BrassyBrown.com talks with NOLA songbird, Michaela Harrison.
1. I read that you studied and lived in East Africa and Brazil and that you are fluent in several languages. How have these global experiences influenced your approach to music?
My time spent abroad and study of other languages and cultures has definitely informed my approach to music. On the most basic level, it’s the understanding of music as the universal language that I’ve gained from my travels that has been the most impactful for me. It became clear to me during my time in East Africa that it was possible for me to both understand and be understood through music in a way that was completely feeling-based and transcended what was initially a very limited set of skills in KiSwahili. Eventually, I became more fluent, but the fact that I was literally able to connect with people on a deep soul level through music without needing words to be defined really stuck with me. Stylistically, my time abroad has influenced me tremendously, and there’s some part of me that is always seeking to draw out those connections between places in the African diaspora that can be so clearly expressed through music. Brazilian music has obviously had a huge impact – I sing a lot of Brazilian music, recorded my first solo CD with a Brazilian guitarist, Marcio Pereira. I love to weave Brazilian rhythms and harmonic ideas into other genres that I perform, especially jazz, but also some of the soul and R&B. I love singing in other languages because it counters the whole idea of English as the “most important” language in the world and moves people to listen to the music in a different way. It also prevents people from settling into the idea that they can place me into any convenient box or category. When I travel, it lets people know right away that I am invested in doing the work required to be able to exchange ideas with a broad range of people, not just those who speak English.
Do you think the current popular music being produced by artists of color heals or hurts our community?
Fortunately, there’s a huge diversity of music being produced by artists of color and much of it is profoundly healing. Many of the artists getting mass exposure today, however, those who have recordings that are in constant rotation, don’t fall onto the healing side of the equation in my opinion. I have no doubt that music that glorifies violence – to be more specific, murder – misogyny, waste, and rampant materialism and greed have a harmful impact on our communities, especially children and young adults because they are bombarded with it. Vibration, which is what music is, is such a powerful force, not to mention the subliminal effect of the lyrics and images that accompany those vibrations.
I also think it’s important to say that the music is a reflection of the conditions of the people creating and consuming it. So it’s kind of a circular effect; people make music about what they experience and witness in their lives, for the most part. U.S. Americans in general have been lulled into consuming all sorts of input without applying any filter or critical analysis to what they’re taking in, and I think that for black folks in particular, that’s been incredibly destructive. I’m not hating on any particular type of music, though. I just think that it’s very important for us to be conscious of the power we either wield or open ourselves up to when it comes to creating and consuming music.
- I love the Lift Every Voice and Sing program held at Ashe every year. How did this annual event begin? Why is it important for us to sing as a community?Lift Every Voice and Sing grew out of my understanding of the charge that was given to me by my mentor, Bernice Johnson Reagon, founder of Sweet Honey in the Rock. By employing me to work with her on research and writing projects documenting and archiving the musical legacy African-Americans have in spirituals and freedom songs, she gave me access to something that has provided me with personal strength and inspiration countless times, as well as a deeper understanding of what our ancestors went through and the ingenious ways they responded to what they went through. She didn’t do that for me to sit on it for my individual benefit alone, though. The healing and empowerment that our ancestors were able to draw from the songs they created are still available to us right here and now because those songs have survived, and they can only survive if we continue to sing them, celebrate them, and pass them on to the younger generations. And just the act of coming together to sing is so uplifting, energizing, transformative. History has proven over and over that when people come together and do it with a shared intention, major changes take place, like during the Civil Rights Movement.
4. Can you describe the impact Sweet Honey in the Rock has had on you as an artist?
Obviously Sweet Honey in the Rock is an extension of Dr. Reagon’s influence on me, but also much more than that. Just the fact of witnessing six Black women onstage together—looking so regal, producing such beautiful harmonies and expressing such a commitment to social justice and the upliftment of women and all oppressed people— changed my whole perspective on what music could do and how it could be used, and I immediately knew that I wanted to move people with my music the way I was being moved by theirs.
5. Is there a song you find difficult to sing? (technically or emotionally)
I have a visceral resistance to “Amazing Grace”. Something about it…I’m not a wretch. I don’t want to refer to myself as a wretch. Plus, I feel like it has this subconscious association with the glory days of the South for so many people, and I just really don’t like to sing it. When people request it — unless it’s some elder I really care about or feel moved to please, I usually refuse. I love the notion of Grace; it’s on my mind a lot, but that song…
6. What song would you sing to a woman hurting and struggling to find herself?
That’s easy – “Miss Celie’s Blues” (also known as “Sister”) from The Color Purple. It always does the trick. Without fail!
7. What song comes to mind when you think of the death of Henry Glover?
“Makes Me Wanna Holler” by Marvin Gaye, and “Fight the Power” by Public Enemy. I’m old-school. What can I say?
8. How do you hope to impact New Orleans through your music?
My music is definitely about bringing the healing, for individuals and for communities, for people and all beings, for New Orleans and beyond. In New Orleans specifically, I am very intentional about passing on this idea of music as a powerful tool for healing and change, and by working with children and teaching them the songs that have been handed down to me. My desire is to give them something they can use to counteract the violence, hatred and disregard for human life to which so many of them are subjected constantly. What NOLA needs now is love sweet love.
Check out Michaela Harison’s latest project here: http://www.gofundme.com/6m9zi0