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Training Music Activists: How Artistry and Community Development Skills Combine at the Bay Area’s Music Action Lab

Drew Foxman wanted to create an organization that would do more than present or produce music, that could do more than facilitate exchange or collaboration between diverse artists. He wanted to use the tools he’d witnessed in international community development and social innovation to train forward-thinking young musicians to go into their home communities and engage in hands-on projects to make things better.

After years of thinking about the issues and honing in on the right plan, he launched Giant Steps, home of the Music Action Lab. Its first cohort, featuring musicians from half a dozen countries, gathered in the Bay Area last year for a month of training, playing, and performing.

Foxman’s approach exemplifies a new generation of broad, tech-friendly initiatives popping up in the world music scene, melding the roles of label, presenter, and management, all with an unflagging emphasis on musician empowerment and social good. Jan-gonzo-186644


Why did you start Giant Steps?

I wanted to do this, in every bone of my body. I spent an equal amount of time in my professional life doing music work at places like SFJAZZ and social impact work.

During some of my years in the social impact space, I had a really serendipitous moment. I was handed this opportunity to create a social responsibility project on the India-Pakistan border, which I ran for 3 and a half years. It was a platform to use the creative arts to help young people learn about themselves and take action in their communities. We had boys and girls on stage dancing bhangra for possibly the first time in history. We had theater skits about important local issues, like infanticide for girls. It was such an amazing experience. I knew I had to move forward with my own vision then.


Where did that vision come from?

The first real seeds for Giant Steps grew from a thesis I wrote as part of my graduate degree from Columbia. Though I dreamed of making the plan I laid out there a reality, I needed to apply the degree and get steadier employment. I wound up working in poverty alleviation, among other areas.

I knew eventually I had to do something, to act on what I’d been thinking about for so long. So in 2015, I dabbled with making it a more tech-driven venture, a kind of social impact incubator. I thought it would be a low risk, low cost, biz model design. Applied to accelerators, getting one interview out of 30. Didn’t get selected. But I really didn’t have my vision together. I was trying to force myself into something that wasn’t me, to get startup cap.

I decided I’m still doing it, even if I have to keep my day job and figure it out. Now, I put in an 8-hour day, spend some time with the family, then work all night. I built a board, got a fiscal sponsor, though I plan to get our 501c3 very soon.


You had a lot of experience in other areas of social endeavor. Why did music remain such a central part of what you decided to pursue?

There’s a broad philosophy underlying the Music Action Lab. History is a great template to look at. Music has played a big part in every liberation movement, and so many styles have sprung from creative people’s reaction to injustice, with all these disparate practices on the grassroots level.

Everyone has their own vantage point. What I felt was lacking and what I’m trying to build is that confluence, a central generator of best practices around music for change. I’m disillusioned by the top level of the market, and I think we can do better. When I think of the Giant Steps that could be, many years down the road, we want to be the organization that’s there, a community of musicians who can come into a complex situation and train others to use music to solve real problems.

So much humanitarian stuff is response. I dream of training people to be there all the time, not just responsive. I want things to be less abstract, more focused. There are hundreds if not thousands of musicians who share this mindset, who are active in their communities and want to be as impactful as they can. But where are the resources for them?

A big part of this comes down to aesthetics, too. Can we create a new musical language based on what we want to see in the world? So our focus is on artistic excellence, not on amateurs or music education in the strictest sense. You have to lead with the music. You have to be artistically awesome.

We also want to go beyond the one-off project or collaboration. We want to incubate more of those projects in the world. The dream is to incubate new social music enterprises. Some of our participants from last year, who are on the album we just released (Foundation), are doing just that. Farhan Bogra, who’s from Peshawar, Pakistan, has started applying for grants for an ambitious traditional music project. The sax and tabla player Derek Beckvold has launched an enterprise that connects Western conservatory educators to kids in the developing world to offer free music lessons.


DrewAbout Music Action Lab:

The Music Action Lab is an innovative music residency uniting musicians from across the globe to create social impact music, and to nurture the next generation of musical changemakers. The Lab brings together talented musicians from across the world and immerses them in a month of musical and social innovation through a dynamic curriculum that combines leadership training with collaborative music-making—to create a new musical language and a global community of musicians working together to design innovative solutions to creating a better world.

About Giant Steps: 

Giant Steps Music is on a mission to create and curate innovative musical approaches to social good.