The Derrick Ashong Exclusive | Ghanaian Soulfege Act Speaks on Music, Harvard, Hollywood and more
Derrick Ashong is the Ghanaian-born leader of music band, Soulfege who you probably even know from his days as host of popular show, The Stream on the even more popular Al-Jazeera TV Network, or from his acting in the hit flick, Armistad.
How superhuman is Derrick and what exactly is the One Million Downloads Campaign about? Discover in this interview with Eromo Egbejule.
Studying at Harvard, how was the experience? How has it caused you to evolve?
I had a great experience at Harvard. I met some of my best friends there including Jonathan, with whom I started Soulfège. One of the biggest impacts it had, was helping me understand that I could work and compete with the best of the best if I put in the time and effort to develop my own skills. That lesson has helped me in virtually every aspect of my life.
You've worked with Steven Spielberg in Armistad, you've been host of Al-Jazeera's The Stream and you're leader of Soulfège. How do you manage to combine all that you are?
In a way it's not as hard as it sounds. People have a tendency to put each other in "boxes." For example, you're a scientist so you must not be very artistic. But the reality is people are much more complex and multifaceted. An astrophysicist may also be an avid concert pianist. A romance novelist may also love mountain-climbing. My primary passion is findingpowerful ways to communicate ideas to people, whether that be through film, TV, music or social media. For me these are just different tools for accomplishing the same goal.
You've some Ghanaian ancestry and I've seen the cool video for The Soulfège remix of the classic Nigerian hit, Sweet Mother. How do you manage to combine contemporary Western music with your African roots to make relevant music?
I was born in Accra, so Ghanaian music has also been a huge part of my life. I grew up with Prince Nico Mbarga's classic "Sweet Mother," but also with other Nigerian sounds like those of King Sunny Ade and of course Fela Kuti, in addition to Caribbean artists like Bob Marley and Jimmy Cliff. In my music, I combine the sounds I heard growing up in Brooklyn, NY and at international schools in Saudi Arabia and Qatar, with those African and Caribbean influences of my childhood. So when people hear our music it has a global feeling to it - it sounds both unique and familiar at the same time.
What kind of music would you say you do?
I'd say it's an "Afropolitan" sound. We sometimes describe it as Bob Marley jammin' w/ The Fugees on a street corner in West Africa.
How would you say it affects society?
It affects society on a couple of levels. First, when people hear what we're doing it pushes the envelope of what is expected of young Black males. Our music is not about thuggery or gangsterism, disrespecting women or destroying our own communities. It is fun & intelligent, it's thoughtful & sometimes smart-ass without taking itself too seriously. Our goal is to paint a musical picture that can take the listener on their own individual journey.
The second societal impact, relates to the kind of things we sing about. We talk a lot about justice, freedom, and overcoming struggle. We believe that ordinary people can live extraordinary lives, and so our music embraces a certain measure of inspiration, whether in a song like "Love Rain Down" that talks about a little boy standing up to the devil, or "Another Day" that challenges the corruption of our politicians.
Soulfège is all about...
Making music that moves you - mind, body & spirit.
Talk about the One Million Downloads campaign. What do you hope to achieve with the campaign?
The Million Download Campaign (MDC) is all about using the power of people & technology to share music and in so doing empower artists & fans. Our goal is to give away a million free downloads of trax & remixes from the album "AFropolitan" by Christmas 2012. Most people don't realize that over 90% of mainstream artists never make money from record sales. The MDC acknowledges this & enables audiences to do what comes naturally, share the music they love, and in so doing become a crucial part of the promotion and success of artists they believe in.
How smoothly or not-so-smoothly are things going?
The campaign has yielded over 50K downloads since its launch in January. We've had songs downloaded from over 50 countries and blogs translated into 10 different languages. Our next step is to reach out to new audiences & we're particularly encouraging our friends and fans in Africa to download & share the music!
Take Back the Mic. Is that a music project or a humanitarian effort on your part? Do clarify.
Take Back the Mic is both a music and a social project. It's designed to show the power of art in educating our youth & to connect young people w/ great artists.
What are your views on African music, both contemporary and from the older days? What's your take on the general belief that the West is influencing African music negatively?
Personally, I really love the old school traditional Highlife, particularly the Palm Wine style. There's some really amazing musicianship in some of those old recordings as well as genuine poetry. I also think there is so much in our traditional music to learn from & embrace as a new generation of musicians. I think it's only natural that Western music would influence African sounds, just as African traditions are arguably at the root of most Western pop-music. The thing we must be careful of, is not to simply blindly emulate Western artists, but instead to genuinely build our own voices and tell our own authentic stories with pride in our African culture & identity.
Suppose you were to be born as another musician, which would it be?
If I were to be born another musician it would probably be PRINCE. The guy can play just about every instrument under the sun to a virtuosic level, and has written and recorded thousands of songs. They completely destroyed the mould after he was born. It pretty much doesn't get any cooler...