IN THE NEWS | Rapper and entrepreneur Marquas Ashworth is working to build up Black-owned businesses

IN THE NEWS | Rapper and entrepreneur Marquas Ashworth is working to build up Black-owned businesses Kim Norvell, Des Moines Register | 12/26/2021

Note: Marquas Ashworth serves on Mainframe Studios Board of Direvtors and is in Studio #357.

It's early December and Marquas Ashworth is sick. 

Yet, between sniffles and coughs, the artist, developer and entrepreneur is working.

"I'm in bed with my spreadsheets open," he said. 

The 32-year-old Des Moines man, who goes by the stage name MarKaus, can hardly afford to take time off. Between his small batch whiskey company, boutique marketing firm, music career and his new initiative to create a Black- and brown-owned business incubator in Iowa's capital city, Ashworth has plenty to keep himself busy. 

Ashworth was chosen as one of the Des Moines Register's 15 People to Watch in 2022 for his work to build the Center @ Sixth, a four-story development at 1714 Sixth Ave., in one of Des Moines' most diverse neighborhoods.

Plans for the Center include ground-floor retail and restaurant space, a nonprofit business incubator, affordable apartments, a rooftop terrace and an amphitheater. Black and brown entrepreneurs would get exclusive access to the commercial and incubator space to lift up their ideas, expose their products to wider audiences and accelerate their business plans. 

Ashworth first got the idea as a teenager, based on the teachings of his late father, Vance, who told him about the success and subsequent devastation of Black Wall Street in the Tulsa race massacre. In 1921, white Tulsans went on a 16-hour rampage, burning 35 city blocks and more than 1,200 homes, destroying primarily Black-owned small businesses in a once thriving district. 

Ashworth's idea supercharged after the murder of George Floyd and his own experience of being denied a loan to open a whiskey tasting room in the Des Moines metro — a financial barrier to entry many entrepreneurs of color report encountering nationwide.

"Even though I had money and I had product, I couldn't get banks to work with me," Ashworth said. "It was kind of a wakeup call, but it inspired me."

"Des Moines' Black and brown economy, as a result of not being allowed to participate in the actual economy, is strong and thrives on its own," he said. "So being able to facilitate something that can support that — and mostly importantly is owned by us — is perfect."

From selling mixtapes to distilling whiskey, it started with tuition costs

Originally from Kansas City, Ashworth made his way to Iowa as a senior in high school in 2007. His father, a businessman, had been diagnosed with cancer, and his family moved to be closer to treatment at the University of Iowa. 

Get theThe Cheat Sheet newsletter in your inbox.

Your guide to Iowa's school year.

Delivery: SundayYour Email

Vance died a month later, but his son stayed in the Hawkeye State. 

Ashworth, leaning on his dad's "I'm-the-only-person-in-this-room-who-can-sell-you-this-pen type of energy," began selling a hip-hop mixtape and playing at parties and bars to afford tuition and books at Iowa State University. He would roll up to fraternities and house parties or at Hickory Park when students' parents were in town to sell a copy of his album "Fresh Ink" and a snapback hat for $25. 

He sold 9,000 copies — enough money to pay for college, and then some.

"Iowa was dope from that aspect because — imagine if you're the only McDonald's in town," said Ashworth, referring to a lack of homegrown rap artists. "I was riding around in my friend's dad's old-school cars, and I would give people that '90s-style experience of buying CDs from the back of the trunk. It worked like a charm."

More:Does Des Moines love hip-hop?

As he drove around looking for places to sell, Ashworth stumbled upon Carroll, Iowa, where he met a couple who ran a bootlegging whiskey operation. The couple blindfolded him, drove him on a four-wheeler to the middle of a cornfield — "it was like some alien crop circle," he says — opened a bunker and there it was: Bottles and bottles of liquor, including files of receipts claiming to show booze sales made to Chicago gangster Al Capone. 

Ashworth was not a whiskey drinker — until the moment he tried the Prohibition-era spirit.

"Man, (it's) delicious, though. You watch those old Greek shows where they're like 'Fetch me my wine.' That's what I imagine it tastes like," he said.

He acquired the recipe and started having the spirit legally produced. "I spent the rest of my money just barreling as much product as I could," he said.

A few years later, Ashworth's rye whiskey, Ziyad, was picked up by Hy-Vee. It's now sold in nearly all of its stores across eight states. It's also sold at Fareway, Price Chopper and online at shopziyadrye.com

'Success is all about your mindset'

But it's not just liquor he's selling. Combining his passion for whiskey with his passion for music, each bottle is sold with a QR code that leads to his latest album, "Burn the Boats."

In fact, the only way someone can buy his record is to buy his rye whiskey. Through Hy-Vee's reach, the relationship between the two products earned his rap career more popularity than ever before. (A 15-city tour for "Burn the Boats" was canceled in 2020 over COVID-19 concerns.) 

"It not only grew my fan base but it solidified my existing fan base," Ashworth said. 

As he looks to expand Ziyad with other types of liquor and canned cocktails, he's also bringing other artists on board through his marketing firm and artist collective, Media Fresh Records. He started the company as a way to create content and find business partnerships for musicians and other artists, while giving them full creative license and ownership of their art. 

Ames-based Rudy Miller, who goes by the stage name King Wylde, is recording an album, "Eros," to be released in the spring with Ziyad's new rum. His name and music will be seen on liquor bottles sold in eight states, he'll host tasting events, and he'll have his image plastered on billboards across the Midwest, Ashworth said.

"I'm handling the artist part of it, and he has the business mind," said Miller, who produces alternative rock with elements of hip-hop and R&B. "It's going to definitely give me a lot more opportunities. It's going to get me a lot more exposure as an artist and give me some listens from people who may not have given me a chance."

Miller said his work with Ashworth has impacted him beyond the opportunities for sales. His album is about manifesting a soulmate — Eros is the Greek God of love, after all — just as how Ashworth taught him to understand what he wants out of life and where he wants his music career to go.

"Confidence will get you a long ways, is what I realize. What I learned from him is success is all about your mindset and what you're willing to sacrifice to get what you want," Miller said. "And it's not going to happen overnight — it's a long game, more of a process. It's good to have a vision of the things you want instead of aimlessly wandering to your destination."

Lifting up Black and brown business owners through 'conscious capitalism'

All of that leads to the Center @ Sixth. Ashworth is a businessman through and through. Yet, with money in the bank and product in hand, he said he still couldn't get the backing of a bank to open a tasting room. 

That experience, combined with 2020's summer of protests in the wake of Floyd's murder and what he sees as the violent police response, motivated him to solidify plans he'd been ruminating for a while. He thought: How can we showcase Black- and brown-owned businesses so our dollar stays in our community? If we lean on each other and our connections, how can we build brands that have national reach? 

"There's only so many 'me's' here," he said, meaning Black-owned business owners with a national footprint. 

"We all have the same problem. We don't want to rent. We don't want to lease. We want to own our businesses and create services in our own communities," Ashworth said. 

He calls it conscious capitalism — making a difference in the community while also earning a profit. 

As planned, the $10 million project would feature three anchor businesses, including a Ziyad tasting room, that would serve to bring in customers who may not otherwise frequent Sixth Avenue.

The ground floor also would feature a bodega-style space so the five or six entrepreneurs going through the incubator can test products with consumers, said Susan Fitzsimmons, vice president and general counsel for Christensen Development, a Des Moines-based company Ashworth has hired to serve as consultants for Center @ Sixth. 

The group is working on finalizing the capital stack for the project, a complex feat when considering the cost of construction versus Ashworth's vision of low rent for budding business owners. But the folks at Christensen Development believe if anyone can do it, Ashworth can.

"He's just really collaborative, but yet he has a very clear vision of what it is he wants to deliver with this project," Fitzsimmons said. "He's got big, bold plans for everything he's passionate about, and he has this drive and enthusiasm to really advance them in a meaningful way.

"To really do whatever it takes."

The incubator is believed to be the first of its kind in the nation. After the project was announced, Ashworth said he heard from celebrities, politicians and rappers who congratulated him on the project. Other cities' leaders, too, have asked how they can replicate his plans, he said. 

More:New development on Des Moines' Sixth Avenue will feature Black- and brown-owned businesses

He's close to securing all of his anchor tenants, and has the opportunity to apply for some grant funding that would cover the incubator's operational costs for a year. The nonprofit organization may stand up while the development team works on the bricks-and-mortar building, Fitzsimmons said. 

"This is a project that people really want to lift up," she said. 

They hope to break ground in the spring. 

"I did all that with $400 worth of mixtapes on cheap recording equipment in my dorm room," Ashworth said. 

Meanwhile, Ashworth continues his work on the board of directors of Mainframe Studios, a nonprofit that operates a building housing more than 100 affordable studios for artists. He'll soon begin teaching again for the Greater Des Moines Music Coalition after-school program, which he co-founded. He's also set to release a new album in January using nonfungible tokens, meaning fans can purchase 40% of the project with cryptocurrency and trade their ownership like stocks. 

While Ashworth's interests are broad, his focus remains clear: Elevate Black businesses, including his own, to not only earn an income but help propel people of color forward.

"There isn't the infrastructure to support ourselves. Right now we've gotta go buy someone else's toothpaste, someone else's coffee. So we're trying to create more opportunities for ourselves," he said. "The issue is it seems like we're broke, but we're just not united. We can unite ourselves to do these things."

Meet Marquas Ashworth 

AGE: 32

LIVES: Des Moines

EDUCATION: Worked toward a dual major in marketing and sociology at Iowa State University 

CAREER: Owner of Media Fresh Records, Ziyad, Center @ Sixth and Ashworth Development; rap artist

FAMILY: Cats, Darth Puppy and Num Num