Sol Guy’s For Real - Exclusive Interview
Source: Dawn Langfield, Langfield Entertainment
Sol Guy - social
activist, entrepreneur, television producer and host, music
manager, father … the list goes on
and on. You would think that these moves were done
consecutively or in a particular order and with specific
purpose. No, they are done in conjunction with each other. And
it didn’t come easy.
Art Culture Change –Sol’s mantra and it’s not just talk - he is
living proof of the interaction and intertwining of these
three. Here we talk about
transitioning from music
executive to managing
K'naan and their World Cup
experience, his role as founder of the television series
bridging the gap between social activism and entertainment.
Sol, reading your resume alone
is an inspiring tale of how one changed life affects change in
the lives of others. Do you remember the moment that you knew
your life would be changed forever, that day in Sierra Leone
In hindsight, you would like
to think that in that moment, you made this decision to make a
difference or to change your life. But I think that that is a
bit pretentious in that when you come to those types of
decisions, when you actually make
the decision to make a change, you’ve probably wrestled with it
for a long time. And there are certain factors that have
contributed to manifest that change. The biggest step is the
final step when you do make the call, or wash your hands of
something or you make a move in your life. I can definitely
nail contributing factors to what got me took me off the path I
was going on.
The two that stick out, in
the course of a couple of years, was the death of my father and
then my first trip to Africa,
where I went to Ghana, the Ivory Coast and Sierra Leone. Both
life changing, and both representing life and death and both
allowing me to examine life. Death, especially of a parent,
puts quite a mirror up. You start thinking of values. A
similar thing happened in Africa. It just pulled a huge layer
back of what the world is and what people deal with in the
world. And it made me start the question the idea of wealth and
what wealth is measured by – whether dollars or heart – it
brought up all these questions.
It connected directly back to
who my father is and to my Mom, stepmom, my sisters and my
family and my roots and how I was raised. How a couple of
Americans living in the woods in B.C. and raising these mixed
kids in a small town. And why they were there and what
decisions they made to live an alternative lifestyle. In turn,
they gave me a different way to look at the world. So all those
contributing factors along the way.
Were your parents ever involved in social activism?
Yes, my Mom was always
fundraising in the community. My parents met in D.C. in the
late 60’s and it must have been an interesting time when being a
social activist was avant-garde. In comparison if the pimp-gangsta
image is what makes you cool as a young person today, which is
mostly about attracting women, being the cool guy, having
friends and being admired, in turn, in Malcolm X and Martin
Luther King’s heyday, the guy in the sharp suit with a stack of
books at the café talking about what he learned in Africa, was
My point is that my parents
lived in a time where it was part of what you had to do – a
social movement globally.
My Mom is Jewish from upstate New York and my father is Black
American from the Deep South and they started living on the
fringe – they became hippies. Then they carried that on to
moving out of America because they were fed up with it and split
to Canada - Halifax and hitchhiked across Canada in the early
70’s. Imagine a 6’ 4” Black man in Canada … he said some people
in the middle of Canada hadn’t even seen a Black person before.
They ended up on Vancouver Island in a hippie commune, which was
run by a folk singer Valdy, who I still see sometimes. Then
they moved to the interior.
My Mom was always fundraising
– Families for Children, an organization to help children around
the world. She would do toy drives and her and her friends would
do Kids Help Kids Day. The whole community would get involved
and ship a trainload of goods to a small community in South
America that was in need. So that was my Mom.
I think more than anything
they were the kind of people who encouraged us to find out for
ourselves. They said ‘here’s the facts and here’s the
information … you decide’.
would you best describe your television series 4Real to someone
who hadn’t heard of it?
4Real takes celebrity guests
around the world to connect with young people who, under extreme
circumstances, are doing phenomenal things to change their
communities. In order to get the television series going, it
took me a couple of years.
[Note: Celebrities and
locations they visited include (but not limited to): Eva
Mendes - Vancouver; Casey Affleck – Oklahoma;
Cameron Diaz – Peru; K’naan - Kenya's Kibera;
M.I.A. – Liberia; Mos Def – Rio, Brazil; Joaquin
Phoenix - Amazon Rainforest.
I’ve watched almost all the episodes. What strikes me is the
affect it has on the group. You see moments, to quote Oprah,
the ‘ah ha’ moment.
Any success of that show and
all the beautiful things that have manifested from it, are
really a testament to those young people and the unbelievable
work they are doing. One of the things that I’m most proud of
is that we were able to travel there, even with these big
celebrities in a very similar fashion that we researched and
discovered these people. The idea that if we could just bring
people (the celebrity brings the audience) then we could mirror
our experience. To be very honest, the first time I went to the
Amazon with Tashka Yawanawa – if that had just been for me and I
lived with that for the rest of my life, it would have been more
than satisfying – it’s enough. But he was such an unbelievable
guy that I felt like I was doing the world an injustice if I
didn’t, in some way, tell the story because I knew how.
You mentioned you those ‘ah
ha’ moments. We had a small crew of really good people and
brought a skill in their own right – the celebrity was the same
as the soundman. It was a cool comradery. We didn’t have hair
and makeup and every celebrity would only be allowed one guest
so that you couldn’t bring a whole entourage with you. If we
could facilitate the celebrity – first class if it was
available, or a great hotel – great. However, if we were in the
mountains, you’d stay in a tent with everybody else. I think
that created an environment for that show to be successful.
In addition, we didn’t
reshoot anything – we shot what was there. My sister, Shoshona,
who produced and directed many of the episodes, helped us
understand the structure that we needed. But in our ideal
world, we didn’t want structure. She took a step away from
complete structure, we stepped away from no structure, and there
was something there in the middle. And we had a good team so it
did you get from that moment to leaving the music business and
moving towards a life dedicated to social and global change
Two things - my upbringing
and my cultural entry point was hip hop. My upbringing was in
this hippie movement, second-generation kid, mixed kid, doesn’t
quite fit in, trying to find identity.
And then I found hip hop - I
got some records because my stepfather was listening to the CBC
(!), this new music, maybe mid-80s.
He thought they were cool so he ordered the records for me.
Bambaataa and Planet Rock and also Grandmaster Flash and
the Message. It blew my mind! I started going to the store in
Grand Forks, North Dakota
where all they had was
the Scorpions and AC/DC. So here I come, ‘Can you order
me Run DMC, Tougher than Leather’. The response was ‘That’s
rap!’ I’d end up arguing with the guy to order it for me. It
was finding identity.
My first concert was Ice-T at
the Commodore when I was in Vancouver when I was 16. I was
blown away and in love with hip hop. And then I found
Public Enemy records – the pinpoint of when I was falling in
love with hip hop – there was a through line of social
activism. It was revolutionary music. NWA’s F**k the Police
was as revolutionary as it comes … gangsta rap has become a
whole other thing now but those guys had their finger on the
I had that lens. When I was
with the Rascalz and things started happening for us, we had
that expression within what we were doing. We could make party
records, fun records, or “I’m the best rapper” record. But we
were also inspired by those records. I got to this place in the
music industry that I was becoming disillusioned with my role in
it and what people were doing and the direction that not only
the music was going in but also in being in charge of spreading
that message around the world, that’s when I started to say,
‘this can’t really work for me’.
The short answer is that that
was always a part of me. It was the way I was raised, it was
the way I was raised on hip hop and it took my own
dissatisfaction with the direction of the overall industry and
my role in it by default of who I had become as a young
executive, for me to make a decision that I wanted to do
something differently . I don’t think that I ever was not an
activist per se until my actions defined me as one. But I think
we were always trying to call out the wrong thing.
When I got to a point
personally decided I didn’t want to be managing the artists I
was managing anymore (which is not a reflection of them, their
art or their creativity). I’m a heart person and my passion was
gone so I needed to find something else. When I let it all go,
I’d love to sit here and tell you I knew exactly what I was
going to do but I didn’t know.
The 4Real idea was in the
atmosphere … but really I was just sitting in an apartment on
Seaton Street. No one could figure it out. Why would Sol who
had all this success then made the almost impossible jump to
Arista Records in New York, working with Puffy, Wu Tang Clan and
Biggie, and managing Kardi and the Rascalz and k-os … is it true
that he gave the company away? That he said take it all?
The real story is that’s what
happened. Because I wanted so much to be free of it, and in
hindsight I don’t even know if I handled it well. I love all
those guys and we’re all still friends. I just knew that I
didn’t want anything. Someone said very interesting to me once
and I took it to heart, they said “You don’t necessarily know
when it’s on, but you sure as hell know when something’s off.”
And when it’s off, you’ve got to make a change.
would you enlighten someone like me that has never been very
involved in social works globally but wants to help? What is
it, in your opinion, that ignites action in someone’s heart?
I don’t think I necessarily
want anyone to envision my passion. I’m hopeful that my actions
and who I am as a person could spark a person’s passion.
Someone said once that the best thing that you can do for the
planet is to find your passion and live it to the fullest
and be the best person you can be.
There’s no difference whether
we’re over here making tunes and movies or TV, that’s our lane.
Just as relevant is the construction who does sports camps on
the weekends and coaches the baseball team with the kids and
fires those kids up and gives back to the community in that
way. It’s all relative and it’s all relevant and reflective to
you and what you’re doing on a day-to-day basis. What I would
hope is that if I am a representation of that and if they find
inspiration in it then they would dust off their passion if
they’re not as in tune with it. Because we all have
something that we love and if you can do what you love on a
daily basis, you are very fortunate.
You’re a living example of not only it driving your passion and
living a fulfilled life, it’s also been successful which I
believe the two cannot help but go together if you let it.
Perhaps that wouldn’t have happened if you didn’t have those
days where people thought you’d lost your mind.
When I think back on it now,
I don’t know how stable I was in those days! I was questioning
everything, I didn’t want anything to do with it (the music
business). I met this young Somali kid named K’naan in those
days. My whole first year of becoming friends and hanging out
with K’naan and when things started to happen for him, I’d be
saying ‘if I was in the music industry still, I’d go to that
studio and do a track with them or this publishing deal? I
would change this this and this … but I’m not in it’. I had
vowed to never do it again when I met K’naan. But things
did K’Naan’s song ‘Wavin’ the Flag’ become the Coca
Cola-sponsored anthem for the World Cup?
It was an interesting and long process … by the time we finished
the campaign it was an 18-month process. When one of these
massive brands needs a song, they put a brief out to all their
agencies around the world. We first heard about it from William
Morris, our booking agent. The idea was World Cup 2010 – Coca
Cola’s biggest campaign, big music driver in it, release your
African rhythm, it’s about celebration. They give you a bit of
a theme, which was a ‘twist and shout’ melody. They probably
got about 40-50 demos from a lot of people. First of all, World
Cup in South Africa is very interesting to us because of who
K’naan is as an African man and the bridge that he walks between
both worlds. But we weren’t so convinced on the creative
brief. Immediately though we thought about the song that we
had, Wavin’ Flag, and the sentiment of it. The album version is
almost like a ballad, a real coming-of-age story and personal
story of K’naan’s. It definitely wasn’t this celebratory tune
that the World Cup would need. K’naan had written that song a
long time ago and I knew it was a special song as soon as I
heard it. What we managed to do was to get some of the
decision-makers at Coca Cola to come to a show. So they saw
K’naan perform at SXSW. They really dug and then we started to
dialogue and it was around Wavin’ Flag and they dug K’naan as an
artist and person and the story. They wanted something real and
tangible. So we worked on a new version on the song for them so
we went into the studio with Phil and Bruno in LA. Then we did
the deal and the plan rolled out. It was probably about 6
months before the deal was done. Then they laid out the massive
plan with the World Cup Trophy Tour. The big thing about this
one was that they were going to hit every African country which
was amazing. There ended up being 22 versions of the song.
Spanish version, Thai version and one of my favourite versions
is Nancy Arjam from Egypt (see
here), and there’s China, there’s Japan and we did them all
with big pop stars. So 22 versions of the song ends up going to
#1 in 18 countries, has this success and becomes the unofficial
anthem for the World Cup. We kind of snuck in the door and
stole the thunder with that one.
What was the highlight personally of the World Cup experience?
There were a couple. Getting
to go to 23 African countries in 28 days and the craziness of it
but the diversity of that continent and the depth of the people
and the different cultures and the languages – it’s
unbelievable. 40-minute plane ride and you were in a different
world. That continent is one of the richest places on earth –
from that fact that it provides the world with 50% of its
resources to this day and that there is so much history there.
It was amazing to get schooled and be received so well. It was
amazing to see K’naan’s homecoming and what the continent at the
World Cup, how he was received and how they treated him. From a
guy driving a taxi to big businessmen.
one of the richest men in Africa or people at the Mandela
gala fundraiser we attended, or the people that worked 16 years
to bring the World Cup to South Africa and the words they had
for K’naan and what we were doing. The collective pride, the
kids in Soweto singing for K’naan. Phenomenal!
The second thing was to
attend some of those games. And to personally witness the power
of sport and how it brings people together in a unique space and
90,000 people cheering for something. Sports and music are the
two things that bring people together across all these barriers,
culture and social and political. All of that was really
inspiring to me.
But bar none, we met
Nelson Mandela. I don’t even have nothing to say … we met
Nelson Mandela. That was the highlight of the entire thing. We
got a special invite to his home and spent a little time.
Arguably one of the greatest if not the greatest human beings on
the planet. A phenomenal man that we can all aspire to be
like. The beauty of meeting him was that it reminds you that
there are great people all over the world doing great things.
He’s a testament to it at the
highest level but we all know somebody that has a bit of his
spirit. There’s people all over Toronto we walk by every day -
we don’t know their story. It gave you that human pride. It
gave you hope in humanity, you know? If there’s such a thing as
meeting a king, I met a king. Unbelievable!
What’s next for 4Real? What’s next for K’Naan?
Now that we’ve got all this
access to things and things are really starting to come to
fruition in the way that we envisioned them, I’m proud to say
almost 10 years ago. Me and K’naan dreaming up these ideas on
Seaton Street. More music and tours for K’naan. There’s a
documentary we’re finishing about poetry and K’naan’s family in
Somalia. There’s a feature film that K’naan and I have been
working on for years. All that stuff will be rolling out.
There’s more programming and
ideas around the 4Real space. Me personally, I’m very
interested in feature films. I just made a move to LA and I’m
interested in getting involved in that world in a bunch of
There’s lots of stories to tell.
That’s right. I did
documentaries but at the end of the day you’re beholden by the
truth. When you start doing features, you can twist it up! So
I’m excited to get into that world. We are a very small
percentage of people who get the privilege to access mainstream
media. I used to pass judgment on people who just did it for
doing its sake and didn’t have something in it. I don’t do that
But whatever I will do, there
will always be something in the middle of it. And it will be as
cool, relevant, creative and as tangible as the next things that
sits right beside it. I don’t expect you to dig what we like
because it’s the right thing; I want you to like it because the
song sounds great, because it’s a great film, because it’s an
engaging television show. I guarantee you that you’ll walk
somewhere at some point and it will jump back in your head and
it might make you go hmmmm. And that’s enough for me.
Would you say that you’re living a fulfilled life?
I’m one of the luckiest guys
on the planet. I’ve got two amazing, healthy children. I
travel the world. No one calls me to wake me up in the
morning. I wake up ready to go and I do something that I love.
I get a chance to be with all sorts of different people and get
inspired. I’m very fortunate and now that the work is starting
to pay us – which is kind of cool too – that one takes a long
time, more than people would perceive – we’ve put so much into
it and for it to start to balance itself out is great. I’m just
very fortunate. We couldn’t have imagined all the things that
would combine to get us here. But what we
did do, very clearly, we saw the path and we stuck to
it. That’s the thing that I’m most proud of – that we did
We’ve always had enough and
had enough to get by. Literally thousands of people have
contributed along the way to everything that we’re doing. Some
of them dedicating years of their lives and other people in a
hello, a phone call or opening a door. Or an idea, a laugh or a
smile. None of this is us on our own. We just happen to be in
this position that we’re in.
It’s a great thing
to be around a group of guys that continuously challenge each
other as well. So life is good.