We caught up with Ashley Banjo, leader and choreographer of street dance group, and Britain’s Got Talent winners, Diversity. Ashley has been a judge on Sky’s Got To Dance as well as ITV’s Dancing on Ice whilst continuing to lead Diversity during their multiple sell-out arena tours. In our exclusive interview, Ashley talks about winning Britain’s Got Talent, what makes a good leader, how they stay grounded and more! Watch the full interview or read the transcript below.
In conversation with Ashley Banjo
How did Diversity come about?
We actually got together in memory of a friend of ours. Someone who had been like a mother to us that passed away from cancer. We put on a show with all of the kids in the dance school at the time, and we put all of the boys together, and it was the first time this package called Diversity came together.
We all put on these black tracksuits and we did the opening to a show as a dance crew, and that moment was really important for us. It was the forming and defining moment for Diversity to come together in the same outfit, with me as the choreographer, and say, “this is the moment we are going to dance together as a group”. It went down really well and from that moment onwards we decided to just roll it out and try our luck at different shows, events and competitions, and things have gone really well.
Why did you audition for Britain’s Got Talent?
Leading up to Britain’s Got Talent Diversity had been performing at fashion shows, small events produced by my mum and dad, who have a production company. They were still professional events, but they were small. We entered various competitions and had actually become the UK street dance champions just before we entered Britain’s Got Talent.
Everything was fairly fresh to us as we were fairly new to the scene. But, we started to get some enquiries, and we started to get people interested and saying, “who are these guys? They’re doing something a little bit different” and it was actually someone who spotted us from Britain’s Got Talent, a producer walking through a shopping centre saw us dancing and said, “why don’t you come and enter?” And the rest is history.
Did you think you could win Britain’s Got Talent?
People always ask me if I ever thought we could actually win Britain’s Got Talent, and when I think back to it now I think the key to it was actually not really considering winning. I didn’t ever really think about winning, especially back then when I was 19/20, I really just lived in the moment of what I was doing, and I wanted that particular performance to be right. I wanted that particular moment to be right, and I really did just take it in steps.
Obviously, you think it might be nice if you win, it’s £100,000, but that genuinely wasn’t my over-riding thought, it was just about making each performance as good as it could be. It wasn’t until I was standing there in the final, and we were down to the final two with Susan Boyle, that I thought this might just happen! We might just win?! And then I thought, no way, and I turned round to the boys, and you might actually see the shot on the show, I said, “boys, this is like winning, we’re not going to beat Susan Boyle, she is like the most famous person in the world, but we’ve come second – congratulations!” And then Ant and Dec say “Diversity!” and the papers the next day just captured the emotion perfectly. That was it.
How would you describe your role within Diversity?
One interesting aspect of Diversity is that what everyone sees is on the surface: the performances, the shiny floor TV shows. What a lot of people don’t see behind the scenes is the awful amount of hard work that goes in to not only keeping it together but keeping it functioning and leading and managing that many voices, that many personalities.
At the end of the day we are a group, and for a group to stay together for what is the best part of ten years now, and keep that machine running smoothly, and making it not only cohesive but making it work harmoniously is actually a real challenge, because everyone has got their own ideas, their own plans, everyone has got their own mortgage, everyone has got their own lives. But we have to come together every single day and we have to function as a group that will support each other and work together. I’m at the helm of that, I’m the person that has to hold it together and has to lead the group.
I had to learn very quickly how to be a good leader, and how to treat people well and to show people respect because we don’t have a record label and because we don’t have anybody that is doing anything for us. Nobody writes our music or choreographs our routines. Nobody tells us where to go, and what to do, and how to dress. We genuinely do it ourselves between me, and the boys, and some of the boy’s mums who still make our outfits, and my mum who manages the group, we really are a family operation.
So I think it is impossible not to stay grounded because we see all of the hard work and we are a part of all the hard work that makes it happen. The more success we have the harder we have to work, so technically, the bigger Diversity gets and the harder we have to work, the more humble we have to be.
I think that being the leader of a group like that, keeping everyone together, and keeping everyone on the straight and narrow, keeping everyone working towards the same goal has become second nature to me. It has become a habit, but it is something that is really important and really necessary, and it’s something that people probably never get to see from the outside.
As a leader, how do you gain trust and respect?
Personally, for me, gaining trust and respect as a leader is listening to people, taking on board everything people have to say, and not smothering something and not trying to impose your will on something. It would be very easy for me to walk in and say “this is what we are doing, this is how we are doing it, stand over there, stand there, turn around” and no one would like me, no one would respect me; they’d listen to me, but respect is the keyword.
I think that if you lead people, and it continuously pays out, you do your job well, and you treat them with respect, and you listen to them, they will respect you back. When they respect you back, like the boys respect me, then things kind of roll into each other, momentum builds, they listen, they respect me, and I listen, I respect them. At the same time, I work very hard to do my job well, lead them in the right direction and actually make sure that when I say something is going to happen it does. So there are no false promises.
Everything I say, I try to make happen, or I work until I can’t work anymore. If they see that, and they see me putting everything in, they will give it back to me. So I think it is about communication, it’s about trust, and it’s about listening and respecting one another.
How do you approach creativity and innovation within Diversity?
People ask me a lot about creativity and innovation and I think what helps me and the boys keep what we do fresh is that I don’t think about it from that point of view. Every single time we go to create a show, whether it be in the multiple arenas around the country, or in another country for that matter, or if it is a really small private event, for me it doesn’t matter, what I am trying to do is evoke an emotion in the people watching.
So every single moment, every single event, I sit there and I think to myself “what is it I’m trying to say, what is it these people want to see, what is it they want to feel when they watch Diversity? Do they want to laugh? Is it a festival – do they want to jump up and down with their hands in the air? Do they want to have fun? Do the kids want to jump on stage with us? Do people want to cry? Do people want to go through a whole range of emotions as if they were watching a west end show, as if they are watching a movie?” I mean, why do people go to the cinema? The cinema doesn’t change its function – it's a dark room and you watch a film, and the films work because they make you feel a certain way. Certain genres do the same thing every time. People go to watch a film that’ll make you laugh, that’ll make you cry, that’ll make you scared, and that’s exactly what I do with the group. I try to think to myself “what am I trying to make these people feel today, what do I want the audience to take away?” and once I put my finger on what I want the audience to take away I create from there.
When you are immersed in popular culture, with Twitter and social media, and YouTube nowadays, as long as you keep an eye on things, you stay current, relevant, and you continuously try to evolve what you do, staying fresh comes naturally. I think the most important thing is just always putting your finger on what you’re trying to make your audience feel, and what you want them to take away from your performance.
What is the hardest challenge as leader of Diversity?
I think that one of the hardest challenges that I have had to overcome, personally, is the fine line between Diversity and Ashley Banjo, because they are two separate things. From the outside, they obviously work in conjunction with each other and it’s natural but over the years keeping the group together and being an effective leader of one means that I have to sometimes really pay attention to what I am doing separately.
I can be doing a TV show one moment, I can be asked to choreograph for somebody else one moment, I could be creatively directing a film over here and actually I think to myself, I have to understand and realise what my role is, and what part of the puzzle I brought to Diversity, and then understand that as Ashley Banjo I still take a big chunk of that brand and identity with me. And so, working between the two as a leader and making them work together harmoniously has probably been the biggest challenge for me so far, but it is working well. I think that it does only work well because the relationship with the boys is so good, and where I go, they go
We stick together, we work together. But every day it is a challenge to find a balance between the two.
What is Dream. Believe. Achieve?
Dream. Believe. Achieve. Is exactly what it says on the tin. A lot of people are their own worst enemies because they dream it, or they think it, and somewhere in the thought process they’ve told themselves they can't. And that is the belief part of it, and it’s not arrogance or cockiness, it’s saying to yourself “I can, and I will, and I will find the way to do this”. And that is where I think Diversity does really well.
If I think of something, I say to the boys “this is going to look hard, it might sound crazy, but we can do it!” And they respect me enough, and trust me enough to say, “alright let's give it a go!” And we do it, and we achieve it. It literally is as simple as that. We think to ourselves if we can do this, be a dance group, win a competition and sell hundreds of thousands of tickets around the country at all the big arenas, and do what we love to do for a living, with our best friends, if we can do that then other people can achieve their dreams. So that is literally Dream. Believe. Achieve, in a nutshell.
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