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Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Derrick Ashong on Barack Obama, McCain & Soulfege, II

Today is the day! Americans in general wonder, "is this the end of America as the world super power we have known it to be?" Even more specifically, Republicans and some Independents fear what will happen if the House, Senate and the Presidency is controlled by Democrats? If Obama is President, will we take a turn for the worse? Will we become that socialist country some have argued we are slowly turning into-- think $700 billion bailout? On the flip side, Democrats and some independents fear having McCain in office will continue George Bush's policies that has led us to one of the worse economic crisis since the great depression. We will be weak both at home and abroad and continue to lose the respect of our allies. Here at, we say, what counts is you GET OUT AND VOTE! Speak your mind by letting your vote count. DON'T YOU DARE stay indoors on this historical day!

To get you ready for what we know will be a very exciting day, we continue with our in-depth interview with the one and only Derrick Ashong aka DNA. If you missed Part I of our interview, click here. In Part II, Ashong answers our questions on his band Soulfège and the many questions we have on the impact of the world economic crisis on Africa? Will Obama as President of the United States change Africa for the better? Who will WIN this election?! Find out what Ashong has to say.

The Impact of the Economic Crisis on Africa? Derrick, what is your opinion on the impact this world economic crisis has or will have on Africa?
Ashong: That’s interesting. [I] think a couple of things: 1) Africa will be affected but because we are not as fully integrated into the global market economy, I think the effect will be mitigated. Some of the areas where I think you will see a stronger impact on is foreign aid. Of Course.
Ashong: Exactly. [T]he philanthropic organizations are still going to give monies but the institutional aid from governments, I think, is going to be challenged. [That is] because their local economies are going to say, “hey we are struggling what are you going to do for us?!” Now it is not in the interest of these countries to completely cut off aid. But I think this could actually be a massive opportunity for Africa! How so?
Ashong:Because the way that the aid system is structured, it really weakens our nations, our economies and our governance. believe that.
Ashong:So as much as it is a very bitter pill to swallow, sooner or later the aid has gotta stop. What we have to start doing is really looking at how we can develop our capital markets. The amount of monies that go into foreign aid and charity etc. is many times over the amount of money that goes into private equity, for example, in Africa. So, if you have like a starving village, you could get something but if you have a great business, you ain’t getting’ nothing! True.
Ashong:Ultimately, who can give you so much money? How much money can they give you to save yourself? No one can save you! You have got to save yourself. So what people need are jobs. If you and I are both in the same neighborhood and we are starting our businesses and they are doing well, and we realize that “hey, if the road into this part of town were actually a little bit smoother, then we could actually make more money,” there are two things we can do: a) we are gonna lobby the government like crazy to fix the damn road; or b) we are gonna hire someone to fix it ourselves. [laughing] That is not going to happen in most African countries. They don’t feel the responsibility to do that. You can see the elites driving the most amazing cars and when they step out of their homes, the roads in front of their homes are full of pot holes!
Ashong: I agree. That is how it has been thus far but that is because the elites are such a small percentage of the population. So, basically, they can afford to just go for themselves. And most of those elites are kind of somehow tied to the same corrupt governments that are under-developing the nations. But, if you have an actual substantive middle class and an entrepreneurial class . . . uh-huh
Ashong:[seems to switch train of thought] Most of those elites are not adding value. They are destroying value. For example, somebody has a title to an oil interest or parcel of land, they get a piece of the money that the oil companies get. This person is rich but what have they created? Nothing. They are just taking.
Ashong: [Getting excited] Nothing, they are just taking. They haven’t built anything! When you start talking about the “Cheetah Generation”of entrepreneurs[A term coined by Economist George Ayittey " who sees Africa's future as a fight between Hippos -- complacent, greedy bureaucrats wallowing in the muck -- and Cheetahs, the fast-moving, entrepreneurial leaders]who are actually generating value and creating new things, that very mindset that says “hey I am going to go and build something,” is the same mindset that will say, “hey I am going to improve the circumstances around [me] so that, that [what] [I] have built and cultivated [and] feel proud of can expand and grow” So, you are more likely to say, “I am going to just fix this road because this road is just killing me!”

As opposed to, [he switches to Pidgin English which is a language spoken in parts of West Africa including Ghana] “You are supposed to be the Oga [master]. So, when you come here I will take my piece.” You are not interested in value or whether the road is good. Whether they come slow or fast, “you go get your money!” So, what is your incentive to improve things? That is the kind of elite we need to move beyond. They are false elites that are effectively agents of empire. They are the ones who stand in the way of liberation of the African movement of the 50s and 60s and the reality of liberation. These are the people who stand as intermediaries between us and the West and they take their cut and keep the people quiet, too hungry and too poor to raise hell. Whoa. Very very interesting . A lot of people think that if Obama is in office it will help Africa. What do you think?
Ashong: Africa needs to start thinking about how she is going to help herself. [He adds with emphasis] That is the bottom line. It is up to us and that is what makes me most optimistic. People like you and myself and a bunch of others from our circles are going to be the difference in Africa. It is not from the angle that we are smart and Africa can use a little bit of help. It is from an angle that many of us have had the opportunity to [b]e educated in the West and to be a part of circles in the highest levels.

So what we do, even though we are still young and building our names, is not just good enough for Africa. We are talking about people who are good enough on a global scale and can compete! So, taking some of the best minds in the world that are now starting to say, "how do I do something for my homeland, not only from a sense of opportunity for myself but also from a sense of pride and wanting to see things change?” We are gonna be the ones that will make a difference.[Getting even more excited] Obama represents opportunity in itself because this is a guy that has built an effective ground organization. When he says we are going to make a difference, for the first time in American political history, he has actually got foot soldiers nationwide that can be a part of making that change on a grassroots level, not on an ideological basis. That is a tip of the iceberg of what is possible.

What is possible out of that idea of people taking ownership for themselves is hopefully people start looking differently towards others. Not just from a perspective that this people need handouts but saying,“if we got together and we fixed this in our community why don’t we teach other people to do that." At the end of the day, although some Africans are optimistic that if Obama is elected Africa will be so much better, Obama is an American! He is not African. Yup! He is not running for some country in Africa.
Ashong: Exactly and he shouldn’t be. He is running for the President of the United States and he is going to do the job for America. We as Africans gotta do the job for Africans to take care of our own; and no one should be under any illusion that we can relinquish that responsibility or shrug it off to Obama. We can say, “When Obama gets elected we go chop [eat] more.” NO! You talked about opportunities that we have with our generation. Let me transition to the opportunities that you have had personally. You got an opportunity to be on You Tube to talk about the political landscape and then used it to amplify what you have already been working on, your music. Tell us a bit more about your music?
Ashong:I found a group called soulfège and the term is a play on words. Basically there is a way of teaching music and it uses do, re, mi, fa, sol, la, ti do. [I laugh] Yup! I remember Sounds of Music back in the days and also my mom doing a lot of that vocal training.
Ashong: [laughs] Yup! The musical term for that is solfège and it is a French word. What we did is put a “u” in it so we got “Soulfege” but it is kind of a musician’s joke and it basically means we teach through music. Soulfège is what we call our Afropolitan fusion band. It is almost like a Bob Marley with the Fugees on a street corner in West Africa. That’s the sound: hip-hop, reggae, high life and it is playing live with sort of rock attitude. I love the high life addition to it.
Ashong:Yea. It’s a lot of fun and it comes out beautifully as well. How long has the band been in existence?
Ashong: Soulfège is about five years old. Oh! It’s been a while.
Ashong: It has been a while and we have been working very diligently at it. What happens in the music industry is they take certain basic tropes and they say if you fit within this paradigm, then we can work with you. If If you are a girl you gotta show your goods. If you are a guy then you gotta be hard core or show some violence. Em, don’t be too smart, don’t be too educated and don’t be too complex because the market is not going to bear that. [laughing] Yeah, well I already told you before we started this interview that I had my own bias because I thought before I heard you, “this intellectual from Harvard, mehn what is he doing on the mic?! It seemed odd.”
Ashong: Absolutely and that is how the industry looks at us. But what has happened with this band is we already knew we were good before . . . [pauses] Harvard kids are very well known for their humility. [I laugh] Whatever! [I laugh some more] Ashong: [He chuckles] Before we even came to college, we have done certain things and we discovered our abilities. So many of us could have gone a different way but we had this academic interest. When we came out of college we were like, wait a minute. If we go to try to get a record deal, we are going to be pigeonholed into this nonsense they put all the other Black kids in and we don’t want to do that.” I hear you.
Ashong: So, we decided we wanted to do it on our own and we started to learn more and more about the industry: how it functions and how you develop a viable brand. I went and apprenticed with a Producer at Berkeley College of Music and learnt production. I went back to grad school and was still doing my music at the same time so by the time we all really knew what we were doing and had it together, we were making moves on the business, music and social-cultural sides. Very good.
Ashong: Yea. Our music has something to say but in a way that is not peachy. Nobody will call us a political band per se but we have always spoken about social issues and still rock the party. The first video we released in Ghana, the first month, it was top 40. It was R-Kelly, Beyonce, Soulfege. Then it gets picked up in South Africa on MNet, then in Jamaica, then the BBC World Service included us in a documentary they were doing on African hip-hop. Then through all of that, the Boston media who would normally not know what to do about a band like this started writing about us, ABC News, NPR and we started growing and growing. Whoa.
Ashong:As we have finally decided to sign with a label, we signed with crown recording group in Germany. Why that label?
Ashong:Because they operate in territories we are interested in. US included?
Ashong: Yes but we will not release in the US, yet. Why?
Ashong: Because if you want to do a really strong marketing campaign in the US, you gotta put at least a million dollars behind that campaign. If someone is going to put a million dollars behind your campaign, they are going to own you. So, I’d rather go to [Europe] and Africa before the USA. Smart move.
Ashong: Yeah. We always try to think strategically. Yes and it has been done before. The Roots did it. Jill Scott got started with the Roots overseas, In Sync, Backstreet Boys . . .
[Laughs] Everybody does it. It’s like fashion. You go to Japan or South Africa and build your book and then return to New York to book shows.
Ashong: There you go. When you build your brand like that, you also have better negotiating power and you are more on equal footing to negotiate with the labels here when you return to the USA.
Ashong:Yes. Musically we represent, intellectually we represent and socially we represent. [I laugh] It’s the African in you what can you say?Ashong: [He joins me and laughs] yeah. One last question. Who do you think will win the election?
Ashong: Obama. Hands down! You are positive because polls are deceiving you know?
Ashong: Polls are deceiving but most of these polls are not polling the young people and they are huge die hard Obama supporters. They are going to come out in masses and I think it will be a decisive win. Thank you so much Derrick Ashong.
Thank you!


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