Thomas Duh Gives Us A Taste Of Influence
By Andre Kettle & Chioma Nwana
Thomas Duh is occupying several lanes at once, and he’s doing it with ease. Working within brand partnerships at BET, managing digital and social for A$AP Mob, and acting as the Head Chef at Empire Taste, Thomas has mastered the art of collaboration and uses it to his advantage on a daily basis. This Mississippi native is a budding force to be reckoned with within the music, entertainment, and fashion industries, and he aspires to establish himself as an Asian-American role model for those coming up under him. We were lucky enough to catch up with him to ask about his brainchild, Empire Taste, Asian-American representation, and the NBA playoffs. Here’s what he had to say:
You currently have your hands in three different places—Empire Taste, A$AP Mob, and BET. Considering your understanding of partnerships, do you ever use your affiliation with one brand to elevate the others?
It’s cool when one part of your life naturally helps you in your other areas. I think that’s always the goal. As someone who wants to create things, it’s cool when you’re able to align those different branches. At BET, I do brand partnerships. I activate brands to make them culturally relevant. I’ve learned a lot about partnering with brands and I’ve been able to apply that experience to building out Empire Taste as an agency. Last year we shot a commercial spot for a headphones company where we tapped Cozy Boys from A$AP Mob as the talent. It was a full-circle moment applying what I’ve learned at BET towards Empire Taste while putting on the guys in the Mob. Aligning that synergy was really cool.
How do you go about establishing healthy boundaries as it pertains to your various involvements? How do you know how much time and energy to allocate to each brand?
That’s tough. It comes in phases. In the beginning, setting up the foundation of A$AP Mob—that took up most of my time. And when I started working at BET, that took up a lot of my time, too. Each project comes at different times in your life, and you really want to invest your time to each moment. Right now, I want to grow Empire Taste and see how far I can take that.
So you recently had an event in Chicago. Can you tell us about that?
One of our friends is a photographer in the Chicago area and works with a lot of artists out there. He had his first gallery show, and we came on and supported him through a small activation at the event. We got these disposable cameras and had one of our boys, Drew, do this thing called paint splatter— where he gets paints and drips it on a canvas. This time he did it on the cameras and we passed them out to the different artists who were performing at the gallery show. It wasn’t a full Empire Taste production—we were just supporting the homie.
It’s nice to be in a position to use what you do to support the people that you care about. It’s cool to make yourself accessible to the people who are close to you.
Definitely. We value our friends and family. Also, our thing is about emerging artists, you know? That’s who we really care about at Empire Taste. Even somebody who’s having their first gallery show in Chicago where there are performers and all that? We’re about it. Let’s see if we can help them bolster that—we market it, promote it, and also do something fun with it.
Does Empire Taste plan to expand to other regions? Or is it just New York right now?
New York is our homebase, but I went to college in Illinois, so we know a lot of people in Chicago, too. Our editor-in-chief, Alex, is out in Chicago alongside a strong core. We’re trying to figure out how to integrate into the Chicago scene. It’s not as fast-paced as New York—there’s not as much going on—but we still have a good foundation there. I think that’s our second biggest base. And then, I would love to get out to Asia. We just came back from Japan in April.
How was that?
It was amazing. The culture there, the people… We were fortunate enough to be able to bring our clothing out to Japan this past April. We met these really good guys who helped us throw a pop-up and ended up carrying our merch in stores right now, so I want to get back out there. Hopefully this year.
Did you like the feedback that you were receiving?
Yeah, they’re really supportive of American culture and what we’re doing. They want us to help them come to New York, and they want to bring our stuff to Japan. They were telling me, “We gotta get the employees in the store to wear your clothing. We gotta mark these prices higher.” They know.
Where exactly did you grow up?
I was born and raised in Starkville, Mississippi. It was cool. It’s much different from New York. At 12, I moved to Jersey, so it was a big change in pace. Growing up in the South was humbling—everything was laid back. But coming up here opened my mind and perspective of the world. Being so close to New York, I gravitated towards that energy.
Do your southern roots influence the way that you approach the music industry or the way you view the world in general?
Definitely. Having that experience living in the South, you see the differences in the Black and white experience. Having that perspective allows me to reflect on my identity as a minority in my communities and understand different people in better ways. I also think it’s reflected in my personality and style. I stay lowkey. Music-wise, my friends would show me artists like Usher, Nelly, B2K. But it wasn’t until I moved that I started listening to more music myself.
When you look for new artists, how do you spot potential? What do you consider to be the “it” factor?
That’s tough. It’s a lot of different factors. The artists that we listen to come in all different forms and styles. For me, it comes down to the music and conveying an authentic message, at the end of the day. Your visuals could be great, your look could be cool, you could dress well, but it comes down to an authentic sound. If your music is good, you can do it whichever way you want. Whether you’re Frank, or you’re Chance, or Kanye. No matter what they’re doing, you still gotta respect them to some degree for their music.
You mentioned that you’re a big basketball fan. Who’s your favorite team?
With Magic Johnson leaving, it’s kinda rough right now.
It’s messy right now.
Maybe LeBron can bring somebody over.
Hopefully, man. Honestly, I don’t know. I don’t know what to say about the Lakers right now.
Maybe we can talk about how you feel about the playoffs?
The playoffs have been good this year. I loved seeing Giannis [Antetokounmpo] killing it. Now I’m rooting for the Raptors. I think the Raptors have a shot at the Warriors—I think they could take them. They’re a deep team.
Do you play basketball?
Man, I haven’t in a long time.
How long are we talking?
A year? It’s hard to get time. I need to take care of the health and make sure I’m out there. I would love to though—I really want to.
Let’s switch gears. Are there any Asian-Americans within (or outside of) your line of work who inspire you to do what you do?
There are so many on different scales and levels. Ali Wong. She’s been doing her thing as a comedienne, doing a lot of shows, a lot of writing, and now she has her movie on Netflix. To see her on that track has been really cool. Even having a movie like “Crazy Rich Asians” is incredible. We needed that and it was really the first step. After that, we can have more nuanced movies and nuanced storylines that doesn’t just generalize the whole population. Hasan Minhaj, another comedian, does an incredible job with his show “Patriot Act” connecting current events in a language we can relate to. As far as music goes, I would say Anik Khan: he’s a Bangladeshi rapper raised in Queens, and he’s been climbing up the New York music scene. I really like what he’s been doing—tying in his own culture with Hip-Hop. There are a lot of photographers and directors as well. [Hiro Murai] directed Childish Gambino’s “This Is America.” A lot of my peers are nice with the camera. There’s an artist, Raveena, who’s incredible. Shotta Spence started as a stylist for Mike Will and came on board with Ear Drummers as an artist. It’s been cool to see everybody push and make progress. Asian-American art and culture is bubbling. Just watch.
What would you say is your role in the industry?
I think the ultimate goal is to inspire—inspire kids who look like me, grew up like me, like music, don’t like music, have their own dream, want to pursue painting or whatever it is. I just want to show them there’s a way and that I’m going for it. I don’t know what’s going to happen in the end. I may fall flat; I may leave the industry. But at this point in time, let’s hit it hard. Let’s go as hard as we possibly can. If I can’t complete the goal, then the next kid can complete the goal. Keep it going.
Speaking of inspiration, when it’s all said and done, how do you want to be remembered?
I want to be remembered as a good leader, a good friend, a good family member, someone who did it in an authentic way. Someone who took his experience, his background, and his upbringing, and used that to be a voice of change. Someone who pushed culture and pushed the social climate.
Are there projects that we should be anticipating from you or any of the brands you work with?
For Empire Taste, I’m about to go to Chicago. One of our friends is throwing an indie arts festival. We’re going out there to do an activation and help support them. In July, we’re working on a clothing collab with a brand in Brooklyn, launching with a pop-up party. We’ll definitely have a food element there. We’re also working on a collab with our friends out in Japan. I want to have our own event in Chicago so we’re figuring that out. And towards the end of summer we’re doing a community give back for kids in Harlem. There’s so much we want to do. We’re just taking it one step at a time.