Corey Harris: No war, no fear, no rest

When Corey Harris takes the stage at Starr Hill Music Hall on January 25, it will be for a reason other than solely music.

Cameras will be filming his live performance for the completion of From Mali to Mississippi, the first in a six-part series produced by Martin Scorsese exploring the roots of blues music. Using the Charlottesville-based Harris as its centerpiece, From Mali to Mississippi will trace the blues to its original incarnation in Africa.

"They needed someone to speak to the Malians, and I speak French," Harris says, explaining his place in the film, but he is only being modest.

Since his 1995 debut album, Between Midnight and Day, Harris has earned acclaim for his explorations of the musical form of the blues and the way he connects it to various musical styles. Of his most recent album, Downhome Sophisticate, Rolling Stone wrote: "Too long pigeonholed and boxed in by adoring reactionaries, the blues has been waiting like a left-behind bride for a worldly messenger like Harris to build her her own rainbow bridge."

For his part, Harris resists the common classification.

"I can play some blues, but I've never called myself a bluesman or blues performer, probably because I know people like B.B. King, and I'm not really in his category at all," he says.

"I'd like to call myself a songwriter, a guitarist, a musician, a producer, a music publisher. That's about it. I love blues, but it's not the only thing I focus on. I like to concentrate on music and being a better musician and blues– obviously, since I'm black– that's my roots. It's a foundation," he adds.

Harris performed for B.B. King when the blues legend was honored at the Kennedy Center in D.C. last November. Harris has opened for King on a number of occasions and counts the composer of classics like "The Thrill Is Gone" as a major influence.

"He's someone I really love and respect as a man and as a musician, too. I don't think anybody alive has as much influence on music– and especially on guitar players– as B.B. King," Harris says. "If you listen to anybody from George Benson to Stevie Ray Vaughn, they all have some techniques that are identified with B.B. King. A lot of the licks and phrases that B.B. came up with have become standard vocabulary."

While Harris is chiefly known for his musical ability, and especially his charged live shows, he gained attention two-and-a-half years ago for his outspokenness. In the summer of 2000, a reviewer for C-Ville Weekly wrote that Harris was talented enough to "win a Grammy and make love to your mammy." Harris objected to the use of the word "mammy," a term normally associated with slave nursemaids in the Old South.

"He used the word, and I wrote him back saying that I thought that his use of the word and in the context he was using it was inappropriate– which it was– and wrong, and that he shouldn't have done it," says the performer. In his letter to the paper, Harris demanded that the writer be prohibited from reviewing any more of his shows.

"I just said he shouldn't use any ink on me if he's going to write about me like that because it's not flattering; it doesn't help me at all. Obviously it didn't help him either," Harris says.

While the writer ultimately apologized, Harris' letter sparked a brief firestorm in letters to the editor section. "I wrote just one letter, and I was pretty much done with it," Harris says. "A lot of other people were dissatisfied or didn't like this writer's writing for other reasons, and so a lot of people were like, 'Hey, me too.'"

The controversy bears comparison to the recent dust-up at UVA over three men wearing blackface at a fraternity Halloween party, an incident that grabbed national attention. The sponsoring fraternities were eventually required to submit to diversity training.

"Frat people aren't known for their intelligence, really," says Harris. "But, to me, growing up black in America, you develop a thick skin to things. I think it's stupid, but I wouldn't really be personally offended because I have a very high view of myself and black people. But, that said, it's stupid and that reflects on their stupidity."

According to Harris, the students' punishment was equally ridiculous. "I think sensitivity training is a joke when somebody does something like that," he says. "It might just make them bitter and make them think, 'Oh, I was just trying to have a good time, and these people are stepping on my bubble.' I don't think it's going to help. It just makes the other people feel like it's been dealt with, and it's okay now. It's not okay."

At his live performances, Harris has also recently taken to communicating his feelings about the United States' potential military conflicts in Iraq and elsewhere.

"I just chant, 'No War,' things like that, just to let it be known if there's anybody out there who feels the same way then they can feel like they can say it, too," he says.

"Whatever happened on September 11, we're just going to make the chance of that happening again a lot more possible. The main thing is to let other people know that there is a contingent of people who are not for this. Because I think it's really wrong."


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