Image Credit: @peopleofilluminate
When all else fails, music prevails. It connects us emotionally to be more in tune with who we are and those around us. Specifically, it unites us together at concerts, where we leave our worries and anxiety at the door and are morphed into the sea of flashing lights and booming sounds. 17-year-old Frida Nilsson and 18-year-old Sydney Heigh created a project to give fans a platform to tell their stories of how music helped them in their time of need and made them feel loved in a world bent on hate.
Their project, People of Illuminate, (named after Shawn Mendes’s sophomore album “Illuminate”) brings together millions of his fans and showcases their authentic experiences with his music. The emotionally vibrant project pulls fans together from all over the world — including the owners with Nilsson hailing from Sweden and Heigh hailing from Canada.
So what exactly is People of Illuminate? How would you describe it to someone not in the fandom?
Frida Nilsson: The general idea of the project is to put a story behind the faces in the crowd. I had been drafting the idea for several months, but never had the time to really get it going until a few weeks ago, which is when I also asked Sydney if she wanted to help out. To me, People of Illuminate is a virtual story book, where we give fans who might normally not get the chance to share their story with a lot of people, to do exactly that. I wanted to give the fan community a platform where we can celebrate our differences, and use them to understand each other better. In the current state of the world, where different religious and political opinions tear groups apart, I wanted to use the common denominator of music to highlight how our differences don’t have to do that at all.
Sydney Heigh: When Shawn looked out into a crowd of 20,000 on his arena world tour, it’s obviously hard to see those 20,000 people as individuals. The truth of it is that each person in there has a unique background and story about how his music has affected their life. We want to be able to show him a few of those individual stories, to be able to give him a glimpse into our lives and how his voice has affected us.
FN: It was inspired by the Humans of New York project. I always felt like that sort of format would work extremely well in a concert setting. It’s so easy to sit in an arena and look around and only see flashes of light from people’s phone, but if you really sit down and think about it, every person came there that night for a different reason. Some people may have gotten tickets the day before, some people may have counted down the hours until the show for a year. I have always found beauty in the idea of us all forgetting about our colliding opinions and differences for a few hours, to collectively enjoy the same music and the same artist.
So how exactly does People of Illuminate work? What’s the process of it like?
FN: We have a Google sign-up form where people can write their show date, what camera they have, and other basic information we may ask for. Then, a few days before their show date, we will send them an email with a pretty long and descriptive letter that tells them exactly what to do. It includes consent forms, suggested and required questions, picture guidelines and much more. As someone who applies, you become an interviewer. As an interviewer, you get to automatically send in your own story, and then you get the opportunity to go up to strangers during their show date and interview them. The people being interviewed are told about the scope of the project, followed by consent guidelines, and then asked a few questions, followed by getting their picture taken. The interviewer then typically sends us all of this information after the show, which we then post on our Instagram! We want to make sure it’s focused on the individual; this project is for fans to highlight fans. We do, however, want to make sure the connection to Shawn is somehow always included. Now that there’s a break in between the European leg, we’re planning on posting stories from people whose shows passed before the project started.
People of Illuminate is a really smart thing to do that showcases how everyone comes together for music. And that’s definitely something Shawn would stand for. How do you both feel about seeing the positive and popular feedback?
FN: I think it’s been absolutely incredible so far! It’s always incredible to get positive feedback on something you put a lot of time and effort into, especially if it’s a project that you hold close to your heart. It’s really helpful that a lot of people want to help out, but it can of course, also be a little overwhelming. We wouldn’t want anyone to be or feel left out, but realistically, it’s nearly impossible to post everyone’s story. It’s been so nice to do it with Sydney too, I wouldn’t want to do it with anyone else.
SH: The feedback we’re receiving is amazing. It’s something that we thought could really unite us all together and give us a greater appreciation of each other, and we are ecstatic to see how eager everyone is to participate, and how encouraging and loving the fans have been to the individuals whose stories we’ve posted. Shawn promotes positivity and makes sure his concerts give a sense of safety and unity, which we feel we have incorporated into our project.
What do you hope to get out of this project?
FN: I really want to contribute to one of the closest fan communities out there right now. I want people who share their stories to feel confident and give them an opportunity to open up and explain how music is intertwined with their life: why they have that scar on their forehead, or why they want to pursue a career in cooking. I hope that the people who read the stories feel inspired and touched, and I hope some may even find other people with similar stories they can relate to and bond over. It may sound dramatic, but I want it to change people’s mindset — a more open-minded community is, in my opinion, the solution to any sort of conflict on this earth. If we can understand and appreciate each individual a little more, the community will only be stronger and more connected. If spending a couple of hours a day on a simple project like this can change even just one person’s day, week, or year, I will do it, and I will do it with my entire heart.
So you guys are giving the fans a platform to share their stories? I think that’s so beautiful.
FN: Exactly! Regardless of who they are and where they’re from.
So what are your stories?
FN: Music was always very present in my life from an early age. My mom grew up camping outside of venues for ABBA tickets, joining an ABBA fan club, and being front row for David Bowie. My dad had a band when he was little, and bought me a guitar on my tenth birthday. My parents would blast all sorts of genres throughout my yellow house, and I would come in late at night complaining to them how I couldn’t sleep because the songs kept playing in my head. However, I didn’t realize the importance of music until I had to move across the globe. I grew up with a plan of what my life would be. I’m a small town girl, from outside Goteborg, which is on the west coast of Sweden. I’d finish school in the small town and then work in the ‘big city.’ Instead of that, I moved to vastly different Tokyo, Japan for two years at age 11, and then to Lyon, France for two years as well, before I moved back to Sweden at age 16. In 2013 during the midst of my expatriate adventure, I discovered Shawn and this community. I instantly felt a sense of home and belonging that I had not had since I was very, very little. It sounds really dramatic, but I can’t identify myself with one house, one culture, or one country anymore; it’s always changing. Music is the only constant I have; I can’t go a day without listening to it. It’s the only thing that isn’t materialistic and won’t leave. My friends move around like me, so they’re all scattered across the world. I have been left with a lot of lonely moments and with weak friendships (because I sometimes feel there isn’t any point of starting one since one of us will eventually leave). I consider myself a citizen of the world, and I wouldn’t change that for anything. It can be difficult at times, but I know I’ll be okay as long as I remember I have this community and this music to lean on.
SH: My love for sound and music started at an early age. Some of my earliest memories as a child are listening to cassette tapes with my mom and dad. Every road trip we took through the British Colombian mountains wouldn’t have been complete without my four-year-old voice screaming lyrics to her favorite songs from the back seat. I grew up in Canada, but I’ve always dreamed of traveling the world. My first concert was in 2005 when I was 6 years old. Hilary Duff captured my heart and inspired me to always chase my love of music. Fast forward to 2015 when I fell in love with Shawn (a little late I know). He holds the most special place in my heart. I started traveling the world to see him perform, and each time I heard the passion in his voice, I fell deeper. Through my admiration for Shawn and his music, I’ve met the most incredible people in the world. They’ve changed my life by showing me how to love deeper and stronger. I am a happier, more confident, and more beautiful person because of music. The song I hold closest to my heart is Understand. Music is one of the very rare things in life that can bring people together, in a way that words cannot describe, but we can only feel.
This is such a strong and emotional project, in my opinion, and I want to know, what would you both like to say to the fans that have ever felt alone?
FN: That’s a really tough question because people deal with loneliness in different ways, but my solution has always been music. Expand your library, listen to new artists and more songs, because I strongly believe there is at least one to explain every emotion you feel. Lock yourself in your room and put your headphones on, or blast it in the shower, but allow yourself to feel the music and the emotions it portrays. It’s so cliche to say, but I believe that music is proof that you are never alone. Every lyric comes from an experience and from a real individual (even if they are an A-list celebrity). Reach out to the fan community and don’t be afraid to talk to new people; we’re all here for the same artist and the same music, giving you a great conversation starter! Another thing to always remember is that no feeling is forever, there is a new chance at happiness and change at every sunrise, and as we all know, every sunrise is different.
If Shawn saw your project, or this article, what would you like to say to him?
FN: That he rocks my socks off and that I hope reading through our stories allows him to step back sometimes and realize the bigger picture of what his love and passion for music can do and has done for other people.
SH: I would want Shawn to know how much his music and voice has changed my life, and given me amazing friendships worldwide.
FN: Can I add something? I wish to say to him just a big, fat, over emotional THANK YOU for literally everything and because he’s the best.
Have you both seen Shawn or met him?
FN: Yes, I’ve been very lucky to have met him several times.
SH: Yes, I’ve seen and met him multiple times.
What’s it like to see your idol, someone whose music has helped you, live?
FN: It’s such an important part of truly appreciating the music because you get to experience it in such a different way. I’ve seen him live for the past three years and my heart still beats at the same speed every time. He never fails to impress or move me with his music, even more so when it’s live and in front of me. Seeing your favorite artist live only comes around a few times and all the effort I put into traveling only adds to the happiness and experience. Whether it’s in a small room or a stadium, he makes you feel something.
SH: It’s truly an unreal feeling. In that moment, it feels as though everything in your life is going to be okay. He’s given me so much to live for and he makes me so, so happy. To see him live, performing songs which have given me the motivation to get through my hardest days, is the best feeling in the entire world. I hope everyone can have a chance to experience it.
Do you think other fandoms should do this?
SH: Without a doubt. It’s a really good way to find a greater appreciation for other fans.
Do you believe that this project will, if not already, bring the fandom closer? And how so?
FN: I strongly believe, or at least hope, it will! It’s a very personal project that allows us to see how music is important to one another in a lot of different ways.
SH: Yes, after realizing what some of my fellow Shawn fans have gone through, it gave me a greater appreciation for them and brought us closer together. I also believe that being a part of the creation of this project has brought Frida and me closer together. It’s neat because we were close before, but now, after we’ve helped spread so much love to so many fans, we’re like best friends. It’s really special and it’s insane how the same love of music can bring all these people together.
FN: Yes to what Sydney said. Like I mentioned before, it’ll also allow people to relate to each and find other with similar stories, and since we share the social media handles of each person who presents a story, they (the fans) can contact each other and bam! Friendships will be born.
Congrats to you both for creating something that’s so positive and strong like this! This is a project that showcases love and that’s something that we all could use.
This is such a beautiful and emotional project. I firmly believe People of Illuminate will become even more amazing than it already is over time. With so much going on in the world, and even in the world of fandoms, it’s safe to say that all we need now more than ever is love. This project has brought so much love, joy, and compassion into a fandom. It’s an emotional project that reminds us all why we’re here: for the love of music. And in the world of music, no one is above or below; we are all equal, and we are all one.
Disclaimer: answers have been slightly edited.