Olivia Harris

Carrying a degree in music from Columbia University, Olivia Harris is a New York-based musician best known by the name Olivia K. A singer/songwriter with training in piano, guitar, violin and cello, she and her band Olivia K and the Parkers perform music influenced by ‘70s R&B, jazz, country, rock, gospel, and Caribbean styles.

work Musician location_on Brooklyn, NY
High school College Consciousness raising Coping mechanisms Art Blackness

Could you tell me a little about yourself?

I’m born and raised in Brooklyn, New York, in non-gentrified Brooklyn, and I live at home where I grew up. I’m Caribbean-American. My mom is Guyanese, but my dad is from North Carolina, which is a really interesting mix of Blackness and experience of everything. My family is middle class; they’re not very wealthy by American standards but they are in their home country.

My mom was a teacher in public school for eight years…My dad writes motivational books and does speeches and stuff. Even though I’m Caribbean and raised in a very Caribbean place, I went to a Caribbean school, run by Caribbean people, it was a church school, I went to church with Black people from America, I went to a white high school–which some people refer to as “school!” I went to a predominantly white school, very upper class, elite, wealthy, famous people, that kind of thing. And then, Columbia.

Can you tell me about your experience in high school? Did you experience issues of anti-Blackness in high school? Did you experience class anxiety? What kind of stuff was going on in your elite high school?

I think Blackness is something we all in theory agree, “oh my god, anti-Blackness is bad!” But I think a lot of people didn’t have a lot of experience with Black people in general, and I didn’t have experience with “what is Blackness.” They probably never thought those thoughts, and hadn’t thought also–it was more classism than about race. But how race is tied to class, and the expectations because of my race, about my class. Or the expectation that, “you assimilate to us, we don’t assimilate to you.”

I came through a program called Prep for Prep. Basically, it has a reputation for providing really good students of color to these schools that wouldn’t have students of color. For the most part, I think it’s a really wonderful thing, and I am incredibly indebted to it, because it started me on this path of doing things that are outside of my local community. But it’s very interesting sometimes when I think about it, because I’m like…we sell children. Quid pro quo, everyone’s getting something. You get to say “we’ve got Black kids!” and we get to say “we’ve been trained!”

That’s so interesting, when you think about it that way, that the school gets to say “we’ve got Black kids,” but the school doesn’t change itself for the students of color that’re coming in, while the students of color are expected to change themselves for the school. That’s what you’re getting at, right?

Exactly. Exactly. And so there was a lot of that. There was a lot of expectation. Because really, it’s hard, as a member of that community, and now I’m a faculty/staff member there. And it’s difficult to have those conversations, when–you’re trying to teach kids. You’re trying to teach them in the specifically Western tradition…

“You assimilate to us, we don’t assimilate to you.”

I think the bigger problem for Blackness, in a predominantly white place, is when you don’t know what Blackness is. When you, the Black person, are not sure what that means, you are either trying to play according to the way the white people around you think that’s supposed to look like, or you’re fighting to define it and go counter to what they think…

Because they’re pitting you against each other, or you’re always being compared. And when you’re being compared you’re like “I’m not her” or “I am her” or “we are each other” but you’re not each other. You’re never really the other person. That is kind of the issue of being a minority–you can’t all be one version of Blackness…

Because it’s an elite school, most of the things that happen don’t get said. It happens to you, you say “what the fuck just happened to me,” and then you keep it moving. You don’t address it with teachers, faculty. It’s also because, when things happen to you, it’s like “can I talk about this? Am I allowed to talk about this? Am I reflecting bad on my family, on myself for doing that? Am I just wrong on my reading of this, because it’s happening in such an isolated situation. You’re like “is it just me, did I make it up? Am I wrong for thinking that that’s not what should be happening?” And even if you think that you’re right, you may have to fight with people to prove it.

Do you wanna talk a little bit about your experience in the Black community at Columbia?

I started out in the Black community, I was gung-ho. I don’t even really know how it happened. I was walking down the street and I ran into the vice president of the Black Students’ Organization. I had a 5-second conversation with her, it was the activities fair. She was like “you should run for Freshman Rep. You should run for it. You’re likeable.” I was like “random…” Then I was like “okay!” So within a month, I was elected freshman representative. I went to all the events, I went to the parties, I hung out. I was so excited, I hadn’t been with Black people for so long–I had grown up in a primarily Black community, and then I went to high school in a white community, so I was missing some Black folk. So I was like “oh my god! All the music I love! And the realness!”

It’s funny how college radicalizes people. You start reading some books and you’re like “I have a lot of opinions!”

I would go to every event, I was really involved. Then I sort of really fell out, because I got really frustrated.

It was different because I was coming out of being a Black person in a white place, and I already knew what it was like. And being like, “alright, this is life, and you gotta roll with the punches and just keep it moving!” If you are not a Black person who’s been in a white place, it’s a shellshock–there’s a lot to go through, and I had already done that. As like a twelve year-old. And it’s different when you’re a little older ‘cause you have a lot of opinions about what’s right and what’s wrong. Whereas I had had to mold myself.

I think that’s a profound difference between someone who experiences white culture at a young age and at an older age. I was [at 12] basically told that this was the right way to do it and I needed to get on board. Whereas when you’re twenty, you can say “that’s not how we do things and this is my culture” and you get to say yes or no…It’s funny how college radicalizes people–especially Black people. You start reading some books and you’re like “I have a lot of opinions!” And you’re like, “Do you now? You didn’t have no type of opinion and all of a sudden you feel some type of way.”

There was a point to which [with some Black radical friends] it was “we are the Black people and we are fighting everything else that comes in our way and it’s us against them” but I was like “it’s not though.” I mean it is and it isn’t. It’s us against the system that treats us this way, but it’s not me against my friends who are white. And I could not help but feel like there were many people who only associated with Black people. Because they’re like “I just can’t with white people.” I was like, what do you mean, you can’t with white people? I can’t with bigots, I can’t with people who are egotistical, but that is not a racial thing, that’s a you thing, that’s a personal thing.

Moving into thinking about the movement, what has been your experience of the movement for Black lives over the past year? Did you see that kind of conversation happening? Do you see this kind of pattern still?

As someone who’s out of school and in a version of the real world, outside of the academic bubble, it was so weird, because life just went on. A friend and I went to a synagogue to talk about our experiences over the past year, and he was saying it was the weirdest thing–midterms went on, people went to class, and I was protesting every night, I couldn’t sleep. And I was like damn, because my life went on. I had to still go to my 9-5 job.

Yeah, same.

I remember this, I remember you and I being like “we’re gonna die here, they’re gonna kill me, I’m gonna expire on the spot and no one’s going to claim my body. It’s gonna be terrible.” That was my experience, especially being heightened by the fact that it was an elite high school for primarily white students, and ain’t nobody tryna hear none of this. I didn’t feel safe or comfortable bringing up those conversations with people who weren’t Black. You have to really choose judiciously who you’re going to talk to. It’s sort of like a chip that you cash in. If you cash in your Good Black Person chip, that’s it, there’s no more. They’re not gonna give you a pass anymore. They’ll be like “wait, she said that thing, so now I guess she’s a radical. That’s that. And now she’s what I thought she could’ve been, which is crazy Black power girl.”

I remember the day the decision came out, that he was not indicted. I went to work. The night before, I was not able to sleep. I would just wake up like “am I alive? Am I even able to be alive? What the hell?” I never thought I would be in that place, in my life.

I did not go to work on time. I didn’t even try to excuse it, I didn’t explain it, I just showed up to work at 11…I remember that day happened to be the day I was performing at the school, even though that’s not my job. They have this assembly which is called the Jazz Rock assembly. The one time of year they have play modern-ish contemporary sounding music that’s not classical…I was doing two performances at this one show. I was angry. I was so angry that I was there, I almost didn’t go. But I was like, I have to go, because I promised to perform, I can’t not perform. This was the first time as an artist where I really felt conflicted about performing.

I was conflicted because I was like, for me to go, what does that mean. For me to perform for a bunch of privileged white kids who have no idea what’s going on in my life when I feel like my life is being threatened. Is it right for me to go and do that? Can I really just gratify their need to be entertained when I feel like my whole body is under siege? And they can be blissfully unaware because of this system that allows them to have the money to ignore these things.

What I did was I put an afro pick in my hair with a fist in it, and I wore all Black. I normally wear bright colors. For me to wear Black, it was mourning, it was grieving, it was time for me to get my shit together.

If you cash in your Good Black Person chip, that’s it. They’re not gonna give you a pass anymore.

I felt so uncomfortable because I was angry, and I knew that if I let this rage out I couldn’t put it back—I gotta really hold on hold on hold on. And finally I thought, “you need to put every ounce of this anger into joy, you need to put every ounce of sadness, of grief, into joy,” not like “don’t be angry,” but try to channel and push that energy into your performance, and I saw myself as fighting for something even more universal.

What do you think about what’s been going on with the growth of the movement? Do you think it’ll be sustained?

It’s interesting because I think this question is very similar to a question I asked myself about gun violence in general, like school shootings and all these things. It seems as though every time it happens, it has to happen in a personal way for people to get what’s happening. And most white people have been separated from Black people, and it’s just something that happens—you know? It’s just another event that happened, [Amadou Diallo] (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shooting_of_Amadou_Diallo), it just happened. White people just didn’t think it was their concern.

America has been engaged in violence, racialized terrorism, and institutionalized terrorism consistently for more than three hundred years. We have changed how it looks, we have changed where it happens, we have changed who does it, but we haven’t changed the fundamental thing.

Since then—that was about 15 years ago—since then (and maybe it’s my perception because of my life trajectory) but even in the national conversation, there are more white people with more non-white friends. And it seems like suddenly, “oh, their hearing aids are working,” and they’re like “shit’s been happening,” and it’s a problem because shit’s always been happening. My dad’s from the South, and it’s always happening…

The question is, “are these things going to keep happening?” and the answer is “absolutely.” It’s been happening, America has been engaged in violence, racialized terrorism, and institutionalized terrorism consistently for more than three hundred years. We have never stopped doing that. We have changed how it looks, we have changed where it happens, we have changed who does it, but we haven’t changed the fundamental thing. And that’s because it’s about power, it’s about the power to control other people to get what you want out of them to do anything you want. So those things are going to keep happening. Are people going to keep responding emotionally to it?

Does the movement affect your work as a musician?

It’s so confusing to me, because I’m not deeply involved with it, I’m sidelined as a very interested spectator. I care a lot about the things, I share a lot of beliefs—I care, I share, but I don’t dare. Because I cannot be involved. And I will tell you why I can’t be involved—because I’m an artist…

As an artist, you have to make your choices—and I made these choices for certain reasons. 1) not because of the politics, I’m not uncomfortable being seen as politically active or whatever…I have an EP coming out, and weirdly enough all of the tracks are about being Black. And I don’t really know how that happened because I have like 50 songs…

I identify my outlook on the world as artist first, and then as Black.

My whole thing is—I try to balance myself as an artist, and make sure I’m making choices as an artist and not because of my Blackness, because that’s the easy thing to do. People think I’m dissident because I’m Black, and I’m just in it because I’m an artist and I just happen to be Black. I identify my outlook on the world as artist first, and then as Black. Blackness can be very confining, about how you are these things and you are not these things, and nobody else can be these things—and I don’t believe in that.

And I’m a very Black person, but I’m very very very artist.

What do you think the movement should accomplish?

The part about lives mattering is, it has to be all parts of life. It’s not just not being shot. It’s living a life that’s productive and useful to yourself. And being able to determine what your life should look like, and having it not be determined by others. I’m hoping Black Lives Matter will force people to include these questions in their daily practice.