Hoping to lift
the world's have-nots through the Rhythm of Life Organization
The musician was
"Most people would think music is all I think of," said the
acclaimed keyboardist. "But Herbie Hancock is a human being first.
Music is one of the things I do. It's not what I am."
To those who know him
from albums and CDs, Herbie Hancock is just a musician in the sense that a
767 is just a plane. He is a man who has been transforming musical sounds
and producing innovations in jazz for half a century.
the 1960s for his improvisational, disciplined jazz, he carved a niche for
himself during a period of wild changes in American musical tastes. A
decade later, he would create the sound of fusion, when he plied his
musical genius to the electronic synthesizer and came out with the album
"Headhunters," in 1974.
He didn't evolve into
an innovator, it was simply who he was.
A wiz in math and science as a child, Hancock had wanted, at one point, to
become an engineer. He shifted his studies from engineering to music
composition in college, but he kept an abiding interest in electronic
innovation, both in music and in life. His professional career evolved as
capabilities were enhanced and opportunities created by technological
And he watched as
technology transformed American and world society, building an entirely
new economy over the last quarter of the 20th century and creating a new
racial divide separating those with from those without access to
technology. The question was what to do about it.
Hancock teamed up with
Joseph Mouzon, then an ad executive with NetNoir, the Black-oriented
online center, and created the Rhythm of Life Foundation.
"I wanted to support the use of technology not as a business machine,
designed solely to make money, but to address the issues that human beings
have to deal with day to day that create problems for them," Hancock
says. "I wanted to use technology in a humanistic way. Unfortunately,
a lot of people didn't understand what I was talking about."
The nation, he says,
consists of two types of Americans: the older generation he belongs to,
who evolved in a pre-technology era, and the younger generation, who are
growing up in this technological era. The older generation, whose images
of war were forged in bloody ground-fighting from Normandy to Korea to
Vietnam, view conflict through different lenses than the young, to whom
the Gulf War was just another video game.
"But the issues
of adults are really the same as the issues of kids these days," he
asserts. "There is peer pressure, concerns about sexuality, concerns
about the generation gap, concerns about social issues. There has to be a
way to look at technology to address those real issues.
"My idea is that it would take the generation that is born into
technology, that hasn't been jaded by the use of technology, to create
this new vision for the use of technology. I wanted to give the young
people the high-end tools, teach them programming, and then ask them to
figure out the ways to address some of the issues they have to address day
to day. There's violence and abuse and pollution: There are tons of things
that need looking at."
Hancock was fascinated by technology. When he wasn't engrossed in music,
he was attending technology conferences.
"I don't have
tunnel vision about music. I see that music has a function: that is to
serve humanity as a source of stimulating inspiration in people's lives. I
would never have gotten into thinking about the uses of technology if I
only thought of music," he says.
Inspired by Genius
Enter Bill Strickland, a driven Pittsburgh innovator and the founder of
the city's Manchester Craftsmen Guild and Bidwell Training Center.
Development of that project won Strickland a 1996 "genius award"
from the MacArthur Foundation.
"He had built this beautiful building," recalls Hancock,
"and was giving classes in the arts, music, and visual arts.
"He had a
performance area on the premises where they could record CDs and tape
concerts. They had a training center where he trained poor people in
trades, including how to be a travel agent, since one of his sponsors was
American Express. They had a culinary center with a beautiful cafeteria,
where people sit down and are served by uniformed waiters and treated like
kings and queens.
"When I saw that,
I knew I wanted to create a similar kind of thing but with an emphasis on
help, he created a second nonprofit agency, the Rhythm of Life
Organization (ROLO), which would raise money to develop centers to train
youth in the uses of technology for a variety of humane purposes (http://www.rolo.org).
kind of program, not only will people continue to fall further and further
behind, but those of us who are technologically able can't afford to lose
the unique perspective and input those currently without technology can
provide," Hancock says.
Hancock and Mouzon joined with San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown to develop
ROLO's first project, in the low-income neighborhood around the Hunters
Point Naval Shipyard. BAYCAT, the Bayview-Hunters Point Center for Arts
and Technology, is being developed in an 80,000-square-foot facility on a
five-acre tract overlooking San Francisco Bay. Plans, unveiled at a City
Hall ceremony by Mayor Brown, call for classrooms, laboratories, a
500-seat theater, and a reception hall holding up to 350 people.
Hancock and the group
are trying to raise up to $50 million to develop the project, finance its
operations, and endow its programs and facilities. They have secured some
corporate backing already -- from Wells Fargo Bank, eBay, and
Hewlett-Packard, the computer powerhouse that has pioneered technology
education programs, particularly those involving math and the sciences.
HP provided digital
cameras to several neighborhood children, says Hancock, and then took them
to an exhibit of Ansel Adams, the nature photographer. It was a new
experience for them: holding a camera and seeing a professional exhibit.
"After they saw
what Adams did and his vision," says Hancock, "Hewlett-Packard
asked the kids to go around their neighborhoods and find meaningful things
to shoot, things they have feelings about. Then they were to write down
what they felt about what they saw and how and why they shot it.
"We gave them
computers with Photoshop, and they did their own cropping. The results
were astounding! The pictures were gorgeous, and the statements contained
some of the heaviest, deepest sentiments I ever heard. It is what we were
Other cities have expressed interest in working with ROLO to develop
similar centers for their residents.
interest from St. Louis and New York and New Orleans and Los
Angeles," he says. "And the governor of Alaska wants to build a
center for the Alaskan Indians. BAYCAT can be a model for building centers
of arts and technology around the world. That's our real vision."
ROLO is working with
members of the entertainment community on a Teen Tech project in the Los
Angeles area, where youth are working in multimedia creations with media
professionals and film celebrities.
stuff," says Hancock. "And there's no end to it."
Roger Witherspoon can be reached at RWitherspoon@ccgmag.com.