People like you are needed on this continent to take us to where we should be. Keep it up man!
If I have to describe Derrick Ashong in one word, it would be inspiring. He is intelligent, passionate, and driven to make a positive difference. Derrick was born in Accra, Ghana and currently lives in the United States. This Renaissance man is the leader of a band called Soulfege. He and the band recently completed the production of a new album, Afropolitan, due to be released this summer. He is also a radio host on SIRIUS XM's Oprah Radio (satellite radio) and is working on a new television show that will air on Al Jazeera, titled "The Stream." Through his music and everything else he does, Derrick encourages us to be creative and express ourselves boldly.
RK: Derrick, how would you describe your music?
DA: We explore different genres and different styles. Our music is rooted in traditional African music and it is cosmopolitan. That's why we called the new album Afropolitan. Most of the music that people listen to in the West is profoundly influenced by African music. If you trace the ethnology of that music, whether you're listening to hip hop, rock, funk, country, soul, or gospel, I can trace the roots back to African music. The music of Soulfege expresses an expansive vision of a global African identity. You'll hear elements of hip hop, reggae, highlife, soul and gospel. It's mixed with different sounds, just like we as a people are.
RK: You use your music as a tool to raise awareness and empower the youth. Tell us about it.
DA: Basically, empowerment is the principle that underpins a lot of what I do. How do we empower the new generation to look at themselves through new eyes, to shift the way that they perceive their own power and hopefully leverage their creative spirit and available technology to begin creating the societies and opportunities they would like to see?
I'll give you an example of how I do this. A few years ago, I got really frustrated with the way that Africa was being depicted in the international media. Every time you turned on the television, there was something negative - death, war, destruction, corruption, HIV, violence, some sort of political drama. They find the most negative images of Africa and they use it and extrapolate from it to define who we are as a people. You can say that corruption, HIV, malaria, and poverty are all real problems, but they are not the totality of our story.
So rather than start a protest or write a letter to the editor or do something to say I don't like how you reflect and represent me, I took a team of peers to Accra - musicians, film makers, teachers and social activists. We got together and made a music video, a remake of a West African classic, "Sweet Mother." We went and filmed what was going on in the streets of Accra. We went to the market, to the beach, into the schools and generally into our world. We showed everyday people in Africa living their lives and we put it all together as a music video and we released it. Within four months, that video was showing in over 50 countries on both sides of the Atlantic. The BBC World Service and MC Africa featured us. We also got coverage in the United States.
And it was a very powerful lesson because, again, if I had decided I am going to write a letter to the editor and say I don't like the way you talk about Africa, nothing would have happened. But because I used my own voice and my own creativity to depict my homeland of Accra in the way that I see it, to depict us as we see ourselves, people embraced it. They hadn't seen that kind of Africa before. They didn't realize that it can feel that way and they loved it! Ultimately, what we need to realize is that no one is going to tell our story for us. No one is going to tell it better than we can if we're willing to teach and equip ourselves and have the motivation to tell our own story. No one will respect or understand who you are and where you're coming from until you exercise your power to show them the value that is in you.
RK: Mahatma Gandhi said, "Be the change you wish to see in the world." Talk to us about this teaching.
DA: Most of us sit around hoping for the world to become better. But the reality is, the world is us. There is a song by John Mayer called "Waiting on the World to Change." I think it's a beautiful song but I don't agree with the message. I don't think we should be waiting on the world to change. I think the world is waiting for us to change. To the degree that we are willing to change and to the degree we are willing to create the kind of world we want to live in, is the degree to which we will or will not see change. We have the opportunity to literally go out there and be the change we want to see. Get up and be a part of creating the world you want to live in. I change the world every day. Every time I write a song, a poem or do some kind of creative piece, I am contributing to the creation of the world as it could be. We take what we have and we use it to create something new. I try to encourage people through my work and my artistry to also try to have an impact in whatever capacity they can in their world.
RK: We learn a lot about ourselves when we engage in the issues that we are passionate about. Tell me about a certain quality that you identified in yourself that surprised you?
DA: A few years ago I was working on a project and I was faced with a lot of challenges and I was getting very discouraged. I talked to my father about it and he said to me, "One of the things that I admire about you is your perseverance. You never give up. No matter what happens, you always carry on and are willing to try and try again." I was very touched and very encouraged by that. I didn't think of myself that way. I've never said to myself, "I'm so great, I'll never give up, I'll never stop." When I'm dealing with a certain problem, I'm always thinking about what if I do this and try that and what about this. What I realized when my father synthesized it for me is that that is the essence of perseverance. You always try to find a way. It's not that you never fail or you're never disappointed. It's that you always keep seeing possibilities. So I would say it is the sense of perseverance and sense of willingness to go the extra mile to keep working and to believe - to believe in myself and in the issues that I care about, irrespective of the fact that people around me agree or not. And that can be difficult sometimes. Part of it is about surrounding yourself with people who will encourage and help lift you up in good times and bad, rather than bring you down. A lot of people hang out with folks who will cut down their dreams and I don't tolerate that. I don't have any people like that in my life.
RK: Derrick, thank you so much for taking time to talk with us.
DA: Thank you for the work that you do. I truly and honestly believe that our generation is going to see a wonderful shift in Africa. It's already happening, though the world has not come to be aware of it yet. I think that our best days are yet to come and I think we will be part of ushering in those days and I'm honored to be part of that with you.