Black Diaspora & Community Building (w/ Derrick Ashong)

Zach sits down with AMP Global founder & CEO Derrick Ashong to talk about his journey and his latest efforts to affirm music and Blackness. Derrick is also the creator of Take Back the Mic: The World Cup of Hip Hop – check out the links in the show notes to find out more about it!

Struggling with your Diversity, Equity & Inclusion (DEI) work? Kanarys—a Black-founded company—has your back. Regardless of where you are on your DEI journey, we arm you with the insights you need now to take action now. From audits to assessments to data-informed strategy, we’d love to be the partner you have been looking for. Email stacey@kanarys.com or learn more at https://www.kanarys.com/employer.

Connect with Derrick on LinkedIn, Twitter and Instagram.

Check out Take Back the Mic’s website. They’re also on social media – Twitter and Instagram.

TRANSCRIPT

Zach
What’s up, y’all? It’s Zach with Living Corporate, and yo, you know what it is, right? Every single week we’re bringing y’all some type of really dope conversation centered around amplifying Black and brown people that work. We talk to executives, entrepreneurs, activists, creatives, and those creatives can be musicians or artists or, you know, poets, you know what I mean, authors, and we really talk to a wide array of individuals on this podcast, and, you know, this week is no different. But before we get there, I just want to, you know, tap in, make sure y’all are good. You know, I mean, look, we’re coming up on the holiday season, right? I guess we’re in the thick of it, right? I mean, we just had Thanksgiving, we’re getting ready for Christmas, kind of companies are slowing down and shutting down. And I know it’s gonna be a hard time, right? Like, this is not a happy time for everybody. So from my heart and the Living Corporate community to yours, I hope that you’re staying up out there, that you’re taking care of yourself. You know, mental health and wellness is something that we have to be constantly on guard and mindful of. You know, so with that in mind, we have some updates – I can’t share them yet, but I just want to let y’all know that we have some updates around, you know, mental health and wellness and healing in the context of being other at work. I’m really excited to share those soon. Okay, just a little teaser, just to let you know we are cooking up something. As a reminder, if you’re not tuning in yet, make sure you check out The Leadership Range. Neil Edwards is incredible. It’s only been, what, seven weeks, and he has created some incredible content, and if you haven’t caught on yet, go ahead and check it out. Check out the link in the show notes. But make sure you follow him, follow the podcast, subscribe, five stars, all that. Tell a friend. But check it out for yourself first and foremost. What else we got going on? So you know that we’re kind of on hold right now, we’re in-between seasons with our web shows, with The Access Point, with The Group Chat, with So What Do I Do, but in the meantime, we have a limited series that we’re working on and that we’ve been producing called Dare to Share, and that’s actually co-powered by Kanarys, and so I want to make sure y’all check that out. We had a really good first episode. We have the next one coming up in January. So make sure you check it out, livingcorporate.TV. I’m just trying to kind of get my promo off. I mean, there’s a lot of stuff going on and Living Corporate, we have a lot of things happening, frankly, all at the same time, and it’s easy to, you know, miss stuff just because there’s so much happening right in front of you. So I just hope that, you know, you take the time and just rock with us for a while. So what I’ve been really proud about when it comes to Living Corporate is the fact that we don’t just have one type of otherized person or other on our show, right? Like, we have all types of Black and brown folks, and what I’m really excited about and continue to be excited about is that we spotlight folks across the diaspora, and we also spotlight folks who are not in traditional nine to five roles, right? So the idea of Living Corporate, you know, you may end up thinking that, like, we’re only talking to people who are in the C-suite. We just mean just out here in the world. If you’re working, if you have a nine to five, this show is for you. This content is for you in some form or fashion. And so, you know, the guest that we have today, his name is Derrick Ashong. Derrick Ashong is also known as DNA. He’s a producer, a musician and entrepreneur. He’s known for working with major figures, including Oprah Winfrey, Steven Spielberg, and Dave Stewart of the Eurythmics. Okay? But he has a new show called Pass the Mic: Africa that we’re going to get into, but what inspires me about Derrick and his story is that it was his authenticity that got him in the rooms that he was in, right, and him not trying to shrink or assimilate, but rather stand out, and I think there’s something to be said there for everybody who’s listening to this is that, man, you know, most of the people around you are gonna try to fit in. Right? So you trying to fit out by just being yourself automatically puts you at an advantage. So, you know, I’m excited about us getting into this conversation with Derrick, also known as DNA, but before we do that, we’re going to TAP In with Tristan.

Tristan
What’s going on, Living Corporate? It’s Tristan, and I want to thank you for tapping back in with me as I provide some tips and advice for professionals. This week let’s talk about burnout, what it is, and how to recognize it. Before we can recognize burnout, we have to understand what it is. In May of 2019, the World Health Organization announced the 11th revision of the International Statistical Classification of Diseases and Related Health Problems, also known as the ICD-11. This revision included an updated and more detailed entry on burnout. While it was previously only classified as a “state of vital exhaustion,” it’s now classified as a “syndrome conceptualized as a result from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.” The World Health Organization emphasizes that burnout is specifically work-related and characterized by 3 main things: 1. A sense of exhaustion or depletion. 2. Mental distance from or negativity or cynicism about work. 3. Decreased effectiveness at work. Now that we know what burnout is let’s talk about the signs of burnout. First, you don’t get excited about work anymore. If you feel like you are no longer interested in the work you’re doing, even the things that used to make you feel fulfilled, you may be experiencing burnout. This sometimes may even be depression, and if you think that is the case, I suggest that you speak with a mental health professional. The second sign is that you’re no longer putting in the effort. When you lose that excitement and enthusiasm, you might get negative or even apathetic. Then you begin doing just the minimum to get by rather than your normal amount of effort in the workplace. The third sign is that your performance begins to suffer. I don’t think this is a surprise to anyone, but since you are less interested in your work and begin to do the bare minimum, your performance begins to decline. The fourth sign is that you feel exhausted or depleted. Often you’ll feel mentally, physically, and emotionally drained. It may be challenging to get out of bed and get to work. The fifth sign is that your burnout manifests physically into ailments and bodily issues. This looks different for everyone, but some of the most common ones include insomnia, chest pain, headaches, shortness of breath, dizziness or fainting, stomach issues, or you could just be getting sick more often. Generally, burnout can be difficult for most of us to recognize, but it’s necessary that we recognize the signs because it isn’t something that will just go away. Next time we’ll talk about what to do if you think you’re burnt out. Thanks for tapping in with me this week. This tip was brought to you by Tristan of Layfield Resume Consulting. Check us out on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook @LayfieldResume or connect with me, Tristan Layfield, on LinkedIn.

Zach
Derrick, welcome to the show. How’s it going, man?

Derrick
It’s going well, fam. Thank you so much.

Zach
Let’s get to it. Like, talk to me about your path and, like, just what did it look like for you to get to doing what you’re doing now?

Derrick
I had the idea when I was–well, first of all, you know, I grew up in a number of different places. Like, started off as a kid in Ghana, grew up in Accra, in Flatbush, in Riyadh, in Doha. Every four years ’til I was 20 I moved to a new country. I grew up around multiple cultures, multiple religions, grew up speaking multiple languages. And it’s almost like I always had these ideas of wanting to do something with my life, but not necessarily having the clarity of what was the path to get to where I wanted to be, not always knowing where it was that I wanted to be. I knew I wanted to have an impact, and the interesting thing is, in a way, I was open to the opportunities that came before me, and I also followed what I believed in, and I tried to be good at the things that I do. And now when I look back, I’m like, “Oh, wow, those three elements really led to some incredible opportunities and experiences.”

Zach
You know, I read your intro, and your journey has been amazing. Harvard, TED, the United Nations, multiple fellowships. Can we talk about–I know you just said like, you know, focus on being really good at what you do, but, like, how did you get into all these spaces? Because there’s plenty of us who look like you, look like me, who are great at what they do and have not been afforded the privilege of those spaces. Like, talk to me about how it happened.

Derrick
Yeah. Okay. So it’s interesting, because then–we’ll take it to high school, right? So I came back from my last two years of high school in New Jersey. And I remember–I went to public school in South Jersey, about 30 minutes outside of Philly, and I remember when I was talking to my professors about where I wanted–or at least my guidance counselors about where I wanted to go to college, they didn’t really buy it, you know? It’s literally like, “Oh, I want to go to Harvard,” And then they go, “Oh, good school. Good school. Got anything else in mind?” I’m like, “I’m thinking about applying to Brown.” “Oh, that’s a good school. Got a safety?” And I was like, “Yeah, Brown is my safety.” And I didn’t get encouragement. It wasn’t like they were like, “Okay, well, here’s what you got to do to make it happen.” It’s like they just thought I was arrogant or crazy or buckwild or whatever. Interestingly, even prior to that, I had had an experience where I came in from overseas, and when I got to the school they were like, “Oh, you don’t have these prerequisites, so we’re not going to put you in the AP courses. We’re gonna put you in honors.” And I was like, “Okay, I don’t know what any of that means, but I’m just going to try to do my best,” and the interesting thing is I very quickly discovered that my idea of what my best could be and the general idea of what my best might be did not match. Right? So when I decided where I wanted to apply to college, for example, it wasn’t because it was what was expected of me. It’s because I came from a background where, you know, I was just trained to defy expectations. And I would put it a little more bluntly – as a Black male in America, the expectations of me from society, the schooling, a lot of the people and spaces around me, were much less than the expectations of myself, and that’s because I grew up overseas. I didn’t know, you know, up until I was 16 years old that Black people are not supposed to be smart. Never occurred to me. Never was mentioned. Literally did not exist. And I think part of what winds up happening for so many of us is that you just get bombarded, bombarded by the weight of expectation or the lack thereof, and so we get constrained by what we think is possible. And I’ve been fortunate and, yes, privileged, that I grew up in a way where I didn’t really see the boundaries, and so I went for what I wanted.

Zach
I mean, let’s talk about, like, the first time you walked into the United Nations, and like, just what that experience was like, and then also, like, specifically, what were you doing in that context?

Derrick
So I’ve done a couple of things with the United Nations. I think that the first one was actually not even in the U.S., it was at the United Nations Alliance of Civilizations, and I was asked to speak on a panel, something about I think media and impact or, like, the power of storytelling, whatever, and there was all these, like, influential people. I think that the head, the then CEO of Participant Pictures was on the panel. There was a couple of other luminaries. I was the youngest person on it, and one of the things that happens in these spaces is one, you’re usually the only Black person, and in this case, as I said, I was the only young person–or at least the youngest one. There were other youth, but they weren’t invited on that panel or on many others. Interestingly, because I was in this quote-unquote “youth experience,” we were literally at this event, and, you know, not to put anybody on blast, but it came time for lunch, and there are all these tables where people went and sat and ate, and there was no table for the young people. There’s a lot of times when you deal with these big governmental things, everybody’s got their attache and their foreign minister in this knot, and they’re doing what they need to do, and the big execs are all sorted and taken care of, but then the young people were kind of an afterthought. It’s good for marketing, but not so good in terms of how they were cheated, at least in my experience. And so we went by, “Okay, we’re gonna find the table. Ayo, we need to holler at somebody. Who’s doing the catering?” Blah, blah, blah. “We’re the youth. There’s, like, 20 of us. We don’t have anything to eat. Could you help us out?” And we just organized ourselves to get what we needed. So by the time it came to go and sit on the panel, I’m like, “Oh,” because some of us are here for cosmetic reasons, and let me make it more interesting than that. So I always try to share something or bring something to the table that is substantive, and that particular experience, yeah, I was nervous, feeling like “Wow.” Like, you know, you get called into a certain experience, and maybe it’s new for you, you haven’t been there before. Maybe other people have a much deeper, fatter resume than your own. But getting shaded out of lunch was great because it made me a little bit belligerent, and I didn’t bring the belligerence out in terms of rudeness or a lack of respect for the other people on the panel, but I did say, “Oh, okay, I understand a little bit more here. I’m here to be a disrupter, and I can do it respectfully. I can do it effectively.” And that’s how I approached it.

Zach
Okay, so now look, we’re here because we’re really trying to talk about this Take Back the Mic series. Now, I recognize, you know, like, reading your bio, Take Back the Mic is not a new venture for you, that it is established, that you’ve really grown it over years and it’s recognized in a variety of different spaces. So let’s talk about kind of, like, the origin to Take Back the Mic and then this latest series, Take Back the Mic: Africa.

Derrick
Yeah. No doubt. Okay. So it’s interesting because some years ago, I had done–so I started off my career as a musician, and I had gone back home to do something in Ghana that could kind of, you know, speak to who we are as people, my perception of the continent. And at the time I was a little bit frustrated, ’cause I felt like every time you hear somebody talk about Africa it’s always, you know, drama and devastation and despair, and I’m like, “When I go home, that’s not what I see.” It’s not like there aren’t issues, but there’s issues in Brooklyn. There’s issues in Atlanta, there’s issues in L.A. and in Boston. Why is it that the stories of Africa are always told with such a negative spin? And it’s like, “Well, you gotta ask who’s the storyteller,” and so I thought, “Well, I wanted to do something special that shows my culture as I see it.” And because I’m an artist, I’m like, “Well, I’m not going to protest the way it’s being done. I’m just going to have another option.” And so we went and we did a remix of this old West African classic called Sweet Mother, the most popular song in West African history. And then we flipped it and did a video that just showed life on the streets of Accra as seen through the eyes of the people. That video blew up. It became number four in the country, R. Kelly, Usher, Beyonce, and then my band. Got picked up out of South Africa, out of the U.K., out of Jamaica, on big outlets, BBC, whatever, whatever. Next thing you know, MTV base, it’s airing in like 60, 70 different countries, and through that experience I was able to see like, “Wow, we can make an impact,” but also I started getting invited to these events, and this is where the answer to your question lies. One of them was a cipher, and I was back home Accra and, you know, we’re doing our thing, and we got invited to cipher. Everybody’s getting up throwing down some rhymes, and this one kid, you know, gets up and he starts flowing, and you’re like, “Oh, that sounds good,” and then next thing you know he switches languages. And just as you’re processing, like, “Wait a minute, is this kid improvising in two different languages?” Boom, he flips into freestyling in a third. How is that–yo, people can’t do this in one language. You just did it in three. Like, it’s insane. And I’m just like, “Yo, the most interesting stuff happening in hip hop is not necessarily happening in the United States. How do we think bigger?” And that’s really where the genesis of this came from, those two experiences. The one was, “Why is it that our stories are always told in a negative light? Who is the storyteller?” And then the second being, “Hey, wait a minute, there’s something happening in this global culture that is amazing if you look bigger and beyond the borders of the United States.” And so we created Take Back the Mic, the principle being this is the first generation that has both the talent and the technology to speak for itself, to tell its own stories, to represent who we are through our own eyes. So we should “Take Back the Mic” and let this generation speak for itself. That is the birth of the movement. We decided to build it through artistry. We decided to start with hip hop culture, although it’s growing to become much broader than that, but that is at the root of it. And what we’re doing now is we took Take Back the Mic: The World Cup of Hip Hop, which was a show that’s, like, part-travel show, part music competition, in Brazil, Colombia, Jamaica. We expanded in Mexico, the Dominican Republic, Ghana, all this cool stuff. And now we’re doing it for the first time not just for digital devices but also for TV, and that series is called Take Back the Mic: Africa. Ghana, Nigeria, Kenya, Rwanda, South Africa, and Mauritius, all competing artists that was selected by fans using the Take Back the Mic app, and now we’re going to tell the story of Nairobi and Lagos and Accra and Joburg through the eyes of those artists.

Zach
That’s incredible. That’s incredible. You know, you made some mention about some artists. What does it look like to maintain relationships with all of these different artists across the world? And like, just from a networking perspective, right, like, you’re a businessman, right? Like, you’re a businessman, you’re a connector, you’re a jet-setter, all these different things. How do you keep all those connections warm?

Derrick
It’s very difficult, to be honest. And the reality is I don’t keep them warm because I’m not good at that. I’m the person who you bring in if you want to spark something, and this has been a lesson in trying to figure out where are my strengths, where’s my power, where’s my contribution? If you’re like, “Yo, D, I need you to follow up with these these people every day with this amount of time and capture XYZ,” I’m gonna really, really struggle, because the way that my brain works, it’s just always thinking in a slightly different frame. And so what I did, I realized was like, “You know what? What I’m good at is to light that fire and to make it blow, then when you need somebody else to tend the flames, it’s got to be a different person.” I have a team with me that is really, really dope. They’re all incredible in their own ways. And basically, we play our positions, you know? Like, people will look at what we do and be like, “Yo, this is so dope. Oh, my God, D, you, like, on some legendary ish. How’d you pull that off? You got Emmy nominations,” blah, blah, blah, but I didn’t do any of that by myself. I figured out where my strengths were. I learned to work with people who are stronger in areas where I was not as good. And then we collaborate, and I think that’s where all of this beautiful stuff comes from. You always hear the story and they’ll be like, “Oh, this person is so ill.” Like, “Yo, she did this, he did that,” blah, blah, blah. Like, yeah, it’s great for storytelling, but it’s not how magic gets made. At the end of the day, it really is about teamwork.

Zach
I mean, I think it’s true. Like, we really underplay the role of just community, right? Like, it’s this individualistic culture and mindset that has us thinking that everyone has built these empires on their own.

Derrick
That’s exactly right, and I will say something, like, that’s a little bit cultural, right? So I was raised that, you know, community is everything. It’s at the center. So we try to give dap and love and respect and honor to all the people who are a part of making this happen, and to your question, all those artists, they are a part of what we do, because we have great people finding ways to build and grow that community.

Zach
Okay, so let’s just talk about–you shared a little bit, but I don’t want folks to miss this. What’s the motivation behind Take Back the Mic, and what’s the ultimate goal? Like, you know, you look up, let’s say, you know, 80 years from now, like, what is it that you want people to look back and say this did or this is doing?

Derrick
I want to transform the reality and perception of the African continent and people of the African diaspora around the world period. I think that at the end of the day, if you look at how power is built, so much of it is based on perception. Reality matters. So much is based on perception. The reality is when you talk to people about the United States, they will have one idea, “Oh, it’s amazing.” Up until relatively recently. I think our global brand has been damaged in a large way in recent years. But when I tried to explain to people things like police brutality, they wouldn’t believe it. Even people in the United States wouldn’t believe it. It’s only with the advent of cell phones. It was like, “Why is this happening so much? Oh, my God, the cops are just killing Blacks. How is this happening all of a sudden?” It’s not all of a a sudden, it’s just that now we have phones to record it, because when we told you you didn’t believe. It’s only when you saw it with your own eyes, and then it’s like, “Oh,” and then they still find some excuse about “Oh, well, that kid smoked weed one time, so maybe he deserved it.” It’s crazy. And what happens is, the U.S. has managed to create this wonderful perception of itself around the world, again, up until recently, but then the reality is quite flawed. You know, most of the bankruptcies that happen in our country because people can’t afford their medical bills… in the richest nation in the history of the planet. How’s it possible? Now you look to the African continent, and you see that no, it’s a totally different ballgame. We’re expected to do badly, we’re expected to be worse, we’re expected to be poorer and lesser, not having as much. And because, you know–Malcolm X had a very interesting quote back in the day that said that “Until,” you know, “the Black person in America or in Jamaica, Brazil, across the diaspora, England, France, wherever, is never going to be truly respected until Africa is also respected.” Right? Like, you can’t be a person of honor if your mother is disrespected. The tree cannot grow without its roots. And what I’m looking at is, “How do we challenge that perception of Africa?” Because already our reality is better than what people think. When they come to Ghana, when they go to Nigeria, when they go to South Africa, they’re like, “Yo, it’s like that? What? Nairobi is hot! Like, what?” So my focus is how do I leverage the power of technology and storytelling to transform how people see the continent and how we as African peoples see ourselves and each other around the world. And I think if you do that, you can build a very, very big business. I mean, we’re the youngest continent on the world. We got a market of 1.3 billion people. The technology that we build helps people get better connected and get better access to mobile technology and rich media content. But on a cultural level, you know, we’re literally focused on not only connecting the continent, but connecting the culture across the diaspora, and that doesn’t just mean Black people, you know? At the end of the day, our culture has been so impactful all around the world that we should be able to have dialogue with people in Korea and Vietnam and in Germany and in Argentina. Why not? And that is what I want to contribute, a permanent positive shift where we’re telling our own stories and the world is responding to how we see ourselves.

Zach
I mean, I want to give a little bit of space before we let you go. I’m just blown away by this. That’s why I’m pausing. What advice would you give to Black and brown folks trying to build movements, businesses or whatever else they’re trying to do?

Derrick
We got to work together. We have to be open minded. You never know where your allies and your partners can come from. We’ve been able to build a multi-cultural, multi-racial, multi-gender, ethnic squad that has got incredible skills. I think that you have to not only believe in yourself and believe in each other, you have to be willing to, you know, suffer the slings and arrows, so to speak, because everyone–like, I’ll literally step into a room and be the most expert person on the subject I’m talking about and still have people talk over me. And in a way you could get mad, but what I do is I try to be really good at what I do, because at the end of the day, I’m trying to make an impact and to succeed, not just to feel good, not just to feel, “Oh, I got my props,” but like, no, to be the baddest. And I think that for those who are seeking to find a way to build something that they can believe in, start with that. You know, find out what moves you. Believe in you. Believe in yourself. Strive to be great at what you do. Find other people who believe in this thing too, who believe in you. Do it together. I just feel like there’s so much, you know, drama in the world today, and people are sad and despairing and anxious and fearful – for real reasons, for real reasons, but there has to be a spirit of joy in this battle. You have to find something that you love so deeply, so passionately, that every day, even if it’s just a flicker, that flame is still alive, and cultivate that flame, and try to shine as bright as you can.

Zach
Yo, Derrick, you know, this has been dope, man. Before we get out of here, please plug Pass the Mic: Africa and where folks can learn more about it.

Derrick
No doubt. You guys can check us out at TakeBackTheMic.com. That’s TakeBackTheMic.com. You will see the links to download it on Google Play, download on the Apple App Store. Once again, go to TakeBackTheMic.com. When you get in there, there’s literally a chart button. Hit that chart button on the bottom of the app, and it will show you a series of flags and the competing countries, and you will get to see what Take Back the Mic: Africa is all about and the incredible talents that we’ve discovered, and we’re going to share their stories in the most beautiful way. I will say, you know, we are shooting right now–and the worldwide production has largely stopped because of COVID, but we’re shooting live as we speak in six different countries simultaneously, and when you see–I think we have three Academy Award-submitted producers on the squad this year. When you see the stories that are coming out of the continent as seen through the eyes of African artists… It is incredible, and I’m proud and I’m happy and I’m excited to share with the world.

Zach
Man, y’all heard it here. Look, check out Pass the Mic: Africa in the show notes. Make sure you look up all the information we have in the show notes about Derrick Ashong and all the things he’s been doing, all the things he’s working on. Y’all, this is what we do. Every single week, we’re having conversations on Living Corporate centering and amplifying Black and brown folks at work, and Black and brown folks–it’s not just Black and brown folks who are American descendants of slavery, it’s the whole diaspora, right? It’s Black and brown people, and I’m just so honored. I’m so excited and thankful that we’re able to have Derrick on the show. ‘Til next time, this has been Zach. You’ve been listening again to Derrick Ashong, entrepreneur and musician, producer, writer, speaker, connector, all those things. Peace. And we’re back. Look, you know, again, I want to shout out Derrick, shout out all the work that he’s doing. Make sure you look up all the information on Pass the Mic: Africa. Everything’s in the show notes. Don’t be a stranger. A lot of great content’s happening. And just a reminder, y’all, that, like, you know, we’re magic, and we’re real at the same time. Like, you know, we make the world move, right? Like, you think about hip hop, you think about all the things that we birthed, right? Like, the world spins because of us, and I hope that you found this conversation encouraging. I found it really exciting and insightful and exciting for real, and I’m hoping, also, that you can give us five stars, right? If you haven’t stopped and got on iTunes–sorry, Apple Podcasts. I say iTunes. I’m actually old for real, y’all. Like, I’m 31. I’m an old 31. If you haven’t given us five stars on Apple Podcasts, I mean, I just… I don’t know, man. I’m looking at the numbers. I’m seeing a lot of downloads, you know? I’m saying can we get to 305 star reviews by the end of the year? Can we? I think we can. Just take a second, you know? I’m saying pause and just press five stars. And don’t give four. I see a couple of fours. Our average overall rating is five stars, but some of y’all out there giving us four stars. I mean, that’s crazy. That’s crazy. Anyway, look, we’ll talk to y’all soon. Thank you so much for checking out Living Corporate, and shoot, next thing you’ll hear will be myself and Amy on See It to Be It on Saturday. Peace.

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