This interview was conducted by our Senior Manager of Strategic Partnerships, Erik Mohn.
You started off working in fashion as a stylist. You’ve had your work on the cover of Harper’s Bazaar and in editorials of Vogue, and GQ. It took you to Japan and several countries at a young age. How did fashion open up the world to you?
Fashion opened up the world to me because it has allowed me to explore, connect with, and experience different cultures and traditions from all over the globe. It has even given me the opportunity to learn new languages on moderate levels. Through fashion, I’ve also been able to sit at tables, attend high-profile events, and befriend some of the world’s most brilliant people that money couldn’t (and wouldn’t) normally be able to give you access to.
How do you prefer to travel and explore new cultures? How do you go about connecting with the local culture but also reconnecting with parts of yourself?
I prefer to travel and explore new cultures through food, fashion, art, dance, and sports, and I love to explore these things in local places. Local places will give you the authenticity of a city and will teach you a lot more about the culture and people than anything else. This is where a lot of my inspiration comes from, as well. When I used to style people who are from different parts of the world, I would always have multiple conversations with them before taking them on as a client. I did that to get a sense of their true being beyond the glitz and glamor–to understand who they are at their core–and then proceed from there.
I have learned from experience that when listening, you actually learn about a person’s values and morals through the things they’re comfortable sharing and the things they aren’t. I have learned to apply this experience back to myself. By learning about someone’s culture and values just by listening to them, I feel that I am then able to connect with them on a deeper level. You see, when I learn about others and from others, I truly feel that I discover things about myself.
How has traveling transformed your life both personally and professionally as a Creative Director? How has travel expanded your awareness and appreciation of beauty for both people and places?
Personally, travel has allowed me to respect and appreciate a person who is completely different from me: their thoughts, to their concerns and just overall ways of going about their everyday life. Just because things, routines, and/or habits are or can be different does not mean that it’s wrong; I now thoroughly understand that. Traveling takes me out of my bubble and humbles me quite a lot. Traveling makes me realize that the world is bigger than us and puts everything into perspective–my struggles, my happiness, my life. It also taught me patience and has allowed me to make new friends, as well as reconsider my attachment to objects.
Professionally, travel has changed my entire perspective and approach to my work, including incorporating different themes, languages, colors, narratives and contexts. It also conditioned me to adapt to change much quicker. Not only adapt, but also learn how to accept, embrace, and love it. Only through change can we grow. Travel has expanded my awareness and appreciation of beauty for both people and places by exploring beautiful landscapes, rural areas, inner cities, and its people with an open heart. I leave all stereotypes and judgement at home when I arrive to a foreign place. As a way of appreciating the beauty of our differences, I always try to bring back sentimental items such as paintings, images, or jewelry.
Tell me about the Straight Forward Foundation and how you became passionate about empowering people with scoliosis.
The StraightForward Scoliosis Foundation (SFF) is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit with the mission of improving the quality of life of individuals affected by scoliosis through empowerment, education, awareness, and preventative care. We create empowerment and awareness campaigns that delivers an impactful, creative, and emotional platform focusing on the artistic beauty of how spinal curvatures uniquely affect the human body and mind. As research shows, the emotional side of scoliosis puts a heavy burden on people living with the condition. We at SFF therefore truly believes in celebrating the remarkable stories of people afflicted to advance the understanding of the emotional implications, as well as create a society where those affected feel empowered and heard. Having a unique approach, our foundation raises proceeds for medical research by way of fashion and art.
You recently took a trip to Ghana to meet with professionals from the medical field and produce an awareness campaign for your foundation. Tell me how that opportunity came about and the idea behind the campaign. How was your experience and what did you learn about the medical infrastructure there?
That opportunity came about through a special speech I gave at the Lincoln Center earlier this year at a benefit concert on behalf of another amazing scoliosis organization by the name of FOCOS. FOCOS provides optimum orthopedic care to patients worldwide, and has a hospital located in Accra, Ghana. Spinal deformities in Africa and in many other countries are looked at as a curse or as voodoo. Children and adults are bullied their entire life, and even sometimes killed. It’s extremely heartbreaking. I wanted to take my #IAMSTRAIGHTFORWARD Scoliosis Empowerment campaign there to make a huge difference and impact on those affected and living with the condition. My campaign has drastically changed lives here in the United States, so I wanted to bring it back to the motherland as well. What hospitals are able to do in Ghana with little to no money or proper equipment is truly incredible. I still can’t grasp it.
We are both black men in America. We’ve also both been to Ghana. My experience changed my life in a number of different ways. What was going back to the Motherland like for you?
Going back to the motherland for me was surreal. As soon as I landed, an intense feeling that I can’t describe came over me and took parts of my body over to the point where I had to look down at both my hands due to them slightly shaking. I was definitely having an out-of-body experience. My mind, body and soul felt so rich. Rich with love, rich with happiness, rich with peace, rich with tradition, rich with heritage. I felt free. I felt accepted. It’s weird to say and admit this, but I finally felt accepted from just the color of my skin. It was beautiful. I felt a deep sense of belonging.
You visited Elmina Castle and Cape Coast Castle while you were in Ghana, two notorious ports during the slave trade. As a black man in America, with the current state of our country and your knowledge of history, what was that experience like for you?
That particular day was extremely tough and heavy on my heart. It actually took a while for me to truly process everything because I was very emotional, angry, and confused while walking through the grounds and in each room. A flurry of questions began to dominate my thoughts such as, “Why us? Why my people–my ancestors, my brothers, my sisters?” Hearing the gruesome stories of how the slave masters stripped us of our languages, our traditions, our morals, our families, and our lives infuriated me! Seeing how thousands of my people were jammed in a room that only held one hundred people at a time was extremely disturbing as well. Fast-forward to 400 years later, it’s still sad to see and witness the many injustices that still take place in America today.
From the high incarceration numbers, to the unarmed police shootings and brutality, to the unfairness of equal opportunity in the workforce and in education systems…there was no end to the injustices. Toward the end of my visit, though, a feeling of motivation hit me out of nowhere. It consumed my body in its entirety. Seeing my people today prosper and make a huge name for ourselves in industries such as music, entertainment, sports and (slowly, but surely) in politics calmed me down.
I am typically a very grateful person, but the experience at the Slave Dungeon (they’re not castles) made me even more appreciative and grateful for life. Trust me, we as a minority group in the United States and in other countries still have so many doors to kick down, but with more and consistent awareness, call-outs, surveillance (police brutality and police murders with action and justice of course) the better. My dream is for us to mobilize amongst each other and with our allies until we make this world a better place. Where the color of our skin doesn’t put us behind or in deadly situations.
You hosted an event with the President of Ghana here in New York, right? No big deal. Tell me more about that.
I didn’t host the event, but my work was included and featured in it. It was for the 2019 FOCOS Fundraising Gala where the President of Ghana, Nana Addo Dankwa Akufo-Addo, was the guest of honor. It was very surreal to me, and extremely humbling. To see hundreds of notable people react so positively and emotionally to my work was a blessing. Sometimes I sit back in awe and even tear up when I think about how far I’ve come. I get emotional man. I can’t even lie.
When we last spoke, you told me that a successful businessman introduced you to the concept of “thinking trips.” From there you ended up taking a thinking trip of your own to Barcelona. Three questions: 1) what is a “thinking trip,” 2) why Barcelona, and 3) how was this one different from other trips you’ve taken in the past?
A thinking trip is simply a trip you go on for the sole purpose of finding answers, inspiration, and/or solutions. Some people refer to them as focus trips or even meditation trips. Because I am a Creative Director, I’m always having to stay inspired and visually stimulated. At the time, I was like, “What better place than Barcelona?” That, and because I came across a deal that was too good to be true. It worked out perfectly! My Barcelona trip was unique and different from others because not only did I discover a creative solution to something I felt that I had run into a dead-end with, but during my trip it also reassured me of my worth and the value I bring to the table. It made me truly understand that I am an asset to companies and organizations that I used to be afraid to reach out to.
You typically turn off your phone and spend time each day journaling when you travel, correct? How long have you been practicing that and how has it helped you grow?
Correct. I’ve been religiously practicing this for about 10 years now. It allows me to be present and focused. It greatly enhances my experience and bond with that specific city. It brings me peace and clarity. I’m a professional creator, so I must protect and rejuvenate my mind as much as possible.
Where are you headed next?
Four more states in the US before the year is out, but as far as overseas, I’m hoping to confirm a deal that will have me in Greece, China, and Tanzania soon. For my next thinking trips, which I separate from my work trips, I want to visit Iceland and go back to Tokyo for some time.
What does “Travel with Purpose” mean to you?
To me, “Travel with Purpose” is to find meaning in your travel. It’s to travel with your dreams, goals, and aspirations as the main priority. It’s also to travel with mindfulness: to know that you’ve left your destination being in a better place than you were when you arrived–mentally, physically, and/or spiritually. It means to understand that whatever you’re searching for in life at that specific moment, you have to be sure to acknowledge those things and let them set you free.
How do you want to continue to inspire people? What’s your next event or project?
Through my story and through my work. I want people to not only feel inspired and motivated when they hear my story, but most importantly, I want people to take action and execute on their ideas and passion in life. I want to encourage and empower minorities to think outside the box and to think bigger–to think ownership. [We should] understand that we are a major asset to these huge corporations and startups.
It is about time we stop breaking ourselves down into bite-sized pieces and start thinking of ourselves as talented, qualified, and gifted individuals. I am working on a few big projects that will launch in 2020, including the launch of QLE–one of the first black-owned biodegradable oral care companies in the world. Our goal and mission at QLE is to help reduce waste in our environment by creating 100 percent eco-friendly products made from biodegradable, recyclable, and compostable materials.
Myself and business partner, Nicole Barrett, are extremely excited and hopeful on this new endeavor. In addition to QLE, I’ve recently been meeting with a vice-president at New York’s Toast Masters to perfect my public speaking skills, as I will be attending medical congresses and medical meetings more frequently to present the StraightForward Scoliosis Foundation. I will also be giving various other speeches in the arts, fashion, and educational settings.
I recently gave a speech with the Artistic Acting Director of the Juilliard School and now Director of the Harkness Dance Center at 92Y, where we introduced and premiered a dance film we collaborated on for the scoliosis community. Stay updated on my work, new accomplishments and journey on my social media! I would love to engage with people and inspire as well as get inspired. Lastly, I really want to thank you guys, Passion Passport for allowing me to utilize your amazing platforms for this feature. It is greatly appreciated and I am humbled. Thank you!
Header photo by Marcus John.