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Changing the Tune of Social Activism

Written by  September 5, 2011

Vancouver’s Sol Guy is mixing music, celebrity and social activism to spark real change in the entertainment and non-profit worlds.

Sol Guy is this year’s keynote speaker at the Toronto Go Global Expo, September 24-25, 2011. Meet Sol in person and hear more about his inspiring journey and his bold ideas. Visit letsgoglobal.ca for more information.

Vancouver music producer Sol Guy was on his way to a life of luxury in New York City. At the age of 25, he was already a hip-hop music producer, an artist manager and the owner of an independent record label. He had quickly become one of the youngest executives at Arista Records and was responsible for taking top artists on music tours around the world.

But everything changed for Guy when he was invited to travel to Sierra Leone—a country of just over 5 million people on Africa's western coast that was in the throes of a brutal civil war—to be part of a documentary film with MuchMusic and War Child Canada. There, he met with child soldiers and victims of the civil war and was thrust into a new reality.

Now, ten years later, Guy thinks of that trip to Sierra Leone as a turning point for both his career and his personal life. Since then, he has become a major player in the non-profit world and is intent on making real, lasting social change.

Guy's childhood had helped set the stage for his move into social activism. He grew up in the Kootenay Rockies region of British Columbia with parents who, in his words, were "real-deal hippies." He developed a passion for hip-hop groups like Public Enemy at a time when the genre delivered a very political message. After completing high school, Guy headed to Vancouver where he got involved in the music scene and helped found the hip-hop group Rascalz, whose music was also infused with a social message.

Guy's first major foray into social activism after his trip to Sierra Leone was the creation of the television series 4Real, along with childhood friend and environmental advocate, Josh Thome. In the documentary series, celebrities travel around the world to connect with young leaders who are working to make change in their own countries. Major celebrities like Cameron Diaz, Joaquin Phoenix and Eva Mendes, to name a few, signed on for the project and used their celebrity status to bring attention to lesser-known causes around the world.

Now 35, Guy lives with his family in Los Angeles. Over the years he's worked with major artists such as K'naan, Lauren Hill and Usher. He still manages to balance his music career with social activism—and when he can, he unites the two.

Verge sat down with Sol Guy to ask him about his work, his travels and most importantly, what inspires him to make a difference.

Verge: I understand that a 2001 trip to Sierra Leone prompted you to get involved with international development work. Can you tell me a bit about that trip and what inspired you?

Sol Guy: When I was in Africa, it all kind of converged for me. I was in a place that I’d heard mostly negative things about, and I found myself at the tail end of a ten-year war that had happened predominantly over natural resources—specifically diamonds. [I saw] the tragedy and atrocity of war firsthand with child soldiers and victims, but at the same time, people wanted to move on and forgive the people who committed these atrocities against them, to move forward and find resolution.

You really question wealth when you’re in a place like this where people don’t have [anything], but they’re willing to share the little bit they do have with you. At the time, I was living and working in New York City and involved in the music industry. I was working with people who had millions of dollars and didn’t want to give a man on the street a dollar. I knew I had to do something, but I had no clarity on what I wanted to do.

V: What was your next move after Sierra Leone?

SG: I came back and I was living New York. Things that had made a lot of sense before didn’t make sense to me anymore. I was around some pretty successful dudes who would wear $100,000 worth of diamonds around their necks with no understanding of where [those diamonds] came from. Eventually, I would start to use some of what I learned in music and film to create.

Initially, I took the film that we created with War Child and MuchMusic and I used that to go into schools and talk about my experiences. On the other hand, I stepped away from everything I’d been doing; I moved out of New York [to Toronto] and I gave everything away. I call it business suicide. I gave it away because it was the easiest way to get out of what I had created. I literally gave my bus away to my partners and I told them that I couldn’t work with them anymore. These were my friends, these were the people I grew up with, my social circle, so I very much assassinated my character.

V: How did they react to that?

SG: Umm…[laughs]. Some of them understood it, and I’m happy to say that I’m still friends with those guys. I knew I was no longer the leader they wanted me to be and I was going to do them a disservice. I also realized pretty quickly I couldn’t bring them into the ideology that I was starting to formulate in my head.

V: Tell me about the TV series 4Real. How did you get the idea to bring the entertainment world and social activism together?

SG: It’s not a unique idea. We’ve seen fundraisers for years where you have a big microphone and people want to attach it to a cause, and I’ve always thought that was a good [strategy]. But I’ve always been very critical of the process.

I liken what we do to alchemy: You’re experimenting with very potent ingredients that have the ability to be hugely impactful—or blow up in your face. If you’re going to marry activism and entertainment, you have one of two outcomes: it can be brilliant or it can be literally nauseating. Just because you're a star, just because you have influence, it doesn't mean you’re an expert on anything. We didn’t want to impose ideas or reinvent the wheel, or go around the world saving anyone. We identified young people around the world who were already doing the work, and we thought about the idea of celebrity and who we need to be celebrating. Perhaps we need to elevate some of these young people to the status of celebrity, or at least put them at the same field.

V: Were there any situations where celebrities didn’t react well to staying in tents or not travelling the way that they’re used to?

SG: I was surprised, actually. I’ve been asked this a few times, but people were so happy to be outside of their comfort zone and to have a unique experience that they just went with it. It was really cool, we didn’t have any diva activity.

V: What do you see as your role as a social activist?

SG: I hope that over the years I’ve learned to be a good storyteller and build narratives, whether it be it in music, film or television. If you change the narrative and tell stories differently, you allow people to engage with the issues—and more importantly, the solutions—differently. I’m kind of tired of being told about all the problems and the half-assed solutions that we’ve formulated to solve them. I’m more interested in people who are solution-oriented and insane enough to come up with moon-shot ideas about how we can radically affect change.

My role as an activist, or an artist, is to change the narrative and create space for new ways of engagement that allow people on the ground to get the tools they need to empower themselves and move on.

V: What are you working on now?

SG: A few things—K'naan has got a record coming out, and we’ve been making a new record together. It's an amazing new album, so we’ll have that rolling out by the end of the year.

I have a couple of documentaries I'm working on. I’ve been asked to participate in a film that Mandela’s Children are doing (called Mandela’s Children). It’s shot over the course of five days with all of his grandchildren. I’m also working on a documentary film with my friend JR, who won the TED prize this year.

We’ve also got a new series that we’re in the early stages of developing—it’s kind of the next step after 4Real. It's a journalist-driven talk show idea. I think there is a lack of good news stories, so how do we stay on ground and gather information. I just kind of jump from project to project where I know that I can put my heart in it.

V: What advice do you have for youth who are reading the magazine and who are interested in making a social change?

SG: It’s way simpler than what you think. What I do may not be what you do; I’m just an example, I’ve got a hundred examples of people that inspire me. Tap into what you're passionate about, and try to find a way to implement that in your day-to-day life. You may end up travelling the world and doing things in other countries and contributing to issues that are happening around the world or you may end up doing it locally. If you live a passion-filled life, you’re going to find ways to give back.

It’s this generation’s responsibility to reinvent what it means to be charitable. There’s no road map right now and there are huge opportunities with the net and the way we’re all connected. Charity itself is a beautiful thing—giving from your heart is probably one of the highest things we can aspire to—but I want people to come up with new ways to do that.

V: Why do you think travel is important to youth?

SG: Travel is huge. If I had one wish for people, it would be that they get out of their comfort zone, and when you travel, you find yourself out of your comfort zone. I’ve learned more travelling the world than I ever could have within four walls during university or through watching television. I’ve learned to experience, and then I’ve had the privilege of wrapping my experience back up into the television to give people the chance to go where I went, and to tell a story. Nothing is more impactful than travel and getting on the ground, experiencing cultures around the world without taking your ego or preconceived ideas with you. The learning curve is infinite.

V: What would you say has been your biggest challenge, doing the kind of work you do?

SG: I think it’s trying to figure out how to innovate and to get support for it. To acknowledge that even though we have the best intentions, we don’t always have the best outcomes. And we owe it to ourselves to do things differently. The giving community is proud of itself for what they raise, and I think their intention is beautiful, but our impact and the way we give needs to be restructured. I think that’s probably one of my biggest frustrations is how do we rethink that idea.

V: In an article I read about you, one the authors called you a “modern-day renaissance man.” How does that kind of attention make you feel?

SG: [Laughs] It's interesting—when I come to an event and someone reads a bio before I walk on stage, it's always the most awkward moment; it makes me feel weird. But recently, in the last year-and-a-half or so, I’ve started to understand and be proud of my experiences.

One of the things that we need to reflect on is a new idea of what success and leadership looks like. If I can be a better leader and show people what success looks like for me, and that it is different than what they see some of my peers doing, then I’ll feel that I’ve had success. I’m happy to own the “renaissance man” or whatever title you want to give me—as long as I can own the space, I’m cool with that. If I find myself in a position where people are interested in what I have to say or the journeys that I go on, then I’m proud of that.

Sol Guy is this year’s keynote speaker at the Toronto Go Global Expo, September 24-25, 2011. Meet Sol in person and hear more about his inspiring journey and his bold ideas. Visit letsgoglobal.ca for more information.

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Published in Why we travel
Andrea Gourgy

Originally from Montreal, Andrea has a hard time staying in one place. After gaining a BA from Western and a Masters in Journalism from the University of Southern California, Andrea hit the road and never looked back. She has worked professionally as a journalist in six different countries, and earned several travel writing awards in the process. Andrea joined the Verge team in 2006.

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