Nile Rodgers’ We Are Family Foundation will honor The Who’s Roger Daltrey and legendary rapper LL Cool J at its Celebration Gala tonight, held at New York’s Hammerstein Ballroom. And while Rodgers and his long-running band Chic are completely jazzed to perform with the two honorees, he’s perhaps more excited to hear from the evening’s other guests, students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., where 17 died in a mass shooting on Feb. 14.

“I want to hear what they have to say, because it’s given me a huge amount of hope to hear these voices,” he tells Variety. “I want to hear from the youth perspective. These are kids who have grown up with only two presidents: one who’s bright, level-headed, African-American and a gentleman, and the other one is like ‘Hey look at little Rocket Man [North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un] over there!” That’s what they’ve grown up with: two opposite sides of the spectrum. They’ve only seen these two guys. So it’s given me a huge amount of hope, because I had started to become somewhat disillusioned — which is why we started the organization in the first place.”

Rodgers founded We Are Family — which “creates and supports programs that promote cultural diversity while nurturing the vision, talents and ideas of young people who are  positively changing the world” — in 2001, in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks on New York City.

“Three of my [friends] were in the first plane that crashed into the [World Trade Center’s] North Tower,” he says. “Obviously that was heartbreaking, and people said that I should do something to help jump-start the healing process. Every time I looked at the news, it was always tragic, horrible stuff — so I thought, ‘I started out [his musical career] at ‘Sesame Street,’ so I went to them and said, ‘Hey, I’ll give you one of my biggest copyrights — let’s collaborate.’ They loved the idea of having a song as happy as ‘We Are Family’ so that kids would see all the puppets and characters from different universes cooperating.

“But these things have very fast cycles,” he sighed. “New York had this healing, idyllic, Woodstock vibe for a few weeks — and then it was back to its old self.” Which is where the foundation started.

“It’s our annual fundraiser so we try to make it as fun as possible,” he says. “There’s a message but we try to raise money for the programs. One of them is ‘Three Dot Dash,’ which is our sort of bedrock of our org, that’s where we bring in kids for a year-long mentoring program with some pretty powerful CEOs who can help them sustain projects that they’re already working on. Like our last group of kids, just a few weeks ago, were coders with high-tech projects and they were all about sustainability: we had a kid who could said he could fire up a power grid to light up a whole city. In my opening speech I said, “If this were after the apocalypse, these people in this room would survive!”

For more information, see wearefamilyfoundation.org.

 

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