From law school dropout to Shanghai and champagne
SHANGHAI, China - With his right hand in the air, moving 'rude bwoy' style to the catchy strains of Sean Paul's mega hit We Be Burning - his chauffeur weaving through the late-night traffic - Andrew Ballen gets mentally prepared to emcee at his hip-hop/dancehall show at one of this city's popular night spots.
As he saunters into Fabrique nightclub, a sprinkling of deferential admirers greets him; his signature is needed on a document; and the atmosphere in the club ratchets up a notch.
The champagne soon begins to flow and later in the night, Ballen takes the microphone and begins his act, daring clubbers to shake off their inhibitions.
Born in New York to Jamaican parents, he has become a well-known fixture in Shanghai nightlife.
Five years after dropping out of law school and escaping to China with about US$1,000 in travelers' cheques, he has used his silky-smooth bass voice to build a modest media/events promotion company with two dozen full and part-time employees.
He has also made a name for himself as the host of Getaway, a nationally aired travel television show with an audience of about 12 million, he hosts and co-produces a national radio show called I Music; hosts a local radio show called Live It Up Shanghai; co-produces/writes for CCTV International's popular show Culture Express; is a columnist for at least three magazines and he is the voice heard worldwide by users of Motorola phones.
"I am the voice in the A series phones and dictionaries worldwide. Their top tier phones speak, pronounce words, give voice commands and responses, and read message alerts. All my voice. Every phone in the English Language. Took one year to complete," said Ballen.
In addition to his own company, BallenWestcom Entertainment, the thirty-something-year-old also operates Bitc Entertainment Group with a handful of Hong Kong partners.
Now he wants to explore the Jamaica of his childhood, the one he remembers from his summer holidays in Portland.
And he wants to share that with the viewers of his TV series - a show that has the potential to reach millions of viewers via CCTV's global reach.
"Getaway is the most widely-aired travel adventure series in all of China. We're going to do three to four episodes (in Jamaica)," Ballen explained. "My Plan is to be in Jamaica before the end of July."
A rough outline of his seven to nine day itinerary includes visits to Cooyah clothing line and Jampro, and finding his way back to the places he remembers from idyllic summer holidays in the island. These include Mavis Bank, where he spent many days on family friend Clinton McGann's coffee farm.
"We're going to take them back to my roots," he said. "Hopefully we can go back to Portland and Black Rock (where his mother is from) and see my family from all over there. Obviously we'll go MoBay, go Negril, Rio Grande."
The idea, he said, is to introduce his fans to the Jamaica he knows and loves.
"I relish my Jamaican heritage and try and put that out there for people to see and appreciate," said Ballen whose parents ensured that he became a Jamaican citizen at age three.
"Part of it is selfish," he admitted. "I want to distinguish myself from the black Americans that they may see on TV."
He also wants to spread the word that hip-hop has its genesis in reggae.
"I want to let everyone know that when I play, or when I have my deejays at my events playing Biggie Smalls or Busta Rhymes or Pete Rock or real old-school like DJ Kool, Heavy D - all of these artistes that they hear - they need to know that they're hearing my roots," he said passionately. "They need to know they're hearing Jamaica and that hip-hop's earliest progenitors are the sound system parties that became the block parties that generated the notion of deejays or selectors. We are the root."
This passion spills over into a desire to get big name Jamaican artistes performing at his events. Ballen dreams of the day when he can lure the likes of Sean Paul, Beenie Man, and Damian Marley to his shows in China.
"This is the biggest market in the world and it's already appreciating our music and our culture, but in many ways the concept of us and who we are and the country is nebulous," he said. "And so they hear Sean Paul's newest track and they're moving."
But they think Sean Paul is African.
"... The good thing is they already like the music. So the battle is 90 per cent won," he said. "Now the challenge is to show them where this comes from."
That, he said, is part of his reason for taking Getaway to Jamaica.
"Hopefully I'll be able to weave that into a yarn that says, 'This culture that you may have already felt or touched upon in the abstract, well this is the place itself. It's a real place that you can go to and see, and experience the humour and the pride and the poetry of our people'."
He added with a laugh: "There's a reason that an island of two million has had the impact it's had on a global level; and it's not because we're not good - to try to put a modest spin on it."
Ballen's trip to Jamaica hasn't simply been spawned by his desire to share the island with the world, as his father Dr Patrick Ballen readily points out.
"Part of it is expanding his business and part of it is that he's trying to reconnect with his roots," said Ballen senior, from his son's comfortable 21st floor apartment during a recent visit to Shanghai with Andrew's stepmother, Naomi Viray Ballen.
"I think both of those things are probably worthwhile doing."
This approval has been years in coming.
Back in 2001, after Andrew threw in the towel and left law school, his father wasn't so sure that he was on the right track.
"In our family, we believe in finishing what we start," said Dr Ballen, who is a surgeon in North Carolina.
These days, Andrew's success has been enough to appease his father who can admit, with a chuckle, that his son has "made the very best of the wrong choice".
"I'm certainly very proud of him, very proud of his accomplishments. He's found a niche that he's very good at," Dr Ballen said.
Andrew frankly admits that China was his escape hatch, a way to get away from his family's disapproval after he failed to live up to the 'immigrant's dream' of becoming either a doctor or lawyer.
"As you know, Jamaican immigrants don't look kindly on that kind of thing," he said.
"My father, my godfathers are either colonels in the air force or physicians. My uncle Wayne was actually out in Shanghai as the president of GE Plastics, the youngest president of a GE division. And so for me to drop out of law school was heresy; it was the worse thing I could possibly have done. My father, originally from Kingston, is an Ivy League-educated surgeon. So my coming to China was really escapism, more than anything."
In the early days of his 'fall from grace' - when his family was shocked that he had chucked in a promising law career to become a struggling English teacher in China - Ballen was busy discovering his entrepreneurial skills.
His successes, over the years, have been as a result of gutsy moves, skill and the luck of being in the right place at the right time.
A year after he moved to China, one of his students, impressed with his diction and pronunciation, helped him land his own radio show. Later, she suggested he try out for the Motorola job. With the money he earned from that contract Ballen, who by then had had modest success hosting the Shanghai nightclub scene's first ever hip-hop party, launched his own events company. By 2003, he added Getaway to his already impressive resume.
But it wasn't easy.
The initial deal was that he should do two trial episodes, without being paid a salary. But Ballen had other plans.
"I said give me the show for a year, don't pay me a dime but give me 33 per cent of any advertising revenue that I can bring in," he recalled.
"Now, at that point, no English programme had generated anything vis-à-vis hard advertising, or soft for that matter - hard being actual commercials and soft being product placement, et cetera, inside the show."
With the deal inked, he set out to aggressively market Getaway, aiming for clients that he knew wanted to attract a white-collar bilingual audience. He hasn't looked back since.
Career-wise, China was the quintessential dream for Ballen - a place where he could pull himself up by his bootstraps and take advantage of what was then a wide open media landscape.
"I wanted to come to a place where (you make it by) your own pluck, your own work ethic. There's no affirmative action out here; it's just we do what we do. I think that for the average Jamaican/American that sensibility appealed to me," he said.
He works hard, said his wife and former student, Rachel. Her husband's typical day, she said, is packed with editing and recording sessions at the TV station; early morning phone calls to the US to ink deals with hip-hop artistes; afternoon meetings with his business partners; a stint in the gym in the evening; a stop at a club for a show later at night; then all this is topped off with writing his columns.
For Ballen, he has found his niche and he's reveling in it. When he first came to China, he didn't know a word of Chinese.
Now, when needed, he conducts interviews in Chinese on his English-language TV show.
"I literally came out here saying I need to regroup, and make a determination about what it is that I had in store for the world and the world has in store for me," he said.
Jamaica, he adds, has given him his most positive male role models: his grandfather Sam Wilson, from Red Hills Road, has been his intellectual muse, hero and biggest booster; godfather Dr Bernard Marshall, an OB/GYN, who resides in Montego Bay and Greensboro, North Carolina; uncle Stuart, a retired colonel in the US Air Force; and his father.
"I'm thankful to God that I have them in my life," he said.