Jet Puffed Philanthropy: a Focused Look at Marshmello's Charity Work of 2016

              The dusk that inevitably begins to descend upon the city of Miami is signaled by the exaggerated glow of the fireworks that shoot eagerly from their perches behind Main Stage, hustling to explode in Technicolor brilliance in sync with the beat drop. In a burst of sound, beats per minute rivaling the speed with which the fireworks hustle to their loud end, the fireworks lay claim to a sharpness and a luminescence dependent upon the temporal—a radiance that only becomes truly visible during evening hours in Bayfront Park. The scene is Ultra Music Festival, downtown Miami’s eighteen-year long resident that visits for three days each March in a whirlwind of pyrotechnics and sound checks, departing only to revisit the Sunshine State the next year, flanked by EDM enthusiasts, Floridians, and international attendees alike. Heralded as the premiere EDM festival to visit of those currently in production—the festival boasts the most “diverse” electronic talent of any festival, rivaling even the likes of Belgium’s larger scale electronic festival, Tomorrowland—Ultra yearly attracts those deeply immersed in the culture of electronic dance music, those curious about it, and those about to stumble upon an affinity for electronic music previously realized. For those who may allot a steep four-hundred dollars to the festival ticket, Ultra is its own electronic rite of passage for the familiar, a unique electronic initiation for the inexperienced. 

            It is March 19, 2016. 165,000 festival goers are divided among the festival’s eight, massive stages, structures that defy expectation, marvels of creativity and architecture. Equipped with jet engines capable of spitting flames at a range of fifty feet into the air before the crowd, and constellations of thousands of LED patterns that generate magnificent light, perhaps the most powerful statement made on an Ultra stage is that of utter silence.

            As adrenaline courses with ecstatic fury through the veins of attendees, bathed in sweat, toting Camelbaks to combat hydration and waiting with focused anticipation, the Worldwide stage is quiet, its lights dimmed, its speakers at a rare, but blissful rest. The inactivity signals the transition from one DJ to the next, a swift, one to two-minute affair. The murmur of voices sails above the crowd, coming to an abrupt hush the second a figure steps onto the platform before the sea of people, rising to the mixer board. A single beat drops with a crash that ricochets off of the metal floor of the stage, its impact traveling through the shoes and up the legs of those gathered before the stage; the announcement to the crowd has been given, the next set is to begin.

            An anonymous silhouette clad in white jeans and a white long sleeved shirt faces the crowd, thrusts his arm high in the air, his expression a black, permanent friendly smile etched into the white helmet he sports. From the two identical and symmetrical black x’s that serve as eyes, he gazes upon the crowd. His name is Marshmello.

A glance upon the Ultra 2016 lineup will render Marshmello’s name almost imperceptible; it is only filed directly under the bold typeface headliners, under the category of “Support,” and sandwiched, smore-style, between “Lee Foss” and “The Martinez Brothers,” that one will find the curvy outline of his signature, marshmallow logo. It is one that due to its size—small—and its location—understated—requires a magnifying glass, or in more modern terms, the zoom function on a phone or laptop in order to be seen. The obscure placement of the DJ’s name on the Ultra lineup, where Marshmello attracted a crowd of thousands to watch the DJ—known mostly from his self produced and published remixes of popular Major Lazer and Zedd tracks—spin a set that would later garner over 4.6 million views when released to the public on the popular, cloud based music streaming website, SoundCloud. On the Worldwide stage of Ultra 2016, Marshmello delivered a set that would, much like the stage name, propel him to ascend to “worldwide” musical notoriety.

            His name no longer minimized on phase announcements under the category of “Support,” but rather printed in the boldface type of a headliner at the very top of a lineup, Marshmello swiftly became a fixture of the electronic dance music genre and its vibrant community. The two black x’s for eyes and the wide smile that marked the face of the DJ’s helmet were quickly appropriated by ravers, drawn imperfectly with black paint or Sharpie onto white t-shirts to be worn as a symbol of fandom at electronic shows. Those sporting the distinct, friendly face on clothing or on handmade perler pieces identified themselves without the need of speech as members of Marshmello’s “mellogang.” A name given to Marshmello listeners by the DJ himself, the “mellogang” emerged as a subgroup within the electronic dance music community centered around unity, respect, and positivity, qualities that many ravers consider(ed) to be lost, or at least diminished in the community since EDM’s ascendency to mainstream musical popularity. Using social media websites like Instagram and Twitter to encourage the enactment of the “mellogang” movement among ravers, on June 12, 2016, Marshmello tweeted “Anytime you see another mellogang member you should go up to them and introduce yourselves and become friends. Imagine if we all did that.” With a current 240k followers on Twitter alone, Marshmello’s tweets promoting solidarity among his fans through a shared love for music reached a broad audience, and his vision of a fandom bound by kindness and approachability grew increasingly realistic. The concept of “PLUR”—an acronym for “peace, love, unity, and respect,” the ideals upon which the electronic dance music was originally built—looked to Marshmello to inspire its rebirth, essentially finding its rebranding in the form of this “mellogang.”

            As the “mellogang” expanded, likewise did the curiosity that surrounded Marshmello’s “real” identity; who was the man beneath the white helmet who had already amassed such a large following, despite his relative newness to the genre? In a nod to the prevalent and perhaps even overwhelming speculation as to his identity, with tabloids and electronic music websites proposing the DJ to be American DJ, Chris Comstock—“Dotcom”— reincarnate, Marshmello’s post Ultra sets traded the singular, heavy beat drop that trumpeted the beginning of the set for a cacophony of layered voices, each asking the question “who is Marshmello?” When the voices quiet, the tagline of Marshmello’s “Kknow Me”—a song off his 2016 Joytime album— “everybody know me” loops and builds into a magnificent beat drop. The repetition of the lyric “everybody know me” in response to the recorded series of the “who is Marshmello?” questions that announce the opening of the set is not only comical in sequence, but correct. The world of EDM had been irrevocably captivated by a larger than life jet-puffed, personified marshmallow whose identity was and is arguably the least intriguing aspect of the DJ’s presence.

            Marshmello’s relative lack of concern for the fame to be garnered—inferred by his silence when prompted to supply a full name to which his immense musical success could be concretely attributed—was refreshing in a genre where millions of eyes were annually trained on the announcement of the “#1 DJ in the world,” an honor held by the likes of electro house DJ and 2014 title winner, Hardwell, and electro house DJs and 2015 title winners, Dimitri Vegas and Like Mike. To revel in hard earned success, enjoying the material fruits of that success would be easy—not to mention deserved—but Marshmello did not have a taste for what was merely easy. The DJ did not remain comfortable or complacent in his fast paced path to electronic achievement, but instead redirected his efforts to charity work, seeking to use the fame he had gained to lend awareness to a cause designed to benefit children in the Los Angeles area.

           Through a collaboration with the Toy Lending Library in LA, Marshmello hosted a meet and greet for fans, and donated several thousands of dollars worth of new toys to the charity. The Toy Lending Library is a free community based service that functions much like a library: children are allowed to borrow the toys owned by the lending library just as they would borrow books from a public library. Participants may borrow toys once a week, as defined by the Toy Lending Library’s website (http://www.ladpss.org/dpss/toyloan/). Toys must be returned “on time and undamaged,” a system intended to instill a sense of responsibility within the children, and to offer an incentive to demonstrate mindful behavior. The lending library is a “voluntary community effort” that has been in operation for several years, where donations are of considerable help to the organization being that it is a voluntary effort. A video posted on the DJ’s Instagram account on September 27 shows the DJ high-fiving children and distributing toys at the event. The wide smile that distinguishes the DJ’s face is mirrored by the children receiving the toys; the joy is almost palpable.

            Marshmello’s partnership with the Toy Lending Library of LA was made possible by his partnership with the EDM streetwear company, Electric Family. A means of supporting dance music “through fashion,” the founders of Electric Family found their inspiration for the creation of the company after attending Ultra Music Festival in March of 2012. Deeply involved in the dance music community, the founders desired to unite fellow listeners of the music in order to engender a larger impact on communities “worldwide.” Convinced that a tasteful “symbol”—which would allow fellow dance music fans to recognize each other outside of the electronic shows and festivals to where they would flock—was the step necessary to begin this worldwide community impact, the founders agreed that a bracelet would be the ideal product to first design. But in order to kick off bracelet production, the founders would first have to find a prominent artist/DJ with whom to collaborate, a task that would not be without its hardships, as many artists/DJs are reluctant to work with a brand in the midst of its establishment.

            In the spring of 2013, Electric Family found a willing party in the form of Canadian electronic DJs, Adventure Club. The artist/DJ logo bracelets were introduced and sold accordingly. Electric Family has since partnered with German DJ, Zedd, and Marshmello in the production of bracelets and other logo branded apparel. Electric Family donates a portion of the proceeds from Marshmello logo branded products like their “Limited Edition Marshmello Bomber Jacket” to the charities of the city of Los Angeles.

            Electric Family operates under the observance of “social consciousness,” as defined by their website as “the recognition and realization that we are all connected.” To the founders of Electric Family, to be socially conscious is to “follow the Golden Rule at all times with people, business, [and] nature.” Electric Family notes that their wish is for humans to be “more humane, and work cooperatively as a unit rather than as separate pieces,” an aspiration reminiscent of PLUR, and of the goal of Marshmello’s “mellogang.” 

            As Marshmello hands a child a wrapped toy in the video from the LA Toy Lending Library event posted to his Instagram, (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=poSvCiy9_dA) the voice of one of Electric Family’s founders imparts “It’s in the DNA of our culture [electronic dance music culture] to give back to the community. Today we are fortunate enough to be able to partner with Marshmello. All the credit goes to him because he’s the one who wanted to give back to the kids.” The camera pans to children embracing the friendly marshmallow character, while the founder offers his final remark: “I’m hoping that Marshmello will set the example for other artists in the community to get more active.”

             Amidst the glitter of the fireworks, and the buzz of the millions of fans that gather across the world, likened by a commonality of passion for electronic dance music if by no other, there is a life of unimaginable depth and sensibility to electronic dance music. Beneath the radiant mirage of stage effect, there is a community inherent to the culture of dance music rich in empathy and humanity, dependent upon a “social consciousness” that has always smoldered within the chests of those dancing in synchronization to the same beat. Marshmello thrusts himself into the open, hot flame of EDM to reignite and reinspire the culture of dance music in a brilliant blaze, and from the ashes, like a phoenix, the culture rises, its heart and integrity a wildfire, inversely lit by a Marshmello.