Man of distinction: Sol Guy
Direction: Lance Chung
Photo: Janick Laurent
By all accounts, Sol Guy is a true Renaissance man. His impressive career has had him wear many hats, from working as a music producer with artists like Lauryn Hill and Outkast to hosting his own show on MTV, 4REAL. His mission is twofold: empower today’s youth and harness the entertainment industry to make real, impactful change. In collaboration with British heritage menswear company Oliver Spencer, Sol talks about the very elements that embody the brand and himself: leadership, authenticity and uncompromised values.
In a recent TED Talk that you hosted, you brought up a new definition for leadership. Can you elaborate on this?
I think that leadership should be and is evolving. Leadership is around building trust, faith and empowerment in others. To me it is a lot less about the individual and more about how you interact with the people around you. The greatest leader disappears. A past idea was, "follow me, I’ll show you to the promised land." I don’t know if that is really effective, anymore. Although in a lot of instances, we’re still following those models, I’m interested in what the new definition of leadership. I think that lives somewhere between being able to make the call when it’s needed and disappearing amongst a group of super talented people, allowing them to rise up on their own. I like the unknown of what leadership can be and redefining that as individuals. How someone leads in one space is not necessarily directly applicable to another, but fundamental values are intrinsic to leadership. It’s interesting because it changes everyday.
You also mentioned in that same talk that art is power and talked about honing in on your craft. What would you consider your craft?
My craft is being able to see what pieces are missing in the cultural space and then identifying things that will fit in before they are fully formed. The more you believe in your ability to bet on your instincts, it starts to define the art that you make. My craft is always evolving because the only constant is the connection point where art and social discourse form social change. What I hope my craft is is identifying where those two intersect and how to amplify that and not being beholden to the medium you can do that. There's something to be said for being passionate about the things that you create, and also being excited about losing your confidence in a new situation and learning. I always want to be a student and that requires that you put yourself in uncomfortable situations.
There's a lot of similarities between you and this brand, Oliver Spencer. What does authenticity mean to you?
I think that authenticity is born out of a commitment to not compromise. That's where you find your authentic voice, that's where your decisions can come from. That is the thing that we look to when we are like "wow". That is the seed of authenticity. You know when things don't line up with your value system, and yet society will create an environment where they will justify your compromise. You know something is not quite right, it doesn't sit with you but there's a lot of people around that will facilitate your compromise and it will be okay. The things that really move the needle and the things that remain over time are the people that elevate to an authentic reality and refuse to compromise. And in that time of not compromising, they are usually vilified. [Muhammad] Ali was a villain when he wouldn't go fight in the war; now he's a hero. That was not easy then, and I'm sure the people next to him [encouraged him] to just pose for a picture and not actually fight, but it would have compromised his values. I love that. I think that that's where authenticity lives.
ow do you think people can empower themselves to make meaningful change?
Progress doesn't live outside the self. For the longest time, we outsourced the caretaking of our communities, our countries and our world into mechanisms of now broken models of non-profits and government structure. We parted with meaning and gave that to other people to execute for us. The opportunity in truly being self-empowered is looking into your self, friends, family, community and neighbourhood to make the best changes that you can. You can have the most effect in the place that is most familiar. I challenged myself and others who have been able to have all these worldly experiences to bring those home. Some of the places I’ve been to that are in the most tragic situations, I arrived thinking that perhaps I could fix them. When in fact, it was for me to have an experience and bring that home to my own community that would have the most impact. I don’t believe that going out to a problem that’s far away and pointing at it or posting about it is going to move the needle. But, taking action around the things you can move in your community is super powerful because that moves things. There’s so much going on and so much uncertainty. Take control of the things you can actually control.
How do you push yourself outside of your comfort zone?
One of my most recent mantras that has come around is when you’re in a situation where it’s all new, although it’s familiar, it’s easy to fall into your old habits. Now your experiences have prepared you to get to something that’s new but your recognition of not knowing is what will make it different. To get out of your comfort zone and to challenge yourself, you have to humble yourself. You have to admit that you don’t know. My experiences will help me make decisions and I can stay excited by realizing there are new challenges coming every day, but you have to be mindful to push yourself because if not, you are going to be recreating what you have done. Eventually that tank doesn’t fill up on its own. You'll be running off of fumes.
Which elements define integrity in terms of a company’s corporate culture?
It’s interesting because culture is made up of the people and decisions you make within a group. As many things that are bad around companies that do damage or human beings that are disconnected and make selfish decisions and hurt other people, there are as many good things that there are. Unfortunately, as humans we default to the bad and perhaps what can start to emerge is connecting to the good or reflecting in the good in things. What we forget is brands and companies are created, comprised and succeed or fail according to human beings. What we demand of a company or a brand or what we demand of ourselves will define what that thing is. If you get into organizational structures that are thinking of the people that are in it first, then it’s going to reflect in the work.
What do they say, there are seven billion people on the planet? It’s hard for me to believe that more than a very small percentage of them are bad people. There are people in very difficult circumstances which I wouldn’t wish upon anybody because it's hard to be in war or poverty. But some people are born into that. There are very few people who are doing terrible things and waking up in the morning to harm others. But, we have a narrative that the world is like that. The whole world really just wants to be safe and have food and water. Now, how do we get to that is a whole other conversation but the idealist in me believes in people and that helps me stay sane. I think people are inherently good.
What is your definition of success?
You started with and ended with two really important things to me. One of the things that I keep close is that I want to redefine the meaning of leadership and success. I think that success is actually measured by your social impact, which is on yourself. I would prefer to deal in cultural currency rather than commerce and what I say is, the success I’m measuring myself is in creating abundance by giving as opposed to taking. So success lives to me in how much you give. Because how much you give will be how much you receive and that’s true abundance. That’s natural law; one seed of a tree can make a million more seeds. My measurement of success lives in giving to the point where you can’t give anymore because you will receive things beyond your wildest dreams, and that’s really what the great gift in my life is. By giving, being exposed to cultures around the world and collaborating with all sorts of wild people, I consider myself the wealthiest man in the world. The depth of the cultural, creative and personal experiences I’ve had and being able to be a father — these things that I’ve been given, you can’t buy that shit. It’s not some cliche shit that I want to try to say to people when I’m 80 years old. I want to live in that reality now. That’s where success lives; it lives in giving.
n Sol: Wool coram jacket in Dudley Midnight, $595; wool judo pant in Aspley Grey; $325; Granddad shirt in Astley White, $185; rib hat in burgundy, $95; Beat boot in chocolate leather, $335; Benue sock in Ecru Multi and Navy Multi, $40. All items available at Oliver Spencer, located at 962 Queen St. W, Toronto.