It might be a strange time to put out an album, but Reggie Harris knew his songs couldn’t wait.
His latest album, called “On Solid Ground,” is both timely and timeless, with songs that speak to the country’s historic and more recent struggles surrounding systemic racism and reflect on the hope that Harris has for the future.
On Saturday, Harris will perform a virtual show at The 8th Step as a celebration of the album’s recent release.
The Middleburgh musician and teaching artist in the Kennedy Center’s Changing Education Through the Arts, Harris grew up in Philadelphia, attending newly integrated schools. He started singing in a choir at a young age and it grounded him amidst the challenges and chaos of that era.
In a sense, music has continued to do so throughout his decades-long career, and that comes through in “On Solid Ground,” which he began writing shortly after the pandemic started.
“I scrambled, as did a lot of musicians, to find ways to deal with the fact that all of our work was disappearing,” Harris said.
After he started offering a few online performances, Harris said he got a sense of just how “freaked out people were.”
As a way of bringing a sense of hope, without ignoring the harsh realities of social and political unrest, Harris wrote “On Solid Ground.” It opens with the lyrics “We will not rest until the storm is over. We will not lay this burden down. We will keep each other strong, we will love and carry on until we stand up together on solid ground.”
As he performed the song online, people seemed to take to it and it opened the floodgates to writing other songs, like “It’s Who We Are.”
“The idea for that song came about a year or two before. But I couldn’t figure out a way to write it without it just being an angry diatribe. When I saw the pregnant mothers in Portland and people of different colors, races and ages flooding into the streets holding up these signs and seeing that their awareness was changing, that’s when I was able to write ‘But we can change’ because I really saw evidence. The language and the actions were changing,” Harris said.
During this time, he was also asked to speak with both The New York Times and CNN’s “Silence is Not An Option,” about his complex family history.
Harris is a descendant of Confederate General Williams Carter Wickham and Bibhanna Hewlett, who was enslaved at Wickham’s plantation. Some years ago, Harris connected with some of his white relatives from that side of his family. According to the Times story, they reconnected again after a statue of Wickham was torn down by protestors in Richmond, Virginia.
Beyond media outlets like these, last year many other people called on Harris, asking him to speak about racism, the Black Lives Matter protests, etc.
“I play for mostly white audiences most of the time and also work in a variety of different settings, both in secular and religious settings, and I kinda became everybody’s next phone call,” Harris said. “I had to find some balance with that because having that conversation was getting more and more difficult as I also felt the impact of all of this also affecting me. I think once I decided what my balance needed to be, it was much easier to address all of this by writing.”
On top of writing the album, he’d also begun writing a memoir. “So in a sense the period between the end of March and the beginning of September, I really became a different kind of artist, one who really was much more focused on creating content and songs and writing stories. So in some ways, my whole mindset and spirit changed to accommodate that . . . I lived in a very much more deeply contemplative place for those months,” Harris said.
That shines through with the opening track “It’s Who We Are,” which begins, “Well, it’s a plague on the nation. It’s all across the news. Splashed up in color for all the world to see.”
Later on in the album, Harris reflects on the encounter between Rev. C.T. Vivian, a close friend of Martin Luther King Jr. and Sheriff Jim Clark in Selma, Alabama. The song, called “Standing in Freedom’s Name” opens “Summer Alabama 1965, a group of people standing in the rain. They came for resolution that was missing from their lives, came to end the terror and the pain.”
There are also a few love songs on the album, which Harris hasn’t written in quite a few years, as well as songs like The Beatles’ “All You Need is Love,” which took on a different sense of urgency during the pandemic.
Harris recorded the album between September and January and the process was both intense and relaxing, he said.
“It grounded me in a way that needed to happen. The overall experience and then the music that came out of it has put me in a whole new place. It’s been a real transformational experience,” Harris said.
While some fellow musicians questioned whether it was wise to release an album during a pandemic, when chances to tour are slim, there was no question in Harris’ mind that it was the right time to release “On Solid Ground.”
“I just knew in my heart that the songs couldn’t wait. They were all tied into the themes that I was seeing around me,” Harris said.
His songs reflect on the injustices that Black people have faced and face today, yet many of them strike an optimistic chord.
“I feel like these songs are my gift to our nation at this time and . . . there’s some hard work ahead but I’m seeing evidence that more people in this nation are willing to shoulder the load. What I want to do is I want to keep people focused on what is real and around us but also that it doesn’t all have to be hard negative work. There’s so many positives that happen in our world and so many positives that happen in our lives. I go back to the spirituals which basically just say we can get through this together,” Harris said.
Starting at 7 p.m. he’ll perform a live-streamed show at Proctors along with Greg Greenway (guitar, piano, uke), Pat Wictor, (6-string & slide guitars), Brian Melick (percussion) and Mark Murphy (bass). The show is hosted by The Eighth Step and tickets range from $5-$50. For more information visit 8thstep.org.
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