This Op-Ed originally ran in AP 280. To buy a copy, head here.
As Gandhi once said, “You must be the change you wish to see in the world.” Singer/songwriter Andrew Shiraki, better known as KOJI, has taken that advice to heart: He’s become one of contemporary punk’s most active supporters of non-profits and tirelessly works toward helping the less fortunate. Here, he tells his story of overcoming discrimination and discovering that music is more than just a few strummed chords.
Music is one of the most human things people can participate in. A lot of communities and institutions in the United States and all around the globe do not value music as importantly as they should. However, I believe in human potential, which is why I also believe in music’s potential to create positive change.
I’ve been witness to a lot of hate and discrimination in my life. Growing up in Pennsylvania’s capital city, Harrisburg, I was the only Japanese-Filipino-Spanish-Portuguese-American in my class, let alone in my music scene. At my very first show, there was a gang of Nazis who had shown up. Being one of the only minorities there, I was a wide-eyed, 12-year-old target. These were real people with swastika tattoos and patches, shaved heads—the whole nine yards. They began causing trouble, and as things escalated, a group of kids ran them out of the show.
Whether anyone else knew it or not, something very profound happened. I had spent my entire life being bullied by people for the shape of my eyes, the color of my skin and my strange name. All too often, people who witnessed these things were silent. But now, at this crazy gathering, I found I had advocates. These people were engaged with the world—with each other—and they cared about me, even though we had never met. I learned from them that music could make a difference and change people—because it had changed me. These folks were not waiting silently for the world to end. They were singing and living as loud as they could.
From there, the next step was to get organized. I began playing in bands and setting up shows. Being a kid, I didn’t really have any interest in money, so I started setting up these shows to help out touring bands and benefit different causes. My friends and I formed a non-profit youth center where we ran music and art shows, poetry jams, vegan dinners, political discussions and a food pantry to feed our neighbors in need. I had my hand in every aspect of the DIY-music scene, and it led me to go to the Capitol Area School for the Arts (CASA), an interdisciplinary art magnet high school. My music scene and arts education empowered me by giving me an outlet and teaching me that even as a young person, I could influence my community.
In 2005, I moved to Philadelphia to attend the Tyler School Of Art. It was the same year I learned that there were children in northern Uganda who were being abducted and forced to fight for a rebel group called the Lord’s Resistance Army. After organizing a screening of Invisible Children: Rough Cut at my school, my classmates and bandmates began using all our different talents to tell the story of the child soldiers, night commuters and thousands of displaced people in northern Uganda who are suffering at the hand of the LRA and their leader, Joseph Kony.
As the conflict spread throughout the region, I continued my involvement by setting up screenings, benefit shows and demonstrations, and meeting with my legislators to talk about U.S. action on the issue. At first, members of the establishment were slow to act. As more and more high schoolers, college students, young artists and activists became aware of this issue, our voice became louder. Congress was then moved to create a bill that was unanimously passed in 2010 that mandated a strategy be created to deal with the LRA. The youth of America were the main political driver behind it all—not big business and their army of lobbyists.
In the years following that first screening, I’ve become a full-time touring musician, using my platform as an artist and the resources available to me to continue the work on this issue. This past spring, my company Colormake partnered with the Washington, D.C.-based non-profit, Resolve, for the Resolve Tour to get the DIY community engaged with this issue of the LRA in central Africa. We held advocacy workshops after every show and gave people the tools to create change—not just on this issue, but any issue.
We continued the work with this summer by partnering with Resolve and the Voice Project on the Amplify Peace Tour. Together, we shared the story of the women in LRA-affected areas who wrote and sang songs over the radio that brought child soldiers home. It turns out that music and radio are the most effective tools in leading the child soldiers to come home, according to UN reports.
Just like people undervalue music, people oftentimes undervalue their own voice. My experience in music is one example after another of how much music and people matter. Shows are more than just a social scene; songs are more than lyrics and chords. It’s a conversation; it’s collaboration and cooperation. When those things are taking place, that’s called community. Through community, we can create the change we wish to see—and that is truly potential worth realizing. We just have to believe.