Activist, Educator, & Folk Singer-Songwriter Reggie Harris Discusses His New Album ‘On Solid Ground’, The Living Legacy Project, & Much More

Reggie Harris performs at Gilbert Elementary on March 22, 2018. Candy Schneider, Vice President of Education and Outreach

Music is often used as a vessel for feelings and messages to take the shape of something greater than just an idea or a thought. People turn to it no matter the occasion or emotion; it builds bridges between communities and transcends all other forms of communication. Through lyrics and melodies, artists can portray messages that they hold close to the world, and that is exactly what folk artist Reggie Harris is doing with his music.

Throughout his career as a songwriter and musician, Harris has used his immense talent as a tool for education and community-building. Not only does his music portray a powerful message, but he actively spreads awareness outside of his music as well, and his impact is as long-lasting as it is multifaceted.

As a pioneer in the industry for 40 years, Harris has molded and shaped his career around activism and Civil Rights education. His music career works in tandem with his position as co-president of the Living Legacy Project, a project built on the foundation of greater education on the Civil Rights movement.

With his latest album release, On Solid Ground, Harris emphasizes the need for community and healing in the wake of injustice, heartache, and unrest with an honest collection of songs. In a time of such division, Harris’s music does a wonderful job of getting an important and impactful message across while simultaneously bringing communities together.

On Solid Ground is a heartfelt and impactful listen, and Harris’s talent does not go unnoticed. We had a great time discussing the album with Harris and how he has shaped his career as a folk musician and activist.

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So your new album, On Solid Ground, is out now. What messages and feelings do you hope to send out to listeners and fans with it? 

This album was made with a sense of urgency. It was inspired by events that date back to the beginning of our nation, but that inspiration was triggered by the deep uncertainty of 2020. I found myself observing our nation in a new way, trapped as we all were by the pandemic and horrified by the social unrest and the deaths of thousands of our fellow Americans…some from COVID-19 and others from senseless acts of our human family. I began by writing the song “On Solid Ground,” a song meant to say “Yes, things are as bad as they seem. But history and the spirituals tell us that if we face ourselves and face the failures of our past, we can get through this…but we have to face it together.” This CD is meant to be a reassuring love letter…and sometimes love comes with hard messages. But it’s still love.

Did the process and message of the album evolve during its creation, or did you have a clear understanding of what you wanted this album to represent from the beginning?                   

I would have to say that making this CD was the most focused, grounded and self-assured process of music making that I’ve ever experienced. That’s not to say that they weren’t hard days and moments when we had trouble finding the way forward. There was a pandemic going on after all, and we also had a couple of health security scares. And the act of working out schedules with the other musicians to honor their needs for safety brought a lot of issues to the fore.

Like most other people, I was also dealing with my own emotions about the expanding pandemic, the horrid and dispassionate leadership in our nation, feeling astonishingly unsafe as a person of color in my own nation and trying to find just the right words and musical frameworks to translate the songs. But with the exception of two days where I had to fight through a deep anxiety attack (I had taken on too much angst for the progress of the world) this was the most centered and joyful time I think I’ve ever spent in the studio. I give a lot of kudos to my co-producing partners Greg Greenway and Dave Schonauer for hanging with me and accepting my vision and to the elders living and dead, who provide me with daily examples of how to live in chaos.

“Social change is achieved mostly through relationships. And through music, I start and continue to build relationships all the time.”

While it may be like picking a favorite child, is there a song or two on the album that may mean the most to you, or perhaps that you’re most excited for the public to hear?

Without a doubt the opening song, “It’s Who We Are,” is one that I certainly want the world to hear, particularly Americans. That song rose from years of studying history and considering the fact that we do not know our own history or the impact that that history has made on our ability to live and honor our fellow citizens and the world. My years of being an educator, an activist and a concerned human being all came together in that song along with my desire and passion for showing the need for change. It was a hard song to write. I wrote 27 verses framing issues of delusion, denial and untold history like the 1921 Tulsa Massacre and the real story of Jim Crow. But in the end I needed to say “Folks, with all that being true, they are still hope! We CAN change!” I am very pleased with how that came out lyrically and musically.

And I’m very proud of what me and my friends Greg Greenway, Tom Prasada-Rao and Pat Wictor came up with on the song “Sing Out, March On!” That song was an extension that arose from years of friendship and collaboration. We’ve been in each other’s musical kitchens stirring up great arrangements for years.

You have been in the folk music community now for decades. What drew you to folk music, and how do you feel it’s evolved in that time?   

Folk music has been part of my life from the beginning. Hearing the elders in my church singing spirituals and being introduced to the music of Pete Seeger, Paul Robeson, and Woody Guthrie in elementary school, I think I’ve always been drawn to the way that it deeply expresses real events in human lives. It’s gritty, emotional…real! It’s sung by voices of people who’ve been through something and they are trying to share that feeling so that others can remember that we are all part of the human family. I am all about narrative, and so much folk music is made because people want and need to tell their story. 

Over the years, I think the genre has gotten more tangled up with aspects of the industry that have, in some ways, homogenized that raw power to touch ground level reality for the promise of wider fame and an acceptance in the mainstream. But it still connects in real ways and holds a place for human reality. As an African-American male in folk music,the journey has been one of excitement and joy, of finding an audience, of passion and discovery (both for me and my mostly white audiences) and it’s been a rich lesson in learning to establish and hold your priorities as your message evolves and defines. It’s also been one of loneliness and frustration…of not being fully seen or heard and of having the color of my skin affect my access to gigs or acceptance. Mostly. I learned to be myself and stand firm.

For example, of the few African-Americans in the genre, very seldom do more than a couple of us ever land on a festival or multiple artist lineup together. There will be 30 maybe 40 white performers at an event, many of them relatively similar in approach, but only one or two artists of color even though we are, for the most part, mostly all very different in the ways we shape and deliver our musical landscapes. I found over the years that so many of the artistic directors or concert presenters don’t notice this. Of course some do and try to take it on. Bless them!! But often, they know that mostly white folk audiences won’t turn out in the same numbers to see a person of color. So even in folk circles where progressive stories and messages have found more of a home, we’re still fighting many of the same race limiting battles that plague the nation. 

On Solid Ground touches on many timely issues surrounding injustice in the country right now. How has music helped you bring these issues to light and into everyday discussion toward change?                                                                    

Because of the way music hits the mind and heart, it’s probably the most effective way to get people into an atmosphere of hearing stories and taking on issues. In my educational shows on slavery, the Underground Railroad and the Civil Rights Movement, I have managed to develop a model and a process for addressing hard issues within the context that create an atmosphere where people feel “safe.” Bernice Johnson Reagon, Founder of Sweet Honey in The Rock, once said, “Music makes things possible but otherwise seem impossible!” I learned through my children’s music work and in connection to the Kennedy Center education program that the arts can open up the human mind and heart in very useful and wondrous ways. By inviting people into an experience that takes them out of their everyday modes of suspicion and defensiveness, and one that provides them with a safe and joyful personal and community connection, the most remarkable outcomes can be achieved. Simply said, singing or listening to songs that touch the emotional framework of being human can open people to considering new ideas or rekindling old truths that have been forgotten.

A singing audience experiences this music in a very different way than singularly listening in a personal setting. During the pandemic I have found that this is still true online, albeit to a lesser degree. And I think that my experience of introducing issues of human and civil rights to school and college age audiences has contributed to my skills of storytelling and to giving people permission to take a risk. Once they buy in and it feels good, I can open the window that affords them an opportunity to perhaps see the world in a different way. That must be done, in my opinion, with respect and balance. I never approach these interactions with the thought that I’m going to “change someone’s mind!” Social change is achieved mostly through relationships. And through music, I start and continue to build relationships all the time.

What artists did you grow up with, and how have they influenced your personal sound and journey?                              

Oh my! There are SO many!! I guess the first artists I encountered were local singers in Philadelphia. I grew up in the church, so I heard some pretty amazing voices in programs sponsored by my church and other collaborating congregations. Some of those people could really sing! Of course, I was also hearing music on the radio at home: Harry Bellafonte, Mahalia Jackson, Sam Cooke, Frank Sinatra, the whole wide spectrum of music that came across the airways.

In school I was introduced to folk songs and the music of Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger. We sang Bob Dylan’s “Blowin in the Wind” for my sixth grade graduation. By junior high school I was also hearing The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Richie Havens and my sister began listening to Motown artists down the hall. I’ve always had an ear that was open to hearing and appreciating something in any genre of music so Folk, Pop, Country, Rock…something in all of them made sense to me. In high school I was more formally introduced to classical music and fell in love with Bach, Mozart and composers like Randall Thompson.

Listening to the radio in high school also got me connected to emerging artists like Stevie Wonder, James Taylor, Cat Stevens, Joni Mitchell, Earth Wind and Fire and reacquainted me with Aretha Franklin and the various black artists of gospel and R&B. It all collided inside of me so that when I got challenged to learn the guitar by my girlfriend in 1974, I had a reservoir of musical colors to use as I began to paint my initial songs. That background and its resulting evolution serves me well!

What effect has your experience with being co-president of the Living Legacy Project and a Civil Rights educator and activist had on your music?                         

I was asked on a pilgrimage with LLP as a musician hired to sing songs of the Civil Rights Movement to connect people to how those songs were used in that historic movement. I had already spent years teaching about the Civil Rights Movement and also had met some of incredible singers like Bernice Johnson Reagon and the original Freedom Singers, Matt & Marshall Jones and others; I got to hear their stories and soak up some of their wisdom. By this time I had also met Rosa Parks and Rev. Andrew Young and began to travel in circles with civil rights activists with deep roots and knowledge.

I came to that week of traveling on that bus to sites in Alabama, Mississippi and Tennessee with the thought that I would help those 35 participants to see the power of the movement through the music. That did happen. But along the way, something inside of me also shifted and I found a new calling that made me want to be connected to the movement past and present in a new and powerful way. That led to me becoming the Musical Education Director of the Living Legacy Project, and then to accepting the position of Co-President two years ago. I love doing concerts in which I continue to share those songs with audiences around the nation. But there’s something truly magical about singing those songs in the places where they were often the very powerful thing that gave people the strength to face fire hoses, dogs, police and KKK violence and a very real possibility of death when fighting for voting rights or the right to get a job, or go to the school of your choice or simply to be seen as an equal citizen in this nation. 

Now I find myself part of a growing organization that has taken our message and efforts online and that connects thousands to the reality of civil and human rights remotely. This is just as much a priority, highlighted by the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and with acts of racial violence and with hate groups marching in our streets, as it’s ever been.  I’m also sure that several of the songs like “Standing in Freedom’s Name” would never have been written had I not been part of these pilgrimages or if I had not met Rev. CT Vivien and others in 2015. My experience with LLP has intensified my activism in so many ways.

Artists and their messages have become more and more accessible through social media and streaming. How do you feel this change in the industry and society has impacted your music and platform?                                                

Yes, this is a very different landscape in which we as I just found ourselves. Back in the day, without the internet and various social media sources, there were gatekeepers through which you had to pass to get your music out into the public forum. While this has led to sometimes an overwhelming flood of music and media offerings (my friends who are DJs or music promoters complain about this all the time as thousands of CDs and videos hit their inboxes) it also has produced a new sense of power and access for the voiceless.

Now in this time, if you have an idea or something to say, do you have a number of different ways in which you can be heard. You may be heard by three people or three million. But one of the powerful aspects of this in the connection of the world community is that we now know that wherever we are, our music, thoughts, the things that happen to us on a daily basis and the sorrows of our hearts can be communicated to other people. That in reading or hearing what we sing or say we can resonate with each other and perhaps even connect in real ways. We no longer have to suffer alone thinking that we are solitary misfits with no relevance.

When the pandemic began, I and so many of my colleagues initially felt cut off from our audience. But very quickly, having already been connected in limited ways, we began to help each other to get the equipment and skills that allowed us to take advantage of the technology that was already there and that has exploded. We started to do online concerts, song circles, discussion groups and internet forums. I know that as a result of participating in all of those I am now known to more people around the world and to more people in this nation than all of my touring thousands of miles per year accomplished. And it inspired me to write songs like “My Working Bones” and “Let’s Meet up Early,” hearing the stories of loneliness and the loss I felt from being separated inspired “Come What May.”

Other songs came out of connection to conversations about powerful songs like “Hello In There” or protest songs like “It Isn’t Nice.” I know that we will go back to some of the more normal ways of connecting and, of course, will experience the joy of being in rooms or theaters or stadiums doing our thing, with those who are experiencing my music. But I also feel that this new landscape of internet and social media connection will continue to grow and make building musical and political alliances easier and more satisfying.

While reflecting back on your career, what are one or two pinnacle moments for you and/or your music?                      

Certainly getting to meet Rosa Parks in 1995 and introducing her by singing four of the Civil Road songs that supported that movement is a lasting memory. Meeting and becoming friends with Pete & Toshi Seeger, two of my most amazing mentors, will always be a highlight of my life.

Walking across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in 2015 with 70,000 people of different races colors from all around the world will be something that I will never forget. My Living Legacy Project group sponsored a conference that weekend that gathered 600 people in Birmingham, Alabama, where we talked about and put in motion plans to use the lessons of the Civil Rights Movement in real and evolving ways and invited speakers like CT Vivien and Roehrer and William C Barber to inspire action. Leading songs for that event and meeting those two men is an amazing highlight.

And standing on stage in Austria in an environmentally efficient concert hall leading 1,000 people in the singing of Pete Seeger‘s song “Rainbow Race” just came back into my mind a few weeks ago as I was sailing on the sloop Clearwater to make a music video for my song “High Over the Hudson.” I thought to myself, “This has been a very rich life and so very unexpected in so many ways.” Making this CD has just opened another door to what I hope will be a wave of life-changing and world benefiting experiences. I am blessed!

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