Musical Activist

Mainstream pop culture churns out plenty of rockers and rappers, but Derrick N. Ashong ’97, G ’08, is plugged into a different station. Leader of the pan-African hip-hop band Soulfège and zealous activist for African issues, he brings “Afro-diasporic groovalicious funkadociousness” to the airwaves while striving to repair negative misperceptions of contemporary African nations and their culture.

Derrick Ashong uses music to educate
Courtesy of ASAFO Media LLC

Born in Ghana, Ashong’s childhood was spent in an eclectic collection of locations throughout West Africa and the United States. His father, with a background in medicine, “dragged” the family around the world as he trained physicians in Saudi Arabia and then managed a children’s urgent-care center in Qatar. Ashong says these globetrotting experiences exposed him to nearly every genre of music—from Afro-pop to Bon Jovi to Arabic beats—fueling his own creative development and leading to the fusion of music his band is known for today.

 While concentrating in Afro-American studies, Ashong developed as an artist through his participation in the BlackCAST student theater and by arranging musical pieces for the Kuumba Singers. When peers were handing in their 50-page senior theses, he debuted his project, an original musical entitled Songs We Can’t Sing, to a sold-out audience. That spring, he packed his bags and headed to Los Angeles after being selected to play a supporting role in Steven Spielberg’s film Amistad, about a nineteenth-century slave-ship revolt. “All of these things just kept pushing me further in the arts,” he says, “giving me the confidence that, hey, I can try, and I can do this, and I can learn and grow in this area.”

 Building upon his experiences in the entertainment industry, Ashong then assembled Soulfège, an offshoot of a band that he started soon after graduating. The 12-piece ensemble, whose name is derived from the seven-note musical scale “solfège” (with an extra “u” for the added “soul,” says Ashong), melds the timbres of electric bass, keyboard, trumpet, saxophone, and voice, with Ashong himself on lead guitar. Their first album, Heavy Structured, was released in 2004 and helped the group win a nomination for Best World Music Act of 2005 at the Boston Music Awards. Along with playing local venues, the band has traveled to Ghana during the last three summers to perform, build their reputation, and record with top producers in that country.

Ashong’s involvement in Soulfège, along with his current academic research as a doctoral student in African and African American studies and ethnomusicology at Harvard, inspired him to dream up the Sweet Mother Tour (SMT), a global endeavor that brings together artists, activists, and educators who use different forms of mainstream media, including pop culture and film, to spread empowering representations of pan-African people. Products released by the SMT, including two music videos by Soulfège, have reached the airwaves of more than 45 countries. “What we’re trying to do is shift the pop-cultural status quo; we want to challenge it,” Ashong declares. “We want to provide a different image of Africa to Africans themselves and present a different image to the world…[and show] what’s really going on.” Soulfège’s hit single “Sweet Remix,” for example, filmed in the streets, schools, and marketplaces of Ghana, offers viewers a sense of the cultural richness of the country along with its music.

 This April, Ashong and colleague Kelley N. Johnson ’02 spearheaded a three-day conference at Harvard, “Youth and the New Pan-African Renaissance,” which drew more than 250 delegates from several countries to discuss pressing issues facing the pan-African community. A benefit concert headlining Soulfège raised $1,000 for orphanages and youth development centers in Africa. As an artist, Ashong has transcended the mold of mainstream music, but as an activist he’s out to accomplish much more. “It’s not just about music,” he says, “it’s about movement.” 

~Ying Wang


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