Derrick Ashong: Actor, Musician
By Sam Speedie
Special to the Gazette
The work of Derrick Ashong '98 appeared upon both Harvard's theatrical stage and Hollywood's silver screen this week.
Ashong's performance-based honors thesis for African-American studies -- an original musical with a strong West African beat -- opened in Lowell Hall on Monday.
In addition, Ashong (a second-semester senior in Currier House) performs a supporting role alongside actor Djimon Hounsou in Amistad, the Steven Spielberg film about mutiny aboard a slave ship. The historical drama opened nationwide yesterday.
As a native of Ghana, West Africa, who subsequently lived in New York and Saudi Arabia before settling with his family in Voorhees, N.J., Ashong continues to draw upon his diverse background in shaping his music and his acting.
"As a kid growing up in the '80s, I was influenced by the same groups as most American kids," he recalls. "Run DMC, Bon Jovi, Parliament Funkadelic. . . . These were hip-hop, hard rock, and funk bands who really charted the decade. But African and Arab music -- the traditional music of the places I lived -- have both been influences as well.
Ashong began teaching himself the piano at age 10, and in fifth grade he began playing clarinet in his school's jazz band. During his sophomore year of high school, he started to compose ballads and to write poetry. "I realized that songwriting and creative writing are all about the process of storytelling," he says.
His creative process is purely organic: "I walk around all the time with songs in my head. I write down what's going through my brain, then I edit and revise by fleshing out my ideas on the page. It's essentially about matching actual tones and scales to my ideas."
At Harvard, Ashong does a singing session just about every week, turning his music into collaborative experience. "I'll go down to the Square with a group of friends, sometimes to the Common above the T-stop, and we'll start singing as people walk by."
Ashong has progressed beyond the amateur sphere by capitalizing on his own talents and ingenuity, exemplified by his landing a part in Amistad through an open audition in New York last fall.
"A number of my friends and I drove down this particular weekend, only to find about 500 people waiting along with us," he recalls. "The casting people were looking for somebody who could accurately speak in a West African dialect, and they gave me a piece of dialogue to translate. At first I just sat there, my mind a total blank, until I calmed down and realized I could do this."
In an effort to foster a greater sense of community among artists at the College, Ashong founded the Harvard Entertainment Club, a student group dedicated to building networks among students and alumni working in the entertainment worlds of New York and Los Angeles.
"Forging connections," he says, "is a central aim, but we're most concerned with providing artists at Harvard with a network of support. Too often the aspiring artist here gets the sense that the creative discipline doesn't stack up against such traditional paths as law, medicine, or business. I feel it's important to change that perception."
Although he had originally envisioned himself on the law-school track, Ashong is now considering a professional career that blends acting with music.
"I'd love to write scores for movies," he says. "I really believe that the soundtrack is essential to the dramatic effect of a movie."
Copyright 1998 President and Fellows of Harvard College