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Iddris Sandu: 2020 Vision

Photos by
Awol Erizku

Words by
Justin Morris

I often liken Donald Trump being elected into office to the scene in Saving Private Ryan where Captain John Millers (Tom Hanks) unit is bombed during the Omaha Beach battle sequence. Scored solely by the sounds of tinnitus, a disoriented Tom Hanks is shuttering, stumbling as he evaluates the blow his battalion just endured – some engulfed in flames, others scrounging to be reunited with dismembered body parts. Hanks’ is met face to face with one soldier yelling “what now sir?!” the deafening pitch comes to a crescendo and the soundtrack switches back to the persisting racket of gunfire. Hanks returns to the moment at hand, shouts an order, it’s relayed to the unit, and they march on.

I found myself in the same situation, except black and in America, not behind enemy lines, but with a government siding with the opposition that has determined my life does not matter. Now faced with my own heroes’ journey to triumph over an uncertain future – the system that I thought was meant to serve me blatantly, revealed that it never had my interests at heart.

The first words I heard from the now 22-year-old Iddris Sandu were around infrastructure; he famously likened the constitution to an operating system, where the technology is not biased, but it’s the people who write the algorithms, the people who dictate how the system functions, are the ones not creating with diversity in mind. As for the constitution, if our founding fathers owned slaves while writing “liberty and justice for all,” diversity has never been a priority. Iddris doesn’t often align his ideas directly with politics, but to be a young black male with visions to change the world you can’t help but politicize him.

Following what seemed like a campaign trail: a string of interviews chronicling the interactions with a Google employee at age 13 that lead to an internship at the tech giant, a Crenshaw TED Talk, the youngest to deliver an NYU commencement speech, building experiences with the likes of Nipsey Hussle, Kanye West and Jaden Smith, code-switching between numerous subcultures, and thusly on an ongoing mission to bridge the gap between the ‘culture’ and tech. Above all, Iddris refers to himself as an architect, one who understands the problems that the tech world often can’t relate to, creating solutions to ensure a future that includes all of us. He has my attention, and he has my vote.

Upon meeting Iddris, he had a familiar essence of someone I might’ve gone to grade school with. A similar vibe of someone raised by immigrant parents who’ve instilled a resilience and a work ethic that we would have to work twice as hard to get anywhere in life along with amplifying messages of self-love and determination. Realizing I might be projecting my own experiences on Iddris, I inquire about his upbringing and how he’s ascended to this prodigy level.

To master discipline or to be able to get to the point of discipline, it doesn’t stem from being able to be instructed on something over and over again. It comes from passion. From a young age, I was passionate about learning technology. I was passionate about even breaking down remote controllers or whatever I was breaking open. That taught me the discipline because opening these things wasn’t easy. Even more difficult was assembling them back. But, I got used to being able to learn things the long way. And I guess that’s where it comes from.

My granddad was a strong influence for me as he was also an architect that built one of the largest man-made hydroelectric dams in the world in Ghana. He named me; he said I’m giving you a particular name because it means not only a messenger but, the actual name, Iddris, comes from Arabic, which is also translated in the bible as Enoch. And Enoch was the only person apart from Jesus that was risen to heaven. And he was given the gift of writing, which is translated to penmanship. And my granddad was always like, “He’s going to be a messenger who writes.” So, it took me up to the age of 19 to realize that his prophecy was right. But I’m not a conventional writer. I’m an algorithm writer. I’m a computer programmer writer rather than a traditional pen writer.

The focus, I can greatly say was influenced by the culture, my grandfather, and also just knowing that things wouldn’t be easily handed to me, especially given where I come from and the fact that I would need to work 10 times as hard.

Iddris tours us around his Inglewood development. In tow is Awol Erizku our photographer for the day, myself and Makensy, Iddris’s strategist, who is keeping the day on schedule. Awol initially requested a one-on-one photo session with Iddris, getting to know him and his vibe, but I promised to be a fly on the wall, personally logging this casual meeting of the minds, Ethiopian American contemporary artist (Awol) and Ghanian architectural technologist (Iddris).

We land at a rose bush that Awol thinks will be a great backdrop and invites Iddris to step in the frame, “Oh we shooting-shooting? I just wanna change into my Yeezy boots first.” Probably not a phrase I’ve ever heard from anyone in tech, but it’s definitely why Iddris has the impact he’s having right now.

I feel like this is the first time, from a tech perspective a very young, “cool,” person is able to cross-index between being in technology and being culturally relevant. That’s the whole premise, being able to code-switch, going into a setting or a room where your skill level is appreciated or admired is one level, but taking it to the next level where the unconventional energy you’re bringing in the way you dress or the way you talk inspires people and attracts a new audience to the space.

We grab a bite at Simply Wholesome, a nearby black-owned restaurant and health food store. Iddris is embraced by a fan on the way in. It’s the type of energy you’d see exerted when spotting your favorite rapper or basketball player. But there are multiple reasons to be a fan, other than “rooting for everybody black”- Issa Rae Emmy’s Red Carpet 2017, there’s a layer of Iddris’s campaign that seeks to build equity in blackness in a society where Black people are moving culture forward, but they aren’t always the ones to benefit from it.

We simply make, and we don’t protect our ideas. We don’t patent; we don’t copyright or trademark with all classes. You know what I mean? I feel like that’s a goal. To make it the ordinary for these things, not the supernatural. It shouldn’t be abnormal for a company to protect itself or create a design packet for its brand guidelines. That should be the standard, and that’s what we need to push for, this should be the standard. This should not be something that’s once in a blue moon.

The conversation segways into the topic of Basquiat, Awol, and Iddris discuss the artists impact on the art world while seeing nowhere close to the amount of money that he was worth. Rather, the people around him, feeding off of his genius, were the ones who reaped the lion’s share.

The sentiment immediately calls to mind Megan Thee Stallion filing to trademark her buzzy phrase “Hot Girl Summer” or Cardi’s chirp like “Okurrr” (later denied by the U.S. Patent and trademark office) but I’m still a fly on the wall, and I keep my input to just head nods and the occasional “true”.

JM: It’s not by chance that black creators drive culture forward, there’s a certain type of innovation that comes from adversity, black reality inspiring black fantasy. What role would you say the black imagination can play in tech?

IS: Before we even get to that stage of building, we need to acknowledge, all right? And to heal, we need that acknowledgment. A lot of my friends that are into fashion or into agriculture or into design, a lot of principles that they carry on and spread are rooted in European, Danish, and German-based design. And there’s nothing wrong with any of those. But for a culture that has contributed so much but has received so much less, we can’t afford to continue assimilating, using other people’s cultures to push our culture forward. There’s a cap on what we’re seeing. This is only the cap. This is only the first level. You know, we’re seeing the highest number of black excellence, black curation, black design and black film directing right now. If we were on a timeline compared to what has happened to black people, Africans, people of color in the last 400, 500 years, this would be like the equivalent of just the first two years of having creative freedom to create your own content. Imagine what the next five years will look like or what the next 10 years will look like. The most important thing for black creatives, as it relates to the imagination and black imagination now, is to be able to create that owned palette. We use other people’s palettes too much. And so there’s consistency. It’s like you look at a certain palette that was created and not metaphorically, you know, but the palette as specified to a specific amount of ingredients that make a composition, right? And we’re using these palettes and finding very very similar compositions that are alike in and created by people that are outside of the culture.

So now we need to create our own palette, one that defines an embodiment of what we represent rather than what is expected of us. I’m not a makeup artist, but I do know about foundation. What foundation you use on your skin greatly influences how the makeup will come out. I strongly feel that it’s time for us to be able to create that foundation that works for us rather than assimilating. We’ve assimilated. For the last 500 years, it’s all about assimilation. It’s been about taking you out of your comfort zone and forcing you to confine or be within another environment. But now we’re at a place of creative freedom to where we can question, and we can dare to push the limits, and we have a support and base and system.

The internet has enabled us to now receive the validation that otherwise we wouldn’t have 10 years ago, 15 years ago, because you had to go through the process. By the time your idea even got to the first level of the process, it was already knocked down like these little boards in this room. We create the mood boards, and we present them, and they just knock everything down. Being in a position where now our mood boards are not only accepted past the screening phase but are now turned into an actual product.

Iddris’ house is essentially a one-person startup that has prioritized mental space over furniture or fixtures, each room dedicated to different trains of thought. Right before the staircase, there are physical prototypes for a high tech parking meter he’s set to release, an upstairs bedroom houses mood boards for the school he’s building in Ghana while the adjacent room houses plans for self-cooling performance materials. Iddris is working to solve the largest problems in the world. While trying to find a red thread between the work-in-progress sketches wallpapered around the home, I inquire what he thinks the biggest problems in the world are.

Design. We’ve been taught to look at design on a surface level. So we don’t know anything about stakes. Well, how the fuck is making something look better going to change the world?

Looking better is one way, and working better is another. That’s what we’re tasked with now. EpiPens are super expensive. How do we make them work better in a way that reduces costs rather than simply charging more for aesthetic updates?

I feel like the world is constantly in a healing state. We know of doctors to be healers related to diseases of our bodies. I view architects and designers in the same vein as the doctors — except we heal diseases of the design world.

Iddris tackles the world’s largest problems through his company– ETHOS, “an extension of a design hospital that specialized in making products that are better and more useful.”

Iddris hesitates to talk at length about the projects underway for ETHOS, as it marks the next chapter in his work, one that is not ready to be communicated. “This is the last interview we’re doing for a while” Makensy informs me, Iddris has done enough talking about his ideas and plans for now, and is about to enter heads down mode, bringing to life this next level of ideas. “We’re at a stage now where I strongly feel like the vision… or the fragment of what is needed for this time period has already been delivered to the masses. Now it’s about the actions catching up to everything that was said within this time period and then we do another wave of things we want to execute and accomplish those things” Iddris explains.

It occurs to me that this interview is only a fragment of the world that Iddris is creating, a fragment of what needs to be shared or what we have enough time to discuss. I commend Iddris on the space that he’s been able to carve out for himself, an exciting territory for a multifaceted young black man to spread out in. I ask him how important it is to also make space for the next generation.

It’s very important. More importantly, is the curator of the space. If you’re curating a space, you have a vision for what that space should look like, and you’re taking in so many different inputs. It’s a curation within another curation.

I come from two worlds, right? I come from a world where my influences growing up were the likes of Grandmaster Flash, leading up to Nas, leading up to Rakim. I also come from another world of Johnny Ive, Frank Lloyd Wright, Guggenheim, Dieter Rams, Mark Newsome, and Zaha Hadid. Growing up, those were the two worlds I was constantly pulling from.

And there’s a third world (no pun intended), of Fela Kuti’s and Lucky Dube’s and the Kwame Nkrumah’s, and Sankara’s. Those three worlds fused together. What about the kid that has that fourth world or fifth world? I need to give them some sort of infrastructure for them to start with, and that’s what I’m focused on doing. That’s why it’s very important that we curate spaces for that next generation of tech kids that are designers. There’s a next generation of designers that are into tech, the next generation of kids in the hood that are into tech or the next generation of tech people that grew up in the hood. It’s about connecting those two or three multitudes of universes.

When asked, I am surprised to hear Iddris isn’t legacy oriented; to me, I read into his initiatives as a set of tools created to empower future generations. However, when re-analyzing my verbiage, the word legacy can be interpreted as “of or pertaining to old or outdated hardware, software, or data that, while still functional, does not work well with up-to-date systems.” Iddris isn’t creating one tool for all; rather, he’s creating space, and making tech “cool” for the next generation and all of their worlds, using a palette that invites them to inhabit, update and customize an operating system that reflects themselves.