Journalism and music might sound like an unusual pairing, but for singer-songwriter Todd Mack, music was the best way to honor his friend and bandmate Daniel Pearl, the Wall Street Journal reporter who was murdered while on assignment in Pakistan in 2002. To celebrate Pearl’s life, Mack organized a cathartic backyard jam session. That session proved Mack’s belief in music’s power to unite and connect, and in 2005 he was inspired to found the nonprofit Music In Common (MIC) in Sheffield, Massachusetts.
Music in Common brings together musicians from of diverse cultures and faiths in collaborative workshops and programs that explore songwriting, multimedia, and performance—and that also help them understand, by working together, face to face, where their life experience intersects. Mack says, “Music In Common speaks directly to that boundary-breaking magic, transforming apprehension into trust, fear into acceptance, powerlessness into action.” The result is a world-changing perspective of peace, cooperation, and the importance of community—a timely message in today’s divided political climate.
Currently, MIC offers three signature programs. Their flagship free concert, FODfest (Friends of Danny Festival), named in memory of Pearl, features experienced local musicians in a live performance that’s equal parts concerts, song swap, and jam session—and that focuses on music’s ability to connect, heal, and generate hope.
JAMMS (Journalism as Music, Multimedia, and Songwriting) takes a different approach, starting with a facilitated discussion about race, culture, religion, and world events. Through these conversations, which uncover truths about how these topics affect self-perception and outside perception, students identify a theme for their project. They then write and record a song and produce a video based on the theme, and present the project in a live performance. (View two short trailers about the program here and here.)
Continuing the work produced in JAMMS, for Amplify Berkshires high school and college-age students apply to and are selected for a program in which they practice and perform a dozen songs that have been written by JAMMS participants around the world. The process allows them to connect to the faiths and cultures of the peers, regardless of how different their backgrounds might be. Students also write and record their own song, which is performed at the concluding Amplify Berkshires concert, along with the other songs they have learned throughout the workshop.
To date, people from more than 250 communities across the globe—Israelis and Palestinians, Christians, Jews, Muslims, and American-born refugees and immigrants—have taken part, and nearly 50 JAMMS songs have been recorded. But beyond the exercise in creativity and a sense of accomplishment, MIC participants come away from the experience with a potent lesson in how humans have more in common than they think, and can even find ways to connect through their differences.
Music In Common is funded primarily through private donations. While it also applies for and receives several small grants per year, the competitive nature of grant acquisition has proven challenging. Mack explains, “In early 2017, Music In Common was awarded the largest grant in our history from the federal government. After securing partners and developing program expansion across the country as directed, the grant was abruptly rescinded by the new administration. Though the loss of funds caused a devastating blow to the organization’s plans, an aggressive fundraising campaign, #EmpowerYouthAgainstHate, helped to recover a portion of the amount lost. Large grants such as this one are highly competitive and more challenging to secure. So Music In Common has compiled a variety of opportunities for supporting and contributing to its mission.”
The team also hosts a variety of benefit concerts and film screenings, with money collected from ticket and merchandise sales supporting the nonprofit’s programs. In addition, sponsorship opportunities are available to local businesses.
Over the next few years, Music In Common plans to continue expanding both the frequency and community reach of its Amplify Berkshires and JAMMS programs, and has recently trained and hired additional facilitators and coordinators to serve more communities. It’s also raising awareness of Raise the MIC, events such as benefit concerts and/or film screenings hosted by individuals, organizations, venues, and musicians that raise money for Music in Common through the sales of tickets and merchandise, as well as through donations.
But no matter the project or the participants, Music In Common will continue to tell stories through song, and bring personal and cultural narratives into the hearts of thousands of people—whether down the block or halfway across the world.