For more than twenty years, Derrick Ashong consistently established himself as a major player in Hollywood and the global entertainment industry. He appeared in a Steven Spielberg film, collaborated with global music stars like Janet Jackson and Debbie Allen, and produced hit television shows that aired on major networks like the BBC World Service, MTV, and the BET. But that’s not all; the Harvard graduate has also hosted top shows on Oprah Radio, Aljazeera, ABC/Univision, etc. And for all his accomplishments, he has won numerous awards and was recently nominated for three Emmy Awards.
Now he has a new project which he is quite passionate about, and it is all about positioning African entertainment on a global stage. In this exclusive interview with Business Elites Africa, Derrick spoke extensively about how he and his team at AMP Global Technology are using TV shows like The Mic Africa to accomplish just that. Enjoy the conversation.
BEA: Nice to meet you, Mr Ashong. Briefly tell us a bit about yourself.
Derrick Ashong: I’m Derrrick Ashong, originally from Accra Ghana; raised there as well as in Brooklyn New York and in the Middle East. My career path has been at the intersection of technology, media and entertainment.
BEA: For the benefit of some of our readers who may not know you very well, can you talk to us about some of the things you’ve done in the field of technology and particularly what you do at AMP Global?
Derrick Ashong: Yes, for sure. So, when I was at Harvard Grad School doing my PhD research along the lines of how trends in open-source software could map unto ideas of open-source content (basically how the future of technology could change the future of entertainment), I got recruited out of that PhD programme and I wound up working for a lot of luminaries in the industry. I’ve worked for some big companies, consulted for Visa, Nokia, Interscope, and Myspace… when it was hot. I also got to work with major figures like Steven Spielberg, Oprah Winfrey, worked with big media companies like BET, Aljazeera, ABC, Disney, Univision. Throughout this time, I basically developed an expertise on how to scale multi-platform media assets. What do I mean by multi-platform media assets? It’s TV and social media, it’s radio and it’s digital, it’s livestreaming and chat. So, I was able to scale assets to over 300 million households around the world.
Along the line, I realized that we were reaching this incredibly large audience and we didn’t really know who they were. And that was when I had the vision of ‘could you build a data solution that would help you as a content owner to understand the audience watching your content while also protecting the users’ privacy?’. That impetus to ask that question eventually led to the birth of AMP Global. We focus on helping the media know their audience the same way that eCcommerce companies know their customers. Or better still, putting content consumers at the centre of the value change, whilst protecting their privacy.
BEA: How would you describe the role AMP Global plays in positioning African entertainment?
Derrick Ashong: I think we have a really unique and wonderful opportunity. I mean, we have a lot of very experienced people on the team. In the last project we worked on, we have about three Academy Awards-submitted producers on the project. And because we do tech that serves the entertainment industry, we realized that the best way to showcase to that industry what’s possible is to actually have the tech leveraged in the industry itself. So, some years ago we created a project called “Take Back the Mic the World Cup of Hip Hop” in Latin America. We got two Emmy nods, we got two-time Emmy finalists for outstanding interactive programme for that series.
What we did when we came to the continent (i.e., Africa) was to create something that is specific for Africa but that can speak to a global audience. In the course of our research prior to settling for this concept, we sought to understand what the big shows that were out there were and people were like ‘oh we’ve got Big Brother, we’ve got Idols West Africa, Real Housewives of Johannesburg, etc.’. And these are all very cool shows. I love them. But the ideas for these shows all came from the outside. Where’s the indigenous format that was conceived on the continent and went to the globe and then brought the money back home? It turned out it had never been done before. So, what AMP Global did is that we created two things. First, we created a series called “The Mic Africa” which is partly a travel show and partly a musical competition. The audience cast and curate what the show should be all about. We did it in six countries this first season – Ghana, Nigeria, Kenya, Ruanda, Mauritius, and South Africa. The audience selected three artists to represent their communities. There were 1,200 registrants and 18 were selected for the show. In addition to “The Mic Africa” series, we created the Take Back the Mic app which enabled the audience to scout, curate, and select the outcome of the show and were rewarded for their participation in it.
The big step I think we took recently in the creative and cultural industries on the continent is we showed that you could elevate artists from the communities across the continent by empowering the fans to tell the global audience what is hot. Also, the taste that those kids have in the streets of Lagos, Kigali, Johannesburg and Nairobi can help identify world-class talents. And now our goal is to help scale those talents to global audiences.
BEA: Let’s talk about The Mic Africa 2020; what was the experience like running the show? Any plans for a sequel this new year?
Derrick Ashong: We had a fantastic experience. It was very intense as well. I mean, as you know, everything changed in March when the COVID lockdown began. But we were fortunate, in that we earlier had to put measures in place to address the problem of travel restrictions after realizing that some people were facing this problem as early as February last year. So, a month before the lockdown began, we had created an alternate model that would enable us produce the show without having to travel. And that meant building local partnerships with some really high-end filmmakers. So, we just started leveraging our partnerships to figure out who were the right people to work with. Interestingly, once the lockdown happened we were already ahead of the curb. We already had a model. So, plan B became plan A. And it was a wonderful experience because normally when you see stories about Africa, you have someone coming into your country with a particular lens basically telling you ‘this is how we see you’. It doesn’t matter to them whether the vision is true or not. In this case, we said no, here is a story about a Kenyan filmmaker telling stories of Nairobi through the eyes of Kenyan artists. So, it’s just a beautiful representation of African youth culture. And despite the challenges of doing it during a pandemic, the attendant economic slowdown, and obviously public health concerns for everyone, we were able to do it very, very well. And I think when you see the output, it’s world-class. And it shows our communities and creatives in the light that they deserve to be seen.
BEA: It appears your shows are produced with a global audience in mind. Do you have plans to capture more local viewers as well?
Derrick Ashong: That’s a very good question. And the answer is yes. However, it is not only for global audiences. At the moment, we actually have three Africa-based distributors. We have a partnership with Megalectrics in Nigeria, then we have partnerships with multimedia groups Joy FM and Joy prime in Ghana, and Citizen TV and Radio in Kenya. Within that first week of launch, we went from three to eight partners. And that was very exciting and rewarding for us. At a point, we had to stop accepting new partners because we realized that some of the audience may have finished the new season while others were half-way through.
Currently, we are looking at how to expand our reach across Africa. We are also looking at how to expand into more countries globally. The series was done in English, French and Hindi. So, the next iteration will actually be reaching audiences across Africa, Asia, and Europe. At the end of the day, it will give this opportunity for African artists to reach a much global audience than much of the other competition shows on the continent can. The typical competition shows on the continent are very much for the local market. And that’s cool. It’s good because it can drive a tone of engagement. But our value proposition is quite different. Our mission is to take African artists and put them on a global stage. It’s great to be a local star. But the money is in going to the rest of the world and that is where we think we can add value.
BEA: The Coronavirus pandemic has basically grounded the global entertainment industry to a halt. Tell us a bit more about how it has affected your company.
Derrick Ashong: Like I mentioned earlier, we were very fortunate in that the pandemic didn’t really affect us as it could have. As a matter of fact, we accelerated due to Corona. Once we figured out the model that we thought made sense in February, we started working on it in February, March, April. And by the time we were in May, the model was already so robust. So, once we started shooting in October, we were shooting in six countries simultaneously. When must of the world was grounding to a halt, we shot in six countries at the same time. One of the reasons we were able to do that is because not only did we have a model that made distributed production possible, it also made it possible for us to work and collaborate with the distribution partners, the media partners and sponsors right from where we were. Normally, we have to fly to Johannesburg, we need to be in Nairobi, we need to be in Lagos and Accra, etc. But in this case, we didn’t have to go anywhere. Everybody was on Zoom. Everyone was on Microsoft Teams and Google Meets. And so we were able to leverage this moment of uncertainty and say ‘hey guys, this is a new way to do something and we guaranty that what we deliver is going to be absolutely stunning with a high-end production value than what you normally get’. That’s exactly what we did and now we have the opportunity to scale.
BEA: Tell us about your plans and expectations for the new year.
Derrick Ashong: The Mic Africa will definitely be coming back. And there are some really cool things that will be happening with it which we are very excited about. We will also be expanding to include more countries and more languages. Additionally, there’s a very cool project that will happen in the latter part of the year…I can’t announce the details yet. But the project will enable most of these artists that we’ve discovered to stand on a global stage.
We also have some really cool projects that we’ve been working on outside of the continent. This is the beauty of The Mic Africa. Again, it is designed to include the continent. It is also designed to be a format that was born in Africa, that expands and draws in audiences and creators from around the world. So, The Mic Africa will give birth to The Mic Asia, The Mic India, The Mic Europe, The Mic Brazil, etc. It is going to be a very big franchise. And our hope is that along the line, we will take some of our African values and put them out there to the rest of the world.
Now, how are we going to be able to do this? The first question should be how do people normally do it? Well, they usually start from the position of an entertainment company and typically focus on local distribution. Sadly, local audiences alone can hardly make that work. But when you are innovative and start from the position of ‘we are first of a technology company and most of our annual budget goes towards engineering and product development’, you begin to realise that you have the ability to speak to a global audience and then partner with local distributors in each of these territories. And that is what is ultimately going to make this very special and give these artists the opportunity to step up to a global stage.
BEA: How would you appraise the African entertainment industry?
Derrick Ashong: I think on the music side, there’s a lot of really amazing and dynamic stuff going on. Unfortunately, African music is sadly undervalued at this point. I mean, you see some artists that are already standing on the global stage; Burna Boy would be a good example that easily comes to mind. You have global superstars like Beyoncé coming to the continent to try and draw in African inspiration into her own works and collaborating with amazing African talents. With all of these, African music should be a driving force in the global music industry and it’s not there yet. But I do think we will get there. I envisage much more investments being put into the African entertainment industry by some of the big global players.
On the TV and film side, we also see a lot that’s been happening. I think it’s very positive the fact that Netflix has stepped up on the continent. However, there is a lot of room for growth, particularly in the quality of the production. Every time I turn on the local television when I’m in Accra, Johannesburg, Nairobi, Mauritius or wherever I am on the African continent, the typical TV production is of a much lesser quality compared to what you will see on local TV stations say in the US or Europe. Part of this problem is due to budget constraints. But then again, it is also due to the models that have developed overtime in that the content creators and content distributors have come to the consensus that this is the standard that our audience will accept so this is what we are doing. Now, what ends up happening is that you have some wonderful talents that may never be known beyond their locality because the methodology and the infrastructure of storytelling is not at a global standard.
That, I think, has to change. And that is where I think that we’ve developed some really cool and innovative processes for doing high-impact, high-quality productions at low cost so when you see it you can feel it because it’s premium, dope, and super fly. It doesn’t have to cost as much as it would if we had shot it in Los Angeles, New York, or London. And if we are successful as we believe we will be, it won’t just be that we will empower the audience, the advertisers or the distributors. Instead, the real joy would lie in the fact that the actual content creators (the producers) will all of a sudden realise that they have the tools and the infrastructure to tell better stories and reach bigger audiences.
BEA: You have accomplished quite a lot in the course of your career, including an Emmy nomination. Do you feel there is more you need to do?
Derrick Ashong: I mean, at this point I’ve had three Emmy nominations but no Emmy trophy. So, obviously, the job is not done. (Laughs). So, I think there’s a lot of work to do. I appreciate the positive sentiments. I’m very blessed that I’ve had some good people around me opening doors and guiding me through my career in the entertainment and technology sides. I see much bigger possibilities of what can be done on the continent and the role that Africa can play in a more global discourse around the culture and creative industries. I envisage a lot of capital that could be brought into the ecosystems at the intersection of technology, media and entertainment. I also see myself leveraging some of the skills that I acquired from spending 20 years in Hollywood and apply those skills to the African continent and the Global South because at the end of the day this is where most of the world’s population reside and much of the world’s future economic growth is expected to come from these places. So, I see a huge opportunity and I hope that I am able to contribute to growing the ecosystem. If I can do that in effective ways then I might feel more satisfied. But right now, I feel I’m still in the beginning of my journey.
BEA: For most small and medium-scale enterprises like yours, the biggest challenge has always been about getting access to funding. What is your experience in this regard?
Derrick Ashong: Yes, it’s been quite an endeavor raising capital. We started raising in the US and it was very, very difficult. There are a lot of issues that came around it. Consequently, we expanded our horizon and started looking globally. And I’m very pleased to say that while we were completing production on The Mic: Africa series, we were also able to secure $2.8 million in C-funding. And that has enabled us to do some really special things, including the launch of our mobile app as well as the launch of the series. We are also in the process of launching a mobile-optimised web platform later this quarter and there are other interesting things that will be coming later this year. Let me point out that we have learnt a lot through that funding process and we are very excited about our next capital raise. We’ve already gotten some interests in it and we haven’t even opened the round yet.
So, I think the lessons were hard. But for us it was a winning strategy to come home with all these skills we’ve developed all these years from around the world. Obviously, half of our team are still in the US. We have people in Buenos Aires, in New York, in Los Angeles and in Silicon Valley. But a bunch of us are here on the continent. We are in Accra, we have people in Mauritius and Lagos and we are still expanding. We are looking at how do we really build this thing as an African venture with a global viewpoint. And I know the opportunity is there. And while I think in the early days the funding was hard to come by, in recent years it’s become a lot easier for us. We raised more money last year than we have in three years prior. And that acceleration appears to continue into the new year and that will enable us to stand on a much firmer footing to accomplish greater things.
BEA: What advice would you give African entertainers who are aspiring the become the next big music stars?
Derrick Ashong: I have a couple of advice actually. First, master your craft. It is so important to be really great at what you do. I know this is a regular advice. But it can never be over-emphasised enough. Secondly, I think every artist needs to build a movement around their music, acting/filmmaking. It’s important to do that because it is the people who become an early part of that movement that will enable you to expand and grow your audience. Thirdly, I will say build bridges with artists in other countries. And that doesn’t mean you have to go immediately from here to Brussels. No. What I’m saying is if you are in Botswana, see what is bumping up in Bamako. If you are in Accra, think of how you can collaborate with somebody in Ibadan. We must continually think about how to effectively build connections among ourselves. One thing we noticed in The Mic Africa is that the artists who were most successful in the campaign are those ones who have international reach. Oftentimes, that reach was mostly on the continent. But they have crew across multiple countries and they leveraged that to elevate their voices.
BEA: I understand that you now reside mainly in Mauritius and I find that interesting because you can actually live anywhere in the world that you choose to. Any particular reason why you chose the tiny island country of Mauritius?
Derrick Ashong: That’s a wonderful question. You know, I do miss home deeply. I’m missing my jollof rice and my Kelewele. It’s hard to find proper plantain in Mauritius, you know. But we made the decision to domicile our operations here for strategic reasons. We know that the kind of work we do actually has applicability across the Global South because the markets where we saw the most opportunities are in Africa and South East Asia. Now, even though we now here on the home continent, I am still required to travel a lot. Today I’m in Singapore, tomorrow I’m in New York, Hong Kong, London, and just all over the place. And so I started thinking where could I live where it is more manageable to fly from to all these places that I am always traveling to. So, as I looked around, I realise that Mauritius is truly the gateway to Africa and a gateway to Asia. It is much easier than even being back home in Accra.
You know, one of the things I think has got to be rectified at some point in the future is the fact that traveling within Africa is quite expensive. If I am going from Accra to even Dakar, it’s a ‘situation’. So, that’s why I would rather be in Mauritius than Lagos or Accra. Another choice would have been Dubai. But then again, I wanted to build the business in Africa and Mauritius is in Africa, but just more strategically located than mainland continental Africa. But that notwithstanding, we still have people in Accra and we intend to grow there. We intend to grow in Lagos, in Nairobi, Kigali as well.
I’m very blessed just to have been able to come back to the continent. And I think that as we grow and we are able to carry a banner of African excellence to South East Asian markets and ultimately around the world, it will be a source of pride and also a source of bringing resources back to the continent.
BEA: Anything else you may want to tell our readers?
Derrick Ashong: Yeah. You know, it is not such a common story to hear about someone leaving a career in Hollywood to come back to Africa. But I think that this is a very powerful moment and an opportunity to tell stories that transcend the geographic and political boundaries. I think that African culture and creativity must be a central force in all new global conversations. I hope we will be able to help in that regard. We are also open to collaborating with others that are looking to take the creative industry to the next level.
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