic resources and finding people with the tribe and maybe the existing but underfunded structures or practices to then support so that their programs for art empowerment, music empowerment can be that much more robust? That’s awesome. That’s what I want to see more of. I really love that music is such a joy to listen to. It’s a joy to create. It’s therapeutic in creation and just the experience of it. So it’s a great way to build community, build relationships with people, have something of common reference points to bond over. I could go on and on and on about the value of it.
Baltin: It’s great to do the fundraisers in wealthier communities as well, but obviously they’re doing these in places that would have no music or no access to music or instruments without Playing for Change Foundation.
Fairey: Yeah and I think that that’s what’s really exciting about it is people having access that might not normally have access.
Baltin: Are there places you’ve been where you can see how this kind of program can have a direct impact firsthand?
Fairey: Well, I haven’t visited any of the Playing for Change Foundation locations but I’ve done projects in Sao Paulo, Brazil, in Johannesburg, as well as having done things with people who are incarcerated. Obviously, they end up in jail but they find a real positive force in their life through music and or art. So, I’ve worked with organizations that put guitars into prisons, and I’ve worked with the Silverlake Conservatory of Music here in L.A. Obviously my kids go there but then there are kids from all over L.A. who don’t have to pay for it. So, I’ve seen that stuff here. I’ve seen art programs in South Africa over in Soweto in South Africa where Nelson Mandela is from. There’s a store that does music projects and I loved what they were doing. So I see this stuff. I know the value of it. Even some of the people that are in at risk youth programs that I’ve dealt with here in L.A. or down in San Diego who just come from families without a lot of money. And that term at risk is sort of annoying because I grew up middle class and I was at risk when I was a teen because I was not a good kid. But any access to creativity I think is really valuable for people that just don’t grow up with that ingrained in their families or their community.
Baltin: When arts funding started to get cut people didn’t take it seriously enough. But you and I both know that it is very necessary for kids to be able to express themselves and be able to learn to think freely.
Fairey: Yeah. Even though this isn’t about people who’ve been incarcerated or gang rehabilitation specifically. Those are areas where the data exists that show how much music and art programs change the path of people’s lives. I work with Homeboy Industries for example, and they’re talking about how all of their different art and music programs make a huge difference. And then of course, they’ve got their culinary stuff too which is in a way another creative thing. But people don’t go back to jail at the same rate that they would otherwise. So when you look at the positive impact, there’s a way that you can look at it statistically for people who are in really serious situations but reading between the lines. The positive impact is for everyone. I’ve gotten in trouble for making street art, but I would have been in a lot more trouble if I didn’t have art as an outlet. I was just an angry kid and it would have manifested a lot more recklessly I think for me. But it’s a whole ecosystem that comes out of having creativity in people’s lives. And there have been so many studies about how it improves not only people’s experiential quality of life, but the economic fortunes of places. So I’m not saying that Playing for Change is going to lift someone out of poverty or change the entire community. But research has been done that shows that it certainly can and it helps.
Baltin: Tell people about the shirts and what is your involvement with Playing For Change.
Fairey: I did what I do as a visual artist, and I made a t-shirt graphic that I think people might want to wear that will also bundle in raising money for Playing for Change and raising awareness about Playing for Change Foundation. And the t-shirt is, if you took a military badge and then made it about the fight for peace and harmony. It’s more or less going that route stylistically. It’s got a lotus coming out of it. And what I love about the lotus is it’s the beautiful flower that represents oneness and harmony that grows out of the mud, something beautiful that grows from something not beautiful. And so I use the lotus in my work a lot. But I’m always trying to find that hippie “let’s make the world better,” blended with something that’s just got a badass coolness factor. That’s always subjective, but that’s the mix I’m going for with the shirt.
Baltin: I don’t associate you with the hippie stuff. I definitely see you coming from more the punk aesthetic.
Fairey: For sure. But I think my philosophy is really about how people can see themselves in others and realize that it’s important to see yourself as part of the community and part of society. And when we treat each other well, we all live a better quality of life. And the culture of selfishness is a dead end. Joe Strummer [The Clash] is my hero. And when you really peel back the layers on a lot of the stuff he had to say, he was just delivering a lot of great hippie rhetoric about the value of being a good human with a lot cooler poetry than that.
Baltin: For you, as a music geek, if there was one song that you would want to start teaching kids, what would the song be?
Fairey: I’d probably just go with “Get Up, Stand Up,” by Bob Marley co-written by Peter Tosh. Because a lot of people hold themselves back by being afraid to create. Afraid to express themselves, afraid to stand up for their beliefs. So “Get Up, Stand Up” is a strong song musically and lyrically. So I’ll go for that. But there’s so much that I think is valuable for people to have access to but that’s one that’s sort of anthemic. But Lou Reed’s “Perfect Day,” that’s a pretty awesome song for somebody to just see the value in simple experiences.
Baltin: Iin the span of two months, I interviewed Th Grateful Dead’s Bob Weir, Mickey Hart and Phil Lesh all of whom were amazing. And why I mentioned this specifically is one of the things that we talked about was the importance of music at this time. For you, talk about the importance of music in bringing communities together.
Fairey: Music, whether it’s a great DJ or a great band, is my religious experience. Music is really universal. It’s when people really come together and there is some sort of communion that it’s both a community thing and you bring your own personal everything to it as well. There are not a lot of things that work like that. So that idea of something that breaks down cultural barriers, religious race, gender or sexual orientation, all of that to just say, “I’m in this moment loving this and you are too.” We just need more of that because everything is about division right now. And I think that no disrespect to anyone that loves to figure out all their little unique idiosyncratic characteristics to identify themselves in the way that they’re prideful but I think that needs to be balanced with recognizing the human connections and how much we all have in common and music achieves that. So playing it, listening to it, experiencing it with others. It’s a universal language. My T-shirt graphic uses one of the Playing for Change Foundation slogans, which is “We all speak music.” And when I was looking through some of their verbiage, I was like, “Yeah, I’m definitely incorporating that because it’s absolutely true.”
Baltin: What do you look for in someone that you team with?
Fairey: Well, I team with a lot of different people but what I’m looking for is two things. It’s the spirit of what they’re doing and if they actually are making an impact. And from what I can see, Playing for Change Foundation is making an impact. And so if there’s a good response to this shirt and we want to do another one later I’m all for that. I look at a lot of these things like, “Okay, once the relationship is there and there’s some sort of common wavelength, it makes it easier for me to do it the next time.” But yeah, there’s unfortunately always a need for this type of stuff because the world is filled with injustice and inequality so I’m looking for whatever ways I can contribute positively. And so relative to the impact it might make, it’s not a big burden for me, so I’m always excited to help if I can.
Baltin: What do you hope people take from this project?
Fairey: We’re talking about this specific organization, but I think we’re talking about a broader idea, which is that people need access to art and music. And when I say art I mean theater as well. The movie making, whatever is sort of a performance-based expression. This is all really important and I’m paraphrasing any number of smart people who say that civilization is really something that’s underpinned by the arts. So defunding those things is really a regression in terms of the evolution of our species in my opinion. I want to see these things supported, because I think it just makes us better, more evolved, more compassionate human beings. So, I’ll be fighting for this access to this stuff on every front I can be. The arts keep people from being robots. You build self-esteem through creativity. You learn problem-solving skills. It’s adaptive. If there’s anything that’s for sure things are constantly in flux, they’re constantly changing. Creative people adapt better. So, it’s not just about frivolous, pinky out, wine and cheese lifestyle. It’s really about a practical approach to life. That you’re better off if you’ve got some creative practice in your life.


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