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?
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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.