Listening to the Sacred Sounds of Peoplehood


This article is featured in the August 2016 edition of The Slice, a monthly digest that offers news, stories, ideas and opportunitieswith a Jewish twist. Below, Sara Ivry chats with Anthony Demby, founder of Humbleriot, a company that builds authentic music solutions and experiences for brands. Anthony brings over 20 years of music industry experience, and is a facilitator and former participant of The Listening Project, a trip sponsored by the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation.

In a way, it was thanks to Burning Man that cultural impresario Anthony Demby found himself in Jerusalem listening to “sacred” music last summer. He wasn’t supposed to be there. In fact, Demby, a 42-year-old Baptist-raised Morehouse College graduate now living in New York City, had never before been to Israel and did not have plans to get there just yet.

But a friend who turned down the opportunity to be part of the Listening Project, an invitation-only trip sponsored by the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation, suggested her spot go to Demby while she went off to burn effigies in the desert with her fellow Burners.

Taking place during Jerusalem’s annual Sacred Music Festival, the Listening Project brought together some 30 movers and shakers within the music industry for a one-week personal introduction to the arts and culture scene in Israel.

The Listening Project specifically took place during the Sacred Music Festival, when artists and performers around the world convene in Jerusalem in harmonious, non-stop celebration.

It seemed like a natural fit for Demby. Since graduating from college in 1996, he has spent his entire career working in music. He has done marketing and promotion for record labels like Def Jam and Mercury; discovered new talent working in A&R; managed a slate of artists that includes John Legend and Childish Gambino; and, in 2010, brought all of his experiences together to found Humbleriot, a company that focuses “on the authentic intersection between music culture and brands.”

He explained: “When a brand is marketing a new initiative or a product, they’ll come to me to find ways to engage their core demographic using music and culture, so I’ll create those ideas and points of engagement and identify the artists that will activate those ideas.” So far, his roster has included big names like Samsung, HBO, SoHo House, Airbnb and more. He places special emphasis on the spiritual dimensions of music, and serves as music director for the Big Quiet, a large-scale meditation event series that takes over unique locales—like a cruise ship circling Manhattan—not typically associated with meditation.

But his full-throttled involvement with music goes back much farther—to early childhood. “When I was a kid, before I could even speak, I remember sitting on my parents’ couch and going through their records and looking at the pictures, the art work, and laughing, and smiling,” he recalled. “They would put headphones on me and listen to music and I would be so happy and that became my first language. To me, music is freedom.”

Growing up, Demby played violin and piano, and as he grew older he came to realize “how music can be the voice for the voiceless and music can heal the world, and I really stand behind that. I try to do things that use music to unify people,” he said.

In many ways, that philosophy is one with the Sacred Music Festival, which aims not just to introduce people to new genres, but to use art, sound and creativity to foster moments of grace and forge connections. That is, to use music to transcend differences—whether political, religious, economic or racial.

Going to Jerusalem as part of the Listening Project did just that for Demby, and more. He departed for Jerusalem knowing only that friends—both Jews and non-Jews—had visited and loved the place, and that it’s a place with cultural intricacies dating back thousands of years.

“What most intrigued me about Israel is it’s a beautiful and highly complex place,” he said, noting that he had no particular expectations about what he’d see or experience. “When we landed, we went right to the Tower of David and I remember walking in there and asking my friends, ‘Do you all feel this?’ The energy was crazy up there. This welcoming, beautiful energy.”

“Staying in Jerusalem, you see this small footprint of space where all these different religions and belief systems are side-by-side, but they are worlds apart in theory. I’ve always heard about the conflicts happening there, but I never felt threatened at any point. I loved every moment.”

He met DJs and culture influencers. He heard musicians—like a Spanish flamenco group and a Libyan jazz combo that played at four am at the Tower of David—that astonished him. He engaged with history that shook him to his core.

“I went to the Western Wall and I felt the energy there and felt also the pain and suffering there too, at the same time,” he said. “I wrote down a note and put prayers into the wall for my family and I put my hands on the wall and what I felt I can’t describe. I started crying, I kept saying I was thanking God for my life, thank you for allowing me to live the life I’ve had and for the choices and options I’ve had in my life and to be able to fully pursue my dreams every single day.”

Though he describes himself as spiritual, not religious—to his parents’ chagrin—Demby thanks God everyday for letting him wake up, and then considers what else he’s grateful for. His stay in Israel, where politics can sometimes interfere with personal and professional choices, has made him all the more sensitive to his own path and good fortune. “I can get up in the morning, I can go work out if I want to, I can eat if I want to, I can work here if I want to,” he said.

While he was in Israel, other epiphanies abounded. A long-time yoga practitioner and meditator, he steadied his mind looking out his hotel window at the inspiring expanse of the Western Wall.

At Yad Vashem, each Listening Project member was given piece of paper with a name of a musician who perished at the hands of the Nazis. “We were all crying. Our minds were blown,” Demby said. “You leave this museum and you see this vista looking out at Jerusalem and for 20 minutes we didn’t talk, we were all just overwhelmed by the experience. That’s the emotional effect it had on me.”

He saw that the Holocaust wasn’t simply a tragedy for the Jews, “it was a tragedy for everybody, it’s a human catastrophe,” he said. “I’m black, so I think our tragedy was slavery, which is also a human catastrophe.” He was forced to examine the myopia specific worldviews can cause and considered how music can build bridges.

Professionally speaking, he found validation and common cause with Israelis who are similarly passionate about creativity and music and bringing these to bear in all facets of their lives. So transformative was his time in Israel, Demby’s going back as a Listening Project facilitator in September.

“When I left there, I just felt like my soul took a shower, and I want to have that experience again with people I care about,” he said. “I’m bringing people who I mentor, and a lot of talks we have are about meditation, taking care of ourselves, traveling, seeing the world, being present. I would love to extend that privilege I have with them in Israel. That’s my intention.”

The Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation is proud to empower emerging leaders to explore their values, identity and new ways to strengthen their communities. We believe that as we work together to repair the world, it is important to share our diverse experiences and perspectives along the way. We encourage the expression of personal thoughts and reflections here on the Schusterman blog. Each post reflects solely the opinion of its author and does not necessarily represent the views of the Foundation, its partner organizations or program participants.