Could busking – street music performance – be a tool for social change? It’s an idea I’ve heard artists mull before. Here’s one opportunity to do just that next month, in April, in support of building badly-needed school facilities in southern Zambia. And yes, digital musicians can participate, thanks to terrific, affordable, battery-powered amplification.

I do hope this could launch a discussion, though, on how to organize this kind of action, and how to make busking work for good.

Ben Matthews, founder of the charity, writes:

LearnAsOne,a UK-based charity dedicated to funding schools in Africa, announces the launch of its first annual BuskAsOne, a week of busking events around the world from 19-25 April 2010. The charity is hoping to raise £22,800 to help build schools in rural Zambia.

The busk is open to any musician, singer or instrumentalist, so if any readers of Creative Digital Music would be interested in joining in with BuskAsOne, they should register at where they will find all the tips and guidance they need for a safe, hassle-free busk.

In July, the LearnAsOne team will return to Zambia and share stories, photos and videos from the schools to show it supporters exactly how the funds they raised are spent.

The communities that LearnAsOne work with are extremely dedicated. They are happy to make tens of thousands of bricks by hand and contribute labour for free to give their children the opportunity to go to school. But they can’t afford raw materials such as cement, roofing sheets and windows. This is where the busking money comes in. £22,800 will allow LearnAsOne to fund four new buildings – two new classrooms and two teacher’s houses. This will secure the education of 60 children every year.

The video at top features an orphaned eight-year old young woman who must walk 14 km every day to attend her school.

I had some follow-up questions for Ben:

Why the connection with music specifically?
At LearnAsOne we try to come up with fundraising ideas that allow people to take part in things they enjoy and also raise money to fund schools at the same time. There’s WalkAsOne, a series of sponsored walks for people who are active. BakeAsOne, a month of cakes sales, for those who like their baking. And BuskAsOne, for musicians.

What do you think the role of musicians can be in this case?
The main role is to help raise funds to build new classrooms and teachers’ houses at Simakakata in southern Zambia. But there is also another way musicians can help. We believe that everyone who donates has the right to see their money in action, so we use our website to share stories, photos and videos from every community we work. By displaying a poster while they are busking, or mentioning our website on their blog, MySpace or twitter feed musicians can ensure donors see the difference their spare change will make in Zambia.

Is there some sense that this kind of support for schools can eventually lead to self-sufficient school construction funding in places like Zambia?
Self-sufficient school construction is unfortunately just a dream at the moment. The Zambian government simply doesn’t have enough budget to construct all the schools the country needs, which is why many communities rely on the support of NGOs such as LearnAsOne.

Our aim is to fund schools in a sustainable way. We only work with resourceful communities who can prove they really want a school. At Simakakata they had made 60,000 bricks by hand before we first met them, and the community are happy to provide labour for free. But they simply cannot afford the raw materials such as cement, windows and roofing sheets. That’s where the busking money comes in.

After the construction is completed the school will become self-sufficient in many ways. If there are proper classrooms and teachers’ houses the government will provide trained teachers for free. And as the teachers arrive the government is more likely to provide the school with text books they need. Our goal is simply to provide the infrastructure the school requires and then move on to help another community. And then another.

More on Busking?

I discussed some of this project with our friend and artist Onyx Ashanti, who has himself reflected on ideas for how busking could work as aid. He noted that you may need to do some more research here, like working out how to get charity status or get around noise ordinances. (Here in NYC, for instance, you can’t just go out on the street right away, though it’d be interesting to combine this with established outdoor performance events.)

There are also questions of how to establish financial accountability.

This is a great start, though; I hope it inspires some conversations about the role of busking, ways in which street performance can be de-marginalized throughout the world, and ways in which that art can better support artists and other causes. And if you do decide to participate in this event, let us know. Electronic music has deep ties to street performance, from the roots of many or our musical idioms to the one man band tradition. It’s about time to re-forge that connection.

  • How to make busking work for good? It already works for good – if you are a poor musician/artist who needs money its a way of getting some!

    Most but not all buskers are pretty skint. How is 'busking for charity' going to affect them?

    If you believe that charity is a viable solution to world wealth inequality – I'm not saying it's a bad idea per se but I do believe there are darker forces at work – then why do something which is likely to have an adverse affect on people who are already struggling for cash?

    Here's a controversial song on the subject!

  • @gavspav: yeah, obviously, that goes without saying. But not all buskers are short on change. I just watched a TV piece on the legendary potato peeler salesman here in NY who lived on the UWS and did quite well for himself.

    I think it's possible to support yourself and to support others. I did ask the sustainability / self-sufficiency issue because I think that matters. It's worth discussing.

  • "I did ask the sustainability / self-sufficiency issue because I think that matters. It’s worth discussing."

    This is one of the most fabulous posts I've read on CDM, and I love every one of them.

  • lematt

    i'm just coming back from a trip in africa.

    i'm not saying it's a bad idea, and with what i saw even a skint musician in Europe (or US) is rich in africa, but i saw a lot of NGO's managers driving big american 4×4, living in big houses they couldn't afford in their own country… discussing with a friend of mine, totally disgusted by the NGO business in Africa, he explained to me how things worked: they won't let an african (even if he's been working for them for several years) manage 100 $ to get the work done. They won't teach anything to the communities, so the communities will always need NGO's

    <blockquote cite="NGO">Our aim is to fund schools in a sustainable way. We only work with resourceful communities who can prove they really want a school. At Simakakata they had made 60,000 bricks by hand before we first met them, and the community are happy to provide labour for free.

    is that really sustainable !!!???

    the best thing you can do is to save a bit of money and go in africa to see what's the real thing.

    i won't trust any NGO now.

  • Yeah you're both right – skint musicians are rich compared to poor Africans. And some buskers do make good money.

    Given that European/US economies depend on global wealth inequality and poverty ie our lifestyles depend on it what are we to do?

    This is the question thats been echoing around my head for the whole of my life.

    Best idea I've come up with in the last 24 hours is this: stream Zambian musicians live on the web and show the feeds on street corners with some kind of way of making direct payments to the musicians/charidee.

    Also can someone invent fair trade ebay please?

    And can we not all get together and come up with some better kind of world economic organisation system.

  • Actually, I don't believe the "northern" economies do depend on this inequality, not to mention the fact that here in the US, we have serious problems with hunger, poverty, and illiteracy – these aren't "third world" problems. I think the issue is that we have such vast inefficiencies, and what the powerbrokers do depend on (or at least find easy to depend on) is the status quo.

    But these are all good points and worth raising; part of why I posted this. I'm open to creative ideas. Whether this is the best opportunity or not, I could also see busking becoming more widespread and a tool for activism.

  • I am very interested to knowing this.
    great post.

  • Hello, Steve from LearnAsOne here. Wanted to say thank you to Peter for writing this article and also respond to the great comments that have been left.

    @lematt We have one member of staff (who is only paid based on fundraising performance) and everyone else is an unpaid volunteer. We partner with a NGO in Zambia whose workforce is 90% local and the two 4x4s they run are over 10-years old an completely necessary to reach the rural communities they work with. In 5 years our partner has worked with over 500 communities.

    In terms of your sustainability question we believe it is. If we can provide the raw materials so the community can build classrooms and teachers' houses the government will provide trained teachers at no cost. This model proves the community wants the school and means they don't rely on us for ongoing payments (e.g. for teacher's salaries).

    @gavspav Your streamed busk is a very interesting idea. The music would have to be pre-recorded (due to Internet speeds) and we'd need to convince someone to give us free advertising spots, but direct response ads via sms are already possible so there may be some legs in this idea. Do you mind if I pinch it and do some investigations?

  • @Steve Make it happen. Can you fix it for me to go busking from bed in a country with a beneficial exchange rate?

  • Arne


    i love the idea of doing something with and for buskers. this is still a very powerful way to get into contact with music.

    charities wouldn't be necessary if we had systems in place which guarantee everybody her fair share of money and all the rest. this cannot and will nor be achieved by charital work as much as i support the idea and intention.

    i am a small consultant trained in business administration and play and write music.

    I suggest reading Joseph Stieglitz' "The Shadows of Globalization" and "The Big Short" by Michael Lewis. Both not highly entertaining and a tough read. But there are enough clues where to start.

    Cheers and sing it like it is, folks


  • Busking is a tool for social change. It is changing US, the kids we inspire, and the kids we are helping. We are 10, 12 and 14 years old… (Canada's youngest rock band) and we've been busking for a year to bring about change in Haiti. We've raised over $100K in the process. Busking helps us assert our rights, and saves us from the complacency of a video culture… and yes, our dad helps out too!!! 

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