Not known for its mercy, Tanzania’s Mt. Kilimanjaro is the largest free-standing mountain in Africa. One out of every four climbers who attempts to summit its 19,340 foot-elevation Uhuru peak are unsuccessful, which was precisely Grammy-nominated musician Kenna’s fate the first time he challenged this unforgiving mountain.
In January 2010, Kenna returned to Mt. Kilimanjaro, not to simply conquer the mountain that had denied his summit, but instead to make a 19,340 foot 911 call to the world on behalf of every man, woman, and child that has suffered or died from drinking dirty water, as well as the billion-plus people on the planet that still don’t have access to safe, clean drinking water.
This time Kenna brought backup: a mélange of influential voices and experts from a range of specialties that were committed to his cause. In an effort to raise awareness, the climb was filmed as a documentary that will air on MTV on March 14, 2010, and social media was brilliantly integrated throughout the expedition.
To pull it all off, 44 people would step up and try to follow Kenna to the top of the mountain that had already defeated him once before. For all of them to summit would be an unlikely and unprecedented feat, especially with most of the team having little or no climbing experience and instead relying on inspired determination to get them to the top.
On January 12, 2010, inspired determination trumped likelihood, with every one of the 45 members of the Summit on the Summit expedition standing on the top of Africa in a record-breaking statement to the world on behalf of the global water crisis.
The question now is, “What’s the likelihood of achieving unprecedented success in addressing the global water crisis?”
MM: How did you come up with the idea for Summit on the Summit?
So when you get that kind of feeling in your gut you say, well I’m going to do something about it, I’m gonna fucking do something about it …
Kenna: It’s probably a three part answer, but I will try and keep it simple. I had climbed Kila [Mt. Kilimanjaro] once before and hadn’t gotten to the top and I went all by myself. I think mainly because there was no real support system for it. The main reason I even came to doing it for the cause was because my dad had come to me and said he was going to dig a well in Ethiopia. I didn’t understand why he was going to do that and I had no real idea about the global water crisis. He continued to explain that he had contracted a waterborne disease when he was a child and lived ten years with that kind of illness; ten-fifteen years with the illnesses that came along with that. He had lost his best friend as a child and even worse he had lost a brother to it, my uncle. I started studying water just trying to figure out what that was because I felt like I was a bad son, a bad kid, not knowing what my dad had endured for me to actually be in America, living my dreams, making music, you know…pursuing the world and having the life that I have. All those things were given to me basically on a silver platter in comparison to what my dad had to endure you know. So when you get that kind of feeling in your gut you say, well I’m going to do something about it, I’m gonna fucking do something about it, and so the two things collided. Kilimanjaro because I hadn’t reached the top and because I knew that going to the top would require some kind of support system, which is also what I believe about the global clean water crisis. It’s not something that one person can take on, or one government can take on, or one NGO can take on, but it has to be a united effort. So the idea of Summit on the Summit was born as an incubator for change to allow people that have the influence of reaching the world to connect with the people who have the information to educate the world, and finally to involve the Fortune 500 world of brands to support that in a way where it’s a private affair and know that it’s something that individuals can be involved in whether it be staff at Hewlett Packard, or the staff at Proctor and Gamble, or the staff at the UN Foundation, or the staff at Summit on the Summit, or my management team, or the management team of every single artist on the climb, or actor, or the education team and management team of everybody who is on the production side, or the educators themselves and their teams. It was meant to be a sequestered moment in time where everyone had to rely on each other, commit to going, and commit being safe and healthy to be there, and while they are there to commit to each other to support each other and commit to the cause. In that moment, because they know that they are risking themselves for it, it was meant to be an unstoppable force of truth and a project that at the end of it would fully and forever unite individuals as allies because there is one thing in their life that can never be taken away from them outside of family and accomplishment. As an accomplishment, Kilimanjaro was something that no one can take away from them and the relationships and the allies they had from that climb would be allies that would be the only people in the world that would remember or know exactly what they went through for this subject. So it’s multi-layer I just built it in my mind and grew it from there.
What aspect of this project are you most proud of?
I’m most proud of the fact that at a certain point it took a life of its own. I think a lot of times you spend a lot of time creating something and your ego gets in the way. In this case my heart took precedent over my ego and at a certain moment you could see that this was no longer something specific that I created. It’s not something that lives only in me; the universe took it and the people involved united and became its heart and soul. When your on a mountain and you see Isabel Lucas talking to one of our reps. from Hewlett Packard, and she is from Australia and he’s from Switzerland, and she is speaking Swiss to him. When you see Jimmy Chin, our photographer speaking to Bernice Ang, who is from Singapore, to have each one of them speaking Cantonese, but then he is speaking Japanese to Lupe Fiasco. It was something beyond me at a certain point, something bigger than I could ever imagine it to be. It burst from conversations to scholastic, educational programs, and people on the climb feeling power when they didn’t realize that they had that power – they didn’t realize their currency. I’m here in Aspen and Sanigold just got here, we were talking and she’s like, “You know what, I was twittering and I didn’t realize but they made my twitters [during the climb] the twitters of the week on Spin.com, isn’t that crazy?” That kind of stuff, when it happened it took on a life of its own – that’s what I was most proud of because there was only so much I could do man. I can bring everybody together and put everybody in one place. I can get brands to spend money on something they’ve never done before. I can build marketing plans and social media plans, and I can affect all of those things, and all of that would seem like a great deal, and it is, but what came off the mountain – what came together when people connected finally, and how it affected everybody in such a way where they were champions for each other and champions for the world at the same time, and to have the largest group ever to reach the top of Kilimanjaro, 45 people, all of them summited, 100% of my team climbed and got to the top – is crazy. I could never have imagined it truly becoming what it did.
So that was the most people ever to do it in a single group?
Yup, 45. Bigger than David Breashear’s team who did the IMAX version of it. We are the first ever social media and digital ascent of any major mountain in the world. Because we were connected we had production tents and each one of us were working and literally sending tweets as well as blogs and we had our social media team in the States at our headquarters pushing this out to the world, as well as our PR teams pushing it out to the blogs, The Huffington Post, you name it, all this was happening across the world coming from the top of a mountain with satellites, and generators, and fricking everything you could imagine. It was happening and it was happening from the mountain.
For someone that hasn’t climbed a mountain like that, what is that experience like, how challenging is it in addition to doing all of these other things that you were doing?
Hell. (Laughter) Look, it was hell, I gotta tell you the mountain was not being kind. The mountain was like, you think you can get to the top of me with the size of your group, and you’re trampling all over my nature, and I’m going to give you a challenge. If you’re doing it for real reasons then you will make it anyway.
I picked a stubborn group first of all. They would never allow themselves not to get to the top of this mountain. To top off that, to have each other to back each other, and to have that conviction. Rain, sleet, hail, snow, the trek itself was brutal. You start at 10,000 feet, go to 13,000 and drop to 11,000. The next day up to 15,000, then down to 13,000, then back up to 15,000, back down to 13,000, and back up to 16,000. Then an 18 hour day starting at 1 A.M. to shoot up to 18,800, then straight after that from 18,800 to 19,300, and then down 6,000 feet after you just trekked up. They don’t tell you about the other half by the way, they don’t tell you. You get to the top and you’re like ‘yes’ we got to the top of the mountain, but how are we getting down? Same fucking way you got up there. I’m telling you, people thought that a helicopter was going to show up and it was like, nope we got to get back. That was the thing, you can have those moments where you go up to the top of the mountain, you go do something great for the world, you’ve accomplished something, you’ve helped people, you work at a food bank, you give money to a cause, you do x, y and z, you give the most money you’ve ever given to Haiti. You can do all of that stuff and it will mean something to those people in that time, and it is meaningful and it is powerful. It’s a mountain-top experience to be able to give, but you will have to come down and it’s just as brutal as getting up there. I had people at the top look at me, Jessica Biel said it best, we were at the top top at the peak and we were looking at each other and giving each other congratulations and I see her mouth the words, “I’m going to kill you”. It was like the most classic moment ever when she looked at me and mouthed “I’m going to kill you”. Now though it’s like we look at each other and we see each other – we’ve been friends for years now – and she and I have a different kind of respect for each other. It’s just innate in the experience.
What did you observe in terms of the relationship between your fellow climbers and the cause behind the climb through the experience and the effort to bring awareness to water relief?
It was the most unfathomable, brown, murky, mosquito infested…it was just unbelievable to see people and animals drinking and defecating from the same place with no concept of what it meant for their life.
Before we left for the climb we went to a village so we could experience what those people experience when they have literally no water or no clean water, and we also got a chance to show everybody on the climb, including myself, what the water sources were, where people were getting there water from. It was the most unfathomable, brown, murky, mosquito infested…it was just unbelievable to see people and animals drinking and defecating from the same place with no concept of what it meant for their life. To know that and see that, and to know that your journey is on behalf of that persons education, future, health, let alone the other billion plus people that suffer. It made it very real, it was an indelible image in the minds of everyone who climbed, even the people who already had experience in the subject. That in itself I think was a great deal of why people had such resolve to get to the top of the mountain. They knew my responsibility was to make sure the world saw it. They knew my responsibility was, to a great degree, everyones welfare and their health, and whether or not they got to the top.
The main thing about climbing is you have to be hydrated, the main thing about altitude sickness is hydration and acclimation. On the climb we had to clean our water everyday, so to see that happening in front of you every single day and having a little bit of concern whether or not it’s completely clean, and if that would actually keep you from getting to the top of the mountain, but beyond that maybe get you sick. All of these things played into the everyday mindset of what somebody in a developing nation is going through. The mountain itself is the great equalizer and it stands there as a representation of climate change and of the glacier melting. The fact that people below rely on the water that comes from the glacier…it was a very 360 complete concept for water where we were. Everything mattered.