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Helen Todd is co-founder and CEO of Sociality Squared and the human behind Creativity Squared.
Yemi A.D. is a Czech-Nigerian artist, entrepreneur, and crew member of the dearMoon mission.

Ep49. Yemi A.D.: This Artist is Going to the Moon!

Ep49. This Artist is Going to the Moon! From Training Humanoid Robots to Dance to Being a #dearMoon Crew Member, Meet Yemi A.D.

Yemi A.D. (Yemi Akinyemi Dele) is a multidisciplinary creative force and entrepreneur dedicated to helping people unlock their artistic potential. The lifelong dancer is preparing for his biggest mission yet: a trip around the Moon! 

In this week’s episode of Creativity Squared, the multi-hyphenate Czech-Nigerian artist tells us how he scored a literal one-in-a-million chance to spend a week in space and what he’ll be doing while he’s up there.

Yemi is the Founder and CEO of Moonshot Platform, an international organization dedicated to accelerating young leaders’ work towards solutions for the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. This year, Moonshot Platform is launching the Moonshot Awards, which will distribute $100,000 to young social innovators and provide mentorship opportunities.

“For the first time in history, we don’t know what the world will look like in 10-20 years. This is a unique opportunity to allow young people to have a seat at the table.”

Yemi A.D.

With over 20 years of experience across entertainment, the arts, and technology, his long list of titles has included founder, CEO, actor, TV host, UN Ambassador, most influential personality in the Czech Republic, director, and, more recently, astronaut-in-training. 

His portfolio includes collaborations with pop culture icons like the late fashion designer Virgil Abloh and directing choreography for Grammy-winning hip-hop musician, Kanye West. Yemi also works with brands like Google, Apple, Coca-Cola, and T-Mobile, and he speaks frequently on the future of creativity and space exploration at venues like TEDx, Texas Eclipse Festival, and South by Southwest (SXSW).

As a choreographer, Yemi was chosen from more than one million applicants for the dearMoon mission, which will be the first all-civilian flight around the moon. Once ready, he and seven other artists, along with Yusaku Maezawa (known as MZ), will blast off in a brand-new SpaceX Starship specially designed for commercial space travel. This journey around the Moon is made possible by MZ, the eccentric Japanese billionaire, e-commerce mogul, and art collector who’s sponsoring the mission in an effort to unite our global imagination around innovation and ambition.

Yemi’s love of movement and finding freedom in movement are intertwined into all aspects of his life, which you’ll hear in the conversation.

In this episode, listen to Yemi’s incredible journey from growing up as the only Black child where he was raised in Czechoslovakia to his rise as a creative powerhouse and to traveling into space. We also dive into how Yemi’s studies of indigenous cultures worldwide gave him insight into the intelligence of movement. He also shares the importance of representation in the tech industry to ensure a more inclusive and human-centered approach to A.I. and robotics — the humanoid robot Apollo was trained on his dance videos!

Yemi believes that the best way to predict the future is to create it, and he’s doing just that. Tune in to discover his vision for the future he’s working to create.

Busting Moves and Breaking Barriers: How Yemi A.D. Danced His Way to The Top

Yemi has loved dance since his childhood in 1980s communist Czechoslovakia. He says his relationship with it has changed throughout his life, but as somebody who’s spent years observing and learning from indigenous dance rituals around the world, he asserts that there is intelligence in movement. Like how we express our mental intelligence through conscious actions and behaviors, Yemi says that movement is how we communicate our body’s intelligence. Unlike our minds, the intelligence of the body is rooted in our genetic heritage, separate from the social constructs we invent. For Yemi, accessing the body’s intelligence through movement is a chance to reconnect with the inner creative self, free from social expectations.

“Creativity is connected to freedom and the ability to get away from the patterns of the past…If you’re not free, you’re just using creativity to recycle the past.”

Yemi A.D.

Born to a Czech mother and Nigerian father in a country populated 95% by white people, Yemi had to work harder to fit in from the start. At only four years old, he lost his only external connection to his African heritage when his father became trapped in Nigeria during a military coup. It took 23 years until Yemi and his father eventually reconnected. Yemi’s mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother raised him through his remaining childhood. He wouldn’t meet another Black child until he was fifteen years old.

Despite the confusing circumstances of his social reality, Yemi found connection and community through dance. 

“I found dance and movement to be my language, [a way] to connect with people around me . . . it was the opportunity where I could create some value, or just make people happy.” 

Yemi A.D.

His passion for dance led him to study in Prague, teach in the Netherlands and Sweden, and then move to Los Angeles, where he studied street dance. He returned to Prague in 1999 to found his first business, JAD Dance Company, which quickly gained widespread acclaim for Yemi’s original dance style, called Street Fusion. 

JAD’s success eventually reached Kanye West, who in 2010 started commissioning Yemi to choreograph, direct, and produce performances like Saturday Night Live, the VMAs, Coachella, and West’s international Yeezus tour.

Yemi often shares his story with young people emphasizing how dreaming big and cultivating self-efficacy helped propel himself from a Central European ghetto to the world’s biggest and brightest stages.

“For a big portion of my life, I had to work twice as much for half as much. But it didn’t stop me . . . I think today is the age where it’s worth it to work, and it’s worth it to be creative and to really open your mind. Because I think you can really achieve unimaginable things.”

Yemi A.D.

Throughout his career, Yemi has demonstrated time and again how passion and work ethic can be life-changing.

The Art of Reinventing Yourself

From dancer to choreographer, director, producer, and entrepreneur, Yemi’s career has been marked by constant reinvention. He’s founded multiple companies, including a talent agency, a production agency, a creative studio, and a dance academy. He says that his willingness to step out of his comfort zone and embrace new challenges is what helped him get where he is today. 

Starting from scratch is very liberating. Just building on top of your previous things can be limiting, but starting a new story on a [blank] paper is beautiful to me. It’s also very grounding because I’m a dreamer, but saying, ‘Hey, I don’t know how to do that, I have to learn it.’ I think it keeps my mind very flexible.”

Yemi A.D.

Yemi was in this position around 2015, after five years of working with Kanye. Being on stage in front of tens of thousands of fans often felt like a drug, he says, especially when you know someone else might wait a lifetime for the same opportunity. While he describes that part of his career as a “beautiful experience” that afforded him unrestricted creative freedom, he’d often find himself answering more questions about Kim Kardashian than about his own work. He knew he wanted to build something that would stand on its own legs and, even better, create value for the world.

Yet the question remained: What next? In his 30s, with years of invaluable experience at the height of the entertainment industry, Yemi set out to redefine himself. 

He returned to Europe and soon started applying to U.S. fellowship programs for professional growth and leadership. After four years of sending applications, Yemi was accepted into the Aspen Institute’s Henry Crown Fellowship program, which only accepts 20 fellows per year. According to Yemi, the support he gained from his star-studded cohort of high-achievers helped him find the confidence he needed when the opportunity of a lifetime presented itself. 

That opportunity arose in MZ’s 2018 social media post announcing his plan to take eight creative professionals on a journey around the Moon. Despite his immediate excitement at the idea of space travel, Yemi says he almost let his self-doubt get the best of him. But when he shared the idea with his fellowship class, he found that they believed in him more than he believed in himself.

That’s what I love about the U.S., a lot of people encourage each other here. They are positive about other people’s prospects. It makes a big difference if you have people who believe in you.”

Yemi A.D.

The support from his fellowship class was instrumental in Yemi’s decision to apply for the dearMoon mission. The class even adopted the name “Moonshot” to signify their collective belief in dreaming big. 

dearMoon’s Crew Member and Its Mission

MZ, who believes art has the power to promote world peace, announced the dearMoon crew roster in 2022. He shared his hope that members would use what they learned and experienced on the mission to contribute positively to Earth and humanity.

Yemi says he’s excited about collaborating with his fellow passengers and experiencing weightlessness inside Starship, the biggest and most powerful spacecraft to ever fly.  

“Selfishly, I really am looking forward to dancing in space. But the second best thing is the people who are flying with me . . . I’m really looking forward to co-create and co-design with all of these people.”

Yemi A.D.

The rest of the crew members are artists and professionals from all across the creative spectrum. They include the cake-throwing American DJ, Steve Aoki; the multitalented K-pop sensation TOP; the film photographer and social documentarian Rhiannon Adam of Ireland; an American space and science Youtuber, Tim Dodd, aka the Everyday Astronaut; British adventurer and nature photographer, Karim Iliya;  American documentary filmmaker, Brendan Hall; and Dev D. Joshi, a 23-year-old Bollywood actor who’s set to become the youngest person to ever visit space.  

Yemi says that the crew is already like his family. Listen to the episode to hear his wild story about getting a little too close for comfort during a Soyuz rocket launch at the Russian Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan! 

While awaiting Starship’s clearance for manned flights, Yemi is preparing himself for the mental and physical demands of space travel. The mission was originally scheduled to launch last year, but liftoff has been postponed indefinitely since power failures forced the first version of Starship to self-destruct during an April 2023 test flight. 

SpaceX has launched two test flights since then (in November and March), both of which performed better than their predecessors before also self-destructing due to unexpected failures. In the rocket-building business, though, they say that failure is another step toward success. SpaceX CEO Elon Musk announced recently that they’re planning the next flight test for late June. 

In the meantime, Yemi’s taking extra care of his health and seeking advice from seasoned astronauts like Tim Kopra, former Commander of the International Space Station. While Yemi and his fellow creatives won’t be navigating Starship, once a new launch date is scheduled, they’ll start training on how to use the ship’s life-support systems and how to live (and dance!) in zero gravity. After witnessing two SpaceX launches in person, Yemi says he has a new appreciation for his mission.

Seeing the ignition, seeing the cloud and the force, the shockwave through the ground; it completely changed the information about going to space into a visceral sensation . . . Before it was an idea, but after witnessing the launch, it gives you a different level of respect to the decision you’ve made.”

Yemi A.D.

After they return, the dearMoon crew will present their work so the world can see space through their eyes. But if their astronaut predecessors are to be believed, in the weeks and months after they touch down, the crew may come to see Earth in a new light.  

Does Space Change You? Discussing The Overview Effect Theory

The Overview Effect is a psychological phenomenon describing the profound mindset shift that some astronauts have experienced after viewing Earth from space. After returning from the Apollo 9 mission, Astronaut Russell Schweickart described the overview effect as an expanding feeling of interconnectedness with the people and places outside his normal life in Houston, TX. 

As a self-described dreamer and somebody who’s seen more of our Earth than most people, we asked Yemi if he thinks he’ll feel any different upon his return. He says he doesn’t fully subscribe to the theory, suggesting instead that the feelings of connectedness are a downstream effect of realizing how uncomfortably close we are to death at any given moment.  

“There is this very tiny barrier between the death of space and this fertile ground. All this you’re realizing while being in a can flying really fast through the darkness and . . . wherever you are close to death, you’re experiencing life very viscerally. So I think this space journey brings you closer to more universal truth, not your own.”

Yemi A.D.

He also doesn’t think the mindset shift occurs as immediately as advertised. From his personal conversations with veteran astronauts, he believes that the change is much more gradual, like hair growth – you can only see the changes after enough time has passed.

We’ve already invited Yemi to return to the show after he completes his mission so we can find out if he’s right about the overview effect!

Courage to Dream Big & Envision a Better Future

Yemi’s vision for the future of creativity is a world where people feel safe to take risks and try out bold new ideas. As the future unfolds faster than we can process it, Yemi also says we need more creatives in the room with tech leaders in order to prevent the mistakes of the past, such as social media.

In fact, Yemi’s number one wish for the future is that we all learn how to heal our corroded relationships at every level — internally, interpersonally, interculturally, internationally, and maybe one day soon, interplanetary.

Spaceflight isn’t the only futurist trend he’s bringing his artistic flair to. At SXSW 2024, Yemi headlined a keynote speech with the start-up robot Apollo, Apptronik’s humanoid robot trained on Yemi’s dance moves (which is featured in our top SXSW 2024 session blog post). He’s working with the company to develop human-centered body language for robots.

Above all, Yemi encourages creatives to enjoy the journey just as much, if not more, than the outcome and to be careful about starting a journey trying to achieve somebody else’s outcome. He also encourages us to trust ourselves to take that leap of faith when we lose forward momentum, even if it feels like we’ll crash and burn before we land.

“The recipe that you use to succeed when you are between 20 and 30 is a very different recipe than the one between 30 and 40. And I think the stagnation comes from us holding on too hard to all the recipes. But I think it’s necessary for you to let go of the old one for you to discover the new one.”

Yemi A.D.

Big thanks to Yemi for coming on the show and giving us a glimpse inside the exciting dearMoon project and his optimistic outlook on life. We’ll be rooting for a safe journey and can’t wait to see what the great expanse of space inspires him to create next.

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Thank you, Yemi, for joining us on this special episode of Creativity Squared. 

This show is produced and made possible by the team at PLAY Audio Agency: https://playaudioagency.com.  

Creativity Squared is brought to you by Sociality Squared, a social media agency who understands the magic of bringing people together around what they value and love: http://socialitysquared.com.

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