Blues ‘genius’ Corey Harris wins big grant
Musicians like Ray Charles, Stevie Wonder, and even the Wu-Tang Clan's GZA have been dubbed "genius," but none has the paperwork to justify the title like Corey Harris. The local blues musician learned Monday from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation that he is the recipient of one of this year's 24 MacArthur Fellowships– the so-called "genius grants"– and the $500,000 that comes with the honor.
Each year the Chicago-based foundation gives the award to individuals "for their creativity, originality, and potential to make important contributions in the future," and its recipients are allowed to do whatever they want with the money.
Though several classical and jazz composers have won the award since its inception in 1981, Harris is the first blues musician to be honored.
What will Harris do with the money? He could not be reached for comment by the time of this post, but if a video on the MacArthur Foundation's website is any indication, travel is in his future.
"I'm on a mission to show people the bridge between our culture and the culture in Africa, and the culture in the Caribbean, and show how, if you look at the black diaspora, there's so much commonality and similarity," he says. "So many artists and musicians from those areas can go collaborate with other people on any part of the planet."
Music with a global scope has long been a Harris trademark. In 2006, he brought Guinean guitarist Mohamed Koyate to Charlottesville for a series of collaborative concerts. At that time, Harris explained that although the two had learned their craft an ocean apart, they spoke the same musical language.
"When I first heard him, he had never been to Mississippi, but he could play Mississippi blues perfectly," Harris said of Koyate. "So we've been doing a lot of jazz, a lot of reggae, and a lot of Malian traditional griot music, done in an electric way."
Just this month, Harris began teaching guitar to the 26 boys at the newly opened Field School in Crozet. Director Todd Barnett didn't know about the award until Tuesday morning.
"He flashed a smile and said something had happened, but I didn't know what it was until I opened up the newspaper," he says. "I still don't know what to say about 500 grand dropping out of the sky except that I do think he's a genius, and we're lucky to have him here in Charlottesville."
Barnett anticipates that Harris' windfall will not mean the end of his teaching tenure. "I'd be shocked if he made any changes," Barnett says. "I'm really grateful to have him here teaching music, and he's very interested in doing it and doing it right."
Indeed, in his comments on the MacArthur website, Harris calls teaching kids about music his "main goal."
"I'll be able to educate children so they can be a force, not only in music, but in whatever field they're in," he says. "I want them to think globally and to appreciate arts and culture."
How Harris won the award is shrouded in secrecy. Each year the Chicago-based foundation solicits nominees from an ever-changing list of several hundred anonymous nominators. From that list, an equally anonymous 12-person jury submits its list of winners to the MacArthur Foundation board for approval.