Jack Johnson on Staying Local, Environmentalism and Superstardom

Musician Jack Johnson has achieved international superstardom with the help of his wife, Kim, earning enough to donate more than $30 million to causes they support. Find out how the power couple strike a balance.


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Jack and Kim Johnson after a performance at Kalihi Waena Elementary School.
Photos: Ryan Foley

 

Five-hundred children sit on the cafeteria floor at Kalihi Waena Elementary School, laughing and cheering as a long line of fourth graders bury Jack Johnson’s head in a stack of lei made from reusable classroom materials. They pile so much paper, tinsel and pipe cleaner around Johnson’s neck he can barely see his fingers on the fretboard of his guitar. “I never played with this many leis in my whole life,” he says into the microphone, then launches into a set of cafeteria classics from his soundtrack album for the animated children’s film Curious George.

 

It’s fall, Johnson has just returned to Hawai‘i after his latest world tour, and he’s looking forward to retreating from the craziness of the music industry for a while to spend time doing the everyday things he likes to do when he’s home. These include surfing, volunteering at his kids’ school garden, working in his own garden and making surprise appearances on the cafeteria circuit for the Kōkua Hawai‘i Foundation, the nonprofit organization he and his wife, Kim, founded in 2003 to promote environmental education.

 

“I love playing cafeterias,” Johnson says later. “Those are the best venues. You can hardly hear yourself play because the kids are so loud. But it’s just good fun, you know?”

 

Jack gets a high five at Kalihi Waena Elementary.

 

With more than $20 million in album sales, Johnson breathes the air of rock superstardom. Yet somehow he remains the solidly grounded product of the surf-stoked North Shore beach culture from which he came. He drives a dinged-up minivan, he can’t walk by litter on the beach without picking it up and throwing it away, he surfs every chance he gets, and he usually wears slippers, whether playing onstage before tens of thousands of fans or strumming bar chords for a cafeteria full of grade schoolers. He is in real life exactly as you would expect him to be: easygoing, unassuming and, all things considered, pretty ordinary.

 

“He’s just so not a rock star,” says Kim Johnson, who is pretty down-to-earth herself.

 

Johnson plays “The 3R’s” for the Kalihi Waena kids, and they happily join him in singing the refrain: “Reduce, reuse, recycle!” Although this song appeared on the Curious George soundtrack, Johnson wrote it as the theme for the Kōkua Hawai‘i Foundation’s 3R’s School Recycling Program, which provides students and teachers with training and bins to promote waste reduction and recycling in schools.

 

The recycling program was Kōkua’s first initiative, growing from a single pilot school in 2003 to 51 schools across O‘ahu. In the early days, teachers were sometimes surprised when Jack Johnson himself showed up at their classroom door to deliver a stack of multicolored recycling bins. But the program went into decline in 2012 when the City and County of Honolulu stopped picking up recyclables on state school campuses. For the next two years, a Kōkua staffer regularly appeared at the right Department of Education meetings, befriending administrators, talking story with trash haulers and gently urging a solution to the lapsed recycling pickups.

 

The occasion for the Kalihi Waena concert is to announce that the DOE had renegotiated its trash hauling contract so that recyclables will be picked up at schools once again.

 

Gilbert Chun, the DOE’s Auxiliary Services Branch administrator, who poses for photos with Johnson after the show, acknowledges that Kōkua’s prodding had an effect. “They kept it on the radar,” he says.

 

Kim Johnson grins broadly throughout the school concert. “Now that the DOE is taking it on and doing the pickups, we’ll be able to work with all those schools that we had and add even more—as many as we can,” she says.

 

Kim is the executive director of the Kōkua Hawai‘i Foundation and, though Jack is president, it’s really her baby. “Jack always says he’s my fundraiser,” Kim says. “All the programs and planning and vision of where we’re going, where we’re heading, is kind of more my role. He chimes in every step of the way, but he’s not someone who is going to go, ‘Let me write this curriculum.’ The cool thing is, I’ll say, ‘Hey, will you write a song about recycling?’ And he writes ‘The 3R’s.’”

 

The Johnsons spend some time at the school’s garden.

 

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