Composing for a cause

  • January 30, 2017
Composing for a cause

Gates Cambridge alumna writes and co-produces song for refugees.

I have a lot to say about what’s happening in the world. And, hopefully, I can move a few hearts and minds into action as I do.

Andrea Pizziconi

A Gates Cambridge Scholar has co-written and co-produced a song to raise awareness and funds for refugees, which features Grammy Award-winners singer Gregory Porter, rapper Common, and trumpeter Keyon Harrold.

Andrea Pizziconi [2003] co-wrote and co-produced the song alongside Grammy Award-winning trumpeter Keyon Harrold, called Running (Refugee Song), also featuring Gregory Porter, Common. The proceeds will support the 65 million displaced worldwide through organisations such as Refugees International and Human Rights First.

The song came about through Andrea's friendship with world-renowned trumpeter Keyon Harrold. She had been talking to him about how to bridge the worlds of music and social innovation and activism.  Andrea, a singer well before she became a social entrepreneur, was keen to do more cause-related music and had been a long-term supporter of Refugees International. Keyon, Grammy Award-winning trumpeter from the now infamous town of Ferguson was looking to find a way to give back through music. So the two decided to pool their skills and create Compositions for a Cause with “Running” (aka Refugee Song) as the first project. Andrea pitched Keyon the idea for the subject and he came back with the beginning of a hook that would eventually be the foundation of the song.  Over the following months they pushed each other to the limits trying to get the song right. They constantly struggled to find the right balance between “cool” and “hip” and authentic and respectful. "Every little detail mattered because of the weight of the subject matter," says Andrea.

Keyon had worked with dozens of the world’s top popular artists, including the rapper Common and singer Gregory Porter. Andrea met Porter when Keyon joined his tour in late 2015. She says: "He is one of the most gracious, thoughtful, kind people you could ever encounter.  I adored watching him perform the namesake song of his latest album, “Take me to the Alley” featuring Keyon on the trumpet with such moving words about society’s less fortunate," says Andrea.  "So, when Keyon proposed that Gregory record the song, it was an absolute no-brainer to me.  He would no doubt deliver it with the same compassion and strength that has made him one of the world’s most popular singers today. I’m so grateful that he joined us and has become such a strong advocate for the cause."

Andrea also played a major role in putting the video together. She says that happened by accident when the original video editor had to pull out. She had been given ten of thousands of images and videos by the project's partner non-profits, but it seemed an almost impossible task to edit them in time for the launch two days away. Andrea spent the weekend before the song's launch going through all of the images and managed to come up with a storyboard, which she spliced with footage of Porter singing.

She says: "The verses are meant to take you on a journey from the moment you are forced to run, to the waiting period in the camps, to the decision to try to cross an ocean in search of asylum irrespective of the risks just to aspire for a better life.  We wanted to show how refugees, though vulnerable, are also incredibly strong and resilient to have lived through such an ordeal. One image I really love is of a Syrian man sitting in a tent giving his thumbs up to the camera, looking very dignified despite his surroundings.  He happened to look like my father.  And it made me think of how my father too would go to any length to protect his family.  In fact, recently, I went back to the small village in Italy where my grandfather fled enormous economic and political challenges to come to America. It was on the very top of a mountain. Incredibly remote. I tried to imagine how difficult the journey must have been for him. And how much more difficult were his first years in America. That trip back to my roots really drove home how these refugees are no different than our own family stories, except that they have been faced with some of the world’s greatest horrors and they survived."

The video ends with a feeling of hope that they will eventually find a new home with a brighter future. In less than 24 hours before the launch the video was finished. Andrea adds: "I am honoured that we could bear witness to some of their stories with this small gesture.  They are ultimately the stars of this song.  Their spirit to fight for a better future is what inspired us to write it for them.  Few of them may ever know how their face was part of this global campaign.  I only wish they knew how we are bearing witness to their struggle."

Building a movement

Andrea and her team are now trying to get as many people to download the song on iTunes.  "We aspire to build a movement of awareness that not only raises meaningful funds but also resonates among others who were previously not so aware of the refugee crisis," she says. And the results are already becoming clear. Despite no marketing or PR budget, the song has had nearly 200,000 listeners across the various platforms and has been featured at various rallies for refugees in the US.

And now more than ever the song has a special resonance.

The money raised will go to Refugees International, Human Rights First as well as to smaller organisations doing critical work on the ground.

The project has also allowed Andrea, who did an MPhil in Land Economy at the University of Cambridge, to return to her original passion of music. When she grew up all she wanted was to pursue a career in music. But, one day while touring Asia with the a capella group she musically led, she had a eureka moment that led her to take the other fork in the road.  She says: "We were scheduled to do a show in Bangkok, it was all over the newspapers.  I was incredibly excited.  That day we did all the kitschy tourism things one would do including touring the city along the river.  Unfortunately, the tour happened to pass a sweatshop with a back entrance close to the river.  A kid was standing inside the door staring at me.  Suddenly, everything came into perspective.  That kid was never going to see us perform in that fancy venue in Bangkok.  His life would never be touched by our concert."

She decided to focus instead on building schools in parts of the world where financing schools seemed impossible and created Africa Integras as a social impact investment company to finance and develop large-scale education infrastructure in Africa. "My real passion was self-determination for all – giving everyone the access to an education so they can decide what to do with it from there," she says.

While she was building her company, which has facilitated over $100 million in financing for universities in Africa so far, music fell by the wayside for several years until a colleague and friend Elliot Washor who had started 100 innovative high schools around the world asked her to sing in a jazz concert to raise money for a new school in Harlem. Andrea says: "It was a dream offer because it gave me the kick in the pants I needed to realise that a huge part of myself and my passions had been suppressed.” 

The response was overwhelming.  In two months Andrea pulled together a show at one of NYC top cabaret venues and it sold out.  “We raised $60,000, we released an album, it was crazy and fulfilling and that’s when it all landed for me,” she said.  “I could do both, but I wanted to ensure that as I stepped back into music more seriously, I did so always for the sake of a greater cause with each project I’d undertake." And it seems she couldn’t have picked a better time to find a voice of social activism in music. “Today, when I look at what has happened in America and Europe even since we released the Refugee Song, and how much we are being called upon to protect basic civil rights all over again, I realise how important it is to keep writing cause-related music. I have a lot to say about what’s happening in the world. And, hopefully, I can move a few hearts and minds into action as I do.”

*Read Andrea's blog on standing up for refugees. Picture caption: Refugees International Board Member Sarah Bacon with Keyon Harrold and Andrea Pizziconi and the RI Gala where Keyon and Andrea first performed the song live.

Andrea Pizziconi

Andrea Pizziconi

  • Alumni
  • United States
  • 2003 MPhil Land Economy
  • Darwin College

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