July 10, 2019

A 60’s folk luminary and his daughter invest in the next generation of music activists

The nonprofit Music to Life empowers musicians to create social change through their art.

Peter, Paul and Mary were part of a wave of folk activists during the Civil Rights era, performing at the historic March on Washington in 1963. Noel “Paul” Stookey, left, and his daughter Elizabeth Stookey Sunde founded Music to Life to raise awareness of music as a tool for social change. Photo by PhotoQuest/Getty Images

I grew up with a musician as a father. Those of you who remember or know something about 1960s folk culture may have heard of him—my Dad is Noel “Paul” Stookey of the trio Peter, Paul and Mary. He performed at the 1963 March on Washington, the day Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his “I Have a Dream” speech, and at countless marches and rallies for the causes of civil, human, and environmental rights. He still does. Mary has passed away, but Dad and Peter still perform together all over the country as advocates for civil rights and social justice.

Most of you would probably agree that music is a powerful force. When we listen, we nod, smile, and tap our toes—we inherently know its power. Even if we don’t immediately feel or recognize it, science tells us, music does something to our brains. Music can convince us to buy a new product or assure us that the product we’ve already purchased is awesome (and that we should keep buying it). Music can soothe anxiety, restore memory loss, and placate violent behaviors. Music also has the power to connect us. Among an audience of strangers, music persuades us to interact with each other, to sing, sway, and wave together, to link arms.

Most social change movements communicate their messages in part through music, whether by reinvigorating iconic protest songs or by creating their own.

And, of course, as Dad and his fellow artists have demonstrated, music has been–and continues to be–a vital soundtrack to life. Most social change movements communicate their messages in part through music, whether by reinvigorating iconic protest songs or by creating their own.

Yet, Dad and I believe that music can do even more to create change. We believe that music can be put to work as a strategic tool to inspire positive community engagement, improve the quality of life in our neighborhoods, and further the cause of justice.

On the path to “musical innovation”

To carry on the family business, what I’ve dubbed “Music for Change 2.0,” Dad and I created Music to Life, a national nonprofit that builds activism through music. When we started, we didn’t realize we were on a path toward musical innovation. We were just exploring ways in which music could tangibly change the world, beyond raising money at a benefit concert. My father and I wanted t o push the envelope by finding out whether or not music could be a tool that actually delivered social impact.

Music artists Jasiri X, Noel Paul Stookey, and Carolyn Malachi perform at a Music Matters Event. Photo courtesy of Music to Life

As Music to Life has grown, we’ve collaborated with a diverse network of artists, nonprofit organizations, businesses, and music industry leaders to explore how music might indeed make positive, measurable social change. Music to Life has produced educational panels, social justice songwriting contests, music concerts and showcases, and high-impact music-driven events. We’ve reached tens of thousands of people through the power of music.

However, it hasn’t been until recently that we’ve considered the innovation behind
Music to Life’s work. “Social innovation” comes up a lot these days as a problem solving tool for the chronic issues of our time–bigotry and racism, gun violence, human trafficking, and environmental devastation, to name a few; it’s defined by the Stanford School of Business as the process of “developing and deploying effective solutions through the active collaboration of cross-sector constituents.” And innovative approaches are sorely needed: To hear or read the news, or even step out the front door, is to bear witness to an apparent unraveling of our society; how can these threads be rewoven?

Music to Life engages in social innovation through music. We begin by applying creative, strategic, and evaluative lenses to the ways in which music can move the needle around an issue, and by empowering musicians as change agents. For example, imagine a community where at-risk or homeless youth are paired with a mentor musician to engage in the positive, expressive power of songwriting; or where multi-genre musicians team up with civil rights groups to help a city rediscover its soul through a new documentary film and soundtrack; or where artists connect with women in prison through a series of healing circles and performances designed to offer them musical touchstones for their journeys.

Artists in Music to Life’s network implement all sorts of alternative approaches to positively impact their communities. Our artists have created eco hip-hop curricula for elementary school students, LGBTQIA operas for teens, and lyrical self-esteem and trust-building sessions for homeless people and veterans.

Yet, per the social innovation model, musicians alone will not create significant social impact. Therefore, Music to Life is building a music-for-social-change ecosystem in cities and towns throughout the country. This ecosystem aligns musicians, mentors, and supporters of a cause in a mutually reinforcing and beneficial cycle of care and giving back.

Building a music-for-social-change ecosystem

Our country is home to more than 1.3 million registered musicians and tens of thousands of independent artists of all genres and levels of skill. Not every artist makes it to the national stage, but good musicians typically have robust concert attendances, local fan bases, and online followings. For example, one of Music to Life’s Cincinnati artists has about 116k followers on Facebook and 26k on Twitter.

Tem Blessed is a hip-hop artist who uses his music to inspire environmental action. Photo courtesy of Music to Life

Experience has taught us that in any given location, more than half of these artists are interested in having a positive impact in their community. Musicians are motivated by the causes closest to their hearts, but also by the fact that activist musicians regularly reach new supporters, even listeners not already engaged with other causes. When given a choice between unfamiliar artists, listeners will choose the artist that supports social change over the one that doesn’t. To that point, Music to Life’s activist musicians are followed closely by their fans.

Music to Life’s activist musicians focus on issues relevant to their communities, such as immigrants’ and refugees’ rights, and take a message from the stage into the community, engaging with listeners through marches and rallies or inventive social change programs.

Imagine the expanded spheres of influence and impact these artists might have if they were more effectively connected with the mentors, partners, and resources they need to build sustainable change in their communities and in society.

Our Activist Musician Accelerator (AMA), the country’s first comprehensive incubator for social change musicians, creates this ecosystem. We developed the AMA in consideration of best practices in business, music, and technology accelerators, and structured it to assist activist artists in designing, implementing, and sustaining music-driven social justice projects in close communication with affected, vulnerable communities. The AMA thus facilitates measurable and positive impact in activist artist communities and advances societal justice through music.

Music to Life is actively piloting its AMA nationwide. We select artists’ music-driven social justice programs, based on their grounding in community need and artists’ unique proposals for addressing that need. For example, an AMA in Austin, Texas, will provide one of Music to Life’s activist artists, Vanessa Lively, with the mentors, partners, and resources she needs to grow her Home Street Music project for homeless people in Austin and around the country.

Our rural AMA, Mobile Musician Mentors, will launch in Spring 2020 for communities in Northern New England. For this accelerator, Music to Life will connect activist musicians with at-risk and homeless youth to engage in the positive, expressive, healing power of songwriting. Through regional partnerships with music educators, community leaders, nonprofits and businesses, musicians will go on the road with a mobile recording studio, connect with youth wherever they may be—community centers, schools, street corners or town greens—and help them develop personal anthems for their journeys. Our goals are to reduce social isolation, encourage healthy recreational alternatives and bring attention to the needs and voices of rural youth.

By facilitating these and other activist artists’ music-driven social change programs, Music to Life amplifies artists’ musical messaging and helps them impact thousands of fans, community members, and cause supporters.

Through the AMA, Music to Life is providing hope to vulnerable communities in this time of continual crisis. But that’s just the beginning—we envision a world where community leaders consistently implement best practices in music-driven responses to social issues, and that skilled social change musicians routinely develop and share their music, and collectively implement their strategies of change in person and online as a national Musical Response Team. Because the time is now: Social change needs musical innovation.

Elizabeth Stookey Sunde

Elizabeth Stookey Sunde

Elizabeth Stookey Sunde is the co-founder and Executive Director of Music to Life. Founded in 2000 with Noel “Paul” Stookey—of the 1960’s folk trio Peter, Paul & Mary—Music to Life builds on the strong historical legacy of social movements’ intentional use of music to educate, recruit, and mobilize. Music to Life revitalizes music to meet the challenges of the modern world and revolutionize the role activist artists can play in accelerating social change.