Photo: Chris Michel
James Higa Talks MusiCares, Concert For Recovery, Steve Jobs & Philanthropy
As executive director for Philanthropic Ventures Foundation, James Higa brings a sharp intellect, generous heart and an eye for philanthropy to his position as Secretary/Treasurer of the MusiCares Board of Directors, the group that helps chart the future course for the Recording Academy's health and human services charity.
A "Cardinal," Higa studied political science at Stanford University. It was at Stanford where he learned the importance of "a huge dose of humility," among other life lessons that came into focus.
"I learned pretty quickly that there are a lot of much smarter people in the world and a lot of things you don't know, so ask for help," says Higa, who added that photography is how he paid his way through school, specifically sports and product photography.
"Stanford was an amazingly interdisciplinary environment. I was able to seamlessly intermingle not just with students in my major but with computer programmers, electrical engineers, biochemists, philosophers, and the like. I learned that innovation happens at the edge of unreasonableness and that you must have the curiosity to venture forth to the outer edges beyond your areas of interests and poke around."
This educational experience proved to be the perfect building ground for Higa's work with Apple. He first joined the innovative company in the mid-'80s, playing a key role in setting up its business in Japan. Higa departed in 1989 to join Steve Jobs' second computer company, NeXT, only to return to Apple in 2001 — the same year the groundbreaking iPod was unveiled.
"I would describe my role [at Apple] as 'Special Ops,'" says Higa. "I think of it as the lone scout out in the wilderness looking for the Northwest Passage. When I do find a passage like iTunes, for example, the railroad and the towns come in and entire cities get built. I don't care for towns so I move on to the next wilderness."
It was during his sophomore turn at Apple when Higa "scouted" the work of MusiCares.
"I had gotten to know the vital services of MusiCares through my work in launching iTunes at Apple," he says. "MusiCares is such an important part of the fabric of the music industry that you can't help but hear about it. [Deputy General Counsel for the Recording Academy] Bobby Rosenbloum at the fabled entertainment law practice Greenberg Traurig reached out to me about serving on the board."
A true music lover with unabashed tastes ranging from Eminem, Rimi Natsukawa and Louis Armstrong to Ellie Goulding, Andra Day and Beethoven, Higa is steadfast in his belief that MusiCares is a vital component of the music industry.
"Music is what makes us human. We had music when the first cave women stepped out of the darkness and started pounding on a log. We will have music 300 years from now when we have colonized Mars," says Higa. "We have to support the artists, creators, and all people in the industry that bring forth music into the world.
"I firmly believe that the safety net of critical assistance for music people in their times of need and human services that MusiCares provide that directly impact the welfare of our community is essential to keeping the spirit of music vibrant and alive."
While the lifeblood of MusiCares flows through its dedicated staff team and elected leadership, Higa is quick to praise the artist community for their selfless support and programs such as the House Concert series as evidence of win-wins for the organization.
"Many of our Board members help plan and put on private House Concerts that benefit MusiCares," says Higa. "You can enjoy the performance of an artist who generously donates their time in a very intimate setting like someone's home with the proceeds going to benefit our programs. Sheryl Crow and Ed Sheeran, as examples, have recently performed at a House Concert."
Through his service, Higa has gained a front-row view into how MusiCares helps to positively transform clients' lives. One particularly riveting story comes to mind when asked about an example.
"A friend of Brett's called MusiCares a few years before Brett had the strength to do so himself," recalls Higa. "He was struggling with a devastating heroin addiction and most of his friends and family had given up on him. He lost his publishing deal and was close to living on the streets. He contacted his friend, asking for MusiCares number.
"MusiCares got Brett into treatment immediately and Brett attended MusiCares weekly aftercare groups after he completed his inpatient stay. Brett has now been sober for over 10 years and he recently celebrated his second number one hit over the course of a year."
In addition to helping clients and on-the-road staples such as the Safe Harbor Room program, Higa is especially proud of how the organization is quick to help the music community rebound from dire tragedies.
"This past year was sadly one full of devastating disasters," he says. "We mobilized quickly to provide support to members of the music community affected by the wildfires in Northern and Southern California as well as establish a relief fund to support those affected by the devastation of the recent hurricanes. We also extended our services to offer trauma support for those affected by the tragic Las Vegas shooting."
"I learned that innovation happens at the edge of unreasonableness and that you must have the curiosity to venture forth to the outer edges beyond your areas of interests and poke around." — James Higa
Coming up, Higa has the Concert For Recovery in May circled on his calendar. He's looking forward to the event that will raise more funds for MusiCares' addiction recovery services while recognizing Pearl Jam's Mike McCready with the Stevie Ray Vaughan Award. And don't forget the performances.
"We want to raise the awareness, as Mike says best, that, 'Recovery is a journey that you take each day,' and that 'we can come together to help those in need,'" says Higa. "There will be amazing performances by Barrett Martin, Guns N' Roses' Duff McKagan and Slash, Mike Ness, Red Hot Chili Peppers' Chad Smith, and Nancy Wilson of Heart fame — thanks to our Board member Steve Boom and Amazon Music's generous sponsorship."
Speaking of generosity, Higa left Apple in 2012 to helm Philanthropic Ventures Foundation. The Oakland-based foundation shares a like-minded give-back approach in acting as "a model for the philanthropic community, demonstrating new concepts in giving and disseminating this information to colleagues across the country and abroad."
"We practice seed stage philanthropy," says Higa. "We want to be the first to find and the first to fund innovative ideas and inspiring leaders in our communities. Find 'em and fund 'em as we like to say. It could be hunger, safety net, education, etc. — we are not constrained by the 'space' you are in."
Interestingly, the foundation's grant cycle is certainly not limited to typical lengthy periods, as Higa points out it "is an unheard of anti-bureaucratic average of 48 hours."
Higa's current focus on his work with PVF and his service to MusiCares is bound by the unmistakable power of his yes-we-can philosophy. He has a special mentor from his time with Apple to thank for helping to instill this belief system.
"Steve Jobs — we'll not see the likes of him for a millennium. He showed me that great teams can push against the universe and make a dent. With clarity, vision, focus, and relentless execution, you can go where all others say 'no', and bring a 'yes' into being."