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In Conversation: Derrick Ashong (Part 1)

Described as the voice of a new generation, he calls himself a song for all the people; Derrick Nana Kwesi Abaka Ashong, popularly known as DNA, is armed with a vision that cuts across racial, social and political barriers. Artistically talented, intellectually astute, politically informed and socially connected, with a magnetic personality laced with a witty sense of humour, meet DNA as he lays down the laws of leadership.

DNABelinda:  You are described as the voice of a new generation, it is fair to ask, which generation is that voice representing?

DNA: The way they talk about generation here, I think it is kind of two strands, generation X and generation Y but we don’t just think about that in terms of age. For example, I am 34, so that makes me part of the lower end of generation X. Part of what we do is with young adults in their 20s, students, teenagers and high school kids as well. Yet, a lot of the issues that we address are relevant to people who are much older as well. When I think of a generation, I really think of a new generation of thought. A way of thinking that is more expansive and more open and globally interconnected. That means there are people who are part of that generation who are 16 and people who are 60. So, it is more than age, when we think about what that means, to be the voice of a new generation.

Belinda: Hence, that generation could be an African American, an African in the diapsora, or someone in Nigeria or a child based in Ghana that listens to you online or watches something that is posted about you on Youtube?

DNA: Absolutely and that generation, because we are thinking about a globally interconnected one, its people who live in rural Iowa, who hear a speech or listen online of kids growing up in London. I gave a talk at Westminster last year for Parliamentarians as we well as kids in the community. So it is a way of moving past traditional lines of geography, race, culture and ethnicity and really getting into the ideas. And its not that the community will always be in agreement but it’s a community that is interested in dialogue rather than just growing up in an ossified or ideological framework that doesn’t allow for any other perspective or expansion or growth but one form/way of thinking. So, when we think of being globally interconnected, it is that interconnection that makes us broad, it is that interconnection that makes us knowledgeable and educated because we learn from being willing to speak and listen to each other.

Belinda: How did you get the gig with Oprah radio?

DNA: It was an evolution of a number of things. I was doing my own work in music and reaching out to young people about ideas of/on how we are interconnected and how we can think with a broader perspective and light in the world that we live in and I came across their radial through a friend, we did a concert in New York a few years ago and an editor at Vanity Fair, someone came down came and he wrote a review of the event. He and I became friends and he introduced me to a friend of his, who was the head of marketing and development at Harpo. And so, back in 2008, she and I started communicating a little bit about ideas and all that and then sometime last year, she called me up, what are you doing on so and so date and I said, I am open…to hanging out and she said, come to Chicago, I want you to try something on the radio and so we went and did it and it went really well. I was there with another young tape-maker and then they asked me, oh, can you come back in a month or so, and I came back and did it again, all by myself and they were like, we want to develop something around you. And so, it was just an evolutionary process. Then they decided that they were going to create a programme that is based on my experiences, so that other people can share their experience and that became the Derrick Ashong Experience.

Belinda: I am sure you cover different topics, what does that entail?

DNA: It’s about the idea of a new generation and perspective on life in four particular areas, society, business, art and politics.  So these are the things we cover on the show. I think of the show not so much as a programme or something that you watch and absorb what I am doing. It is a conversation, the same conversation I have with my friends, family, people I meet. We are just expanding the pool of people who participate and it is an ongoing conversation. And that is why it is called the Derrick Ashong Experience because it’s not a normal show. A typical show, you come in for the three hours that it broadcast, good and then you come back for the next show and that’s all there is. Our conversation happens 24/7 on Facebook, Twitter, Ustream and it’s always an ongoing dialogue and then we intermix it with these weekly broadcast and talk about what we have been discussing all week and do it on the air.

Belinda: Your bio talks about bridging the gap between the fields of media, technology, culture, pop-culture, politics…what are the commonalities that you have recognised in these different fields, and you feel and think you can bring together, create different strands and still make them work?

DNA: The way I look at it, music is a way and a message of really including people in a dialogue, where you come in with your defences down and I like to give people this quote that Bob Marley has, ‘one good thing about music, when it hits you, you feel no pain.’ So, rather than come with preconceived ideas or ideology or perspectives, as an artist, you really are an interpreter of what’s happening in the world and you are a communicator at a very high level. So, we observe what’s happening, we interpret it and then we feed it back to people in such a way that they can say yes, ‘If I could…that is what I would have said. They don’t have to agree with what you say. They don’t necessarily even have to think the same thing but they understand, feel it and they can fit it into their perspective and ideological frame work. So I think of that when I am doing my art and I think the same way when I come to do a broadcast. How can I interpret what’s happening around the world and in the world, in such a way that other people can feel included in a dialogue. Whereby, I am not a journalist, so I share my opinion not purporting to be objective, I am opinionated but my opinion does not have to take up all the oxygen in the room. There is room for you to also speak and be heard and creating that environment is better to do if you are not just a person saying or commenting on what’s happened but you are a person interpreting what has happened in such away that other people can also bring their interpretation to it.

Belinda: What do you want to achieve by bridging that gap because it is a big vision, for which you are at the forefront? I know you want to bring people together and get them to start talking but if there was a central goal or objective that you carry within you. What is that one thing?

DNA: I think that you have a lot of times, people who have been given an opportunity where they end up in a leadership position and they become accustomed to that position and they enjoy the benefits.  I think that has been a historical pattern but for me as a young African, I look at what a lot of our leaders who have become so enamoured by empowered have done and I see they have not done the best they could have for the people or given what the people need. So what I am more interested in is this, if I can help people to be better understand the world they live, to better understand each other and communicate with one another, then I can cultivate leadership in other people. I can use my own leadership potential, skills and opportunities to help build other leaders and in so doing, I can have a greater impact on the advancement of our society and our world rather than becoming another one who is going to just take up all the opportunity and suck up resources, why not use my opportunities to help other people learn how to better harness and grow our resources. So, that is what I am shooting for and I want to show that it can be done.  And that one can be successful in doing it. So that, hopefully, we are not creating another generation of selfish people who are only interested in what they can get but we are creating a generation that realise they can benefit from doing good for our world. I want to start focusing and building what we want, not just focusing on what we don’t want but investing in how we want things to be  and the people that can make that happen and that is why I do a lot of things with young people because I want them to see and believe in their own power. As Africans, we have a society that really respects and cherishes our elders and I think that is a wonderful thing but I think we have to evolve in a new direction, whereby our young people begin to feel more empowered. We cannot just have life be… based on what it once was and we cannot accept what people say just because they have grey in their hair. Sometimes we have to be able to make a statement for what is right and what we want. You don’t have to be 50 or 60 to do that.  You could be 15, 20 or 30 and if you understand what’s right and are willing to work for it. That is what we want and that is what we should encourage because the leadership we have today in Africa and frankly across the world is not giving us the solutions that we need to have a tomorrow we can live with and they will to be around to face the consequences of their actions today. Therefore, this new generation needs to begin taken responsibility today.

Belinda: Do you think education is still as relevant today in becoming who you want to be or do you think it is necessary, so that you have the skills you need in order to go further and become who you need to be?

DNA: My father said something when I was going to college that really puzzled me. He said, ‘I am not sending you there to learn a specific thing. I am sending you there to learn how to learn and for me, that is the hallmark of a great education. There is no way you can absorb all the knowledge in the world, there is no way that you can presage every possible situation or circumstance but what you can do is cultivate an intellect and assort of curiosity and confidence that enables you to engage with any situation and try to understand, comprehend and react in an appropriate manner and hopefully, to build and grow and have a positive impact in the world. So, I feel like an education is becoming ever more important. An education cannot simply be learning, fill out the appropriate bubble, it can’t just be memorise this and regurgitate, it has to be about learning how to learn;  how to observe the world around you, how to engage with the situation, and how to comprehend and better position yourself to deal with whatever that situation might be. I think that it is more important more now than ever to give our children a real education.

Belinda: Let’s talk about you being the Renaissance man with the aim of seeing past race, religion, culture…I wanted to ask, how important is it for us as human beings and as individuals and for you, whose goal is to bridge the gap. How important is it that people see beyond these things?

DNA: This is the thing; all of those things are really culture. Race…people think race is about your inherent physical being but its not. Geneticists will argue that the differences between races are less than the difference between two people of the same race.  Hence, at a certain point, you have got to realise that race is really culture and is basically a cultural interpretation of people’s identity and religion is the same thing. It is what you grow up with, to help you determine what is good, what is bad, how we see the world and how we interpret the things around us. All of that is cultural, now people say that well because religion in particular is way of communicating with God or understanding God that my religion is correct and this way of looking at the world is correct and is immutable. But that is not the case, and most of the religions in the world, particularly the monartistic ones believe that God is beyond the whole comprehension of human beings. That God, the Alpha and Omega is more than human beings can ever fully understand. Therefore is it not possible that God is big enough to not only speak to you in your language or in your culture but to speak to someone else in theirs. So, don’t put God into that small box. Religion is culture and we need to move to a point where we are able to not live in one singular culture but to respect the variety and myriad of cultures that exist in our world.  Give people the room to be and to be together. So, for myself, I think that more people are beginning to understand that the world is not as simple as  what I was told growing up and I hope that does not necessarily get them disillusion them about the value of seeking understanding whether it is through  your cultural heritage, ethnic origin or religious upbringing. I don’t think it should stop them from seeking that knowledge but they should understand that others are seeking too and none of us knows the correct path, so let us at least give each other the room to walk our own path.

Belinda: You are the founder of Take back the Mic, with the aim of bringing the gap and raising leaders For you as an individual who is already a leader, how crucial is it that we as individuals in our own little way serve as role models and raise leaders within our communities?

DNA: I think it is crucially important. And I think people make it too difficult for themselves. They think that to be a leader and a change agent is hard and its all time and energy, and it is separate from what you do and that is not the case. You can be a leader in whatever you normally do, lawyer, teacher, politician or physician or be you a writer or raising your children. Leadership is not declared, it is evident and what that means is that you don’t run around saying I am a leader, that is not what makes you a leader. You are a leader by your action and if other people are willing to follow you. And that can be in different ways. You could be a child in junior high and see someone who is being bullied, someone no one would sit with in the cafeteria and you come and sit with them and talk to them, and want to know their story; that is leadership. It is not following the crowd but taking a stand because you believe in it. You didn’t have to jump up on the TV to declare it. You simply sat down and spoke to someone who others did not want to speak to. Leadership is something that we should all be cultivating within ourselves because it is a quality that enables you to have truly fulfilling life. And the trick is people think being a leader, that’s just who you are, like you know, ‘Now I am the Oga, follow me,’ but that is not what it is. If you really want to be a leader and a teacher, the best way to learn is to be a student. Therefore, all of us are leaders and so much, we learn to be followers because we can’t lead in everything. Where I may lead in an area that I know something or care about, I follow you in an area where you know something and care about something and it creates an opportunity for us all to grow. It is a simple thing; it just requires a different type of thinking and not waiting for someone to dictate to you how life should be but being willing to invest in how life could be. And I want people to understand that and I try to exemplify that in my own action. I don’t believe that anyone person is coming to save you. I am not perfect; I don’t have all the answers. I do stupid things everyday. Someone asked me, how can you host a show for three hours. I would be so nervous, I would say something dumb. And I say to them, I am not nervous that I will say something dumb, I know I will say something dumb. Every episode, I will say something dumb. It is guaranteed. The only thing I hope is that I say more smart things than stupid things. And that is all I am worried about. Once, I have taken that pressure off myself, to realise that I am a fallible human being just like everyone else and I love it, and I appreciate the fact that I am not perfect and that I can strive to understand it and reach towards perfection but my humanity is in that and I am always and still growing. Once I understand that, being a leader is easy because it is an ongoing process, an evolutionary one and it is one that we should all participate in.

To be continued…watch out for part 2

Image: George Burns/Harpo Inc.


3 Responses to “In Conversation: Derrick Ashong (Part 1)”

  1. […] In Conversation: Derrick Ashong (Part 1) […]

  2. Bran Rainey says:

    Hey, as long as you’re praising Derrick Ashong, maybe you should check out alternative opinions. Debate is healthy and only serves to strengthen your own views if you’re right.

  3. Belinda Otas says:

    No problem with alternative views whatsoever…to every man his own and as such people are free to believe what they like and say what they like…Its my choice to listen if I want to or not, same way, it is their choice to say what they want to say…

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