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Politics aren’t always Black & White

J. I. Ward
Thursday October 17, 2002

With his eye on the prison system Oakland singer/activist Steve Harris brings his politically-charged music and poetry to Berkeley’s La Pena Cultural Center tonight. 

His new CD and book “Black Will Not Hurt You,” which will be the focus of tonight’s show, expounds upon the social criticism delivered in his radio segment Critical Resistance on KPFA’s Hardknock Radio program. 

“I’m showing that African American males have various experiences and we are different individuals,” said Harris, explaining that his goal is to counter the negative stereotypes of being black. 

It took two and a half years for Harris to package his mission into his latest book and CD. Harris has independently published two other poetry books and three albums. 

Harris, 30, said he draws his musical inspiration from many sources including Jimi Hendrix, Jeff Buckley and Robert Johnson. 

“My music is rock, soul and blues,” said Harris, who also plays guitar on his CD. “It’s social-conscious music.” 

Harris says he’s particular fond of the 1964 Nina Simone classic “Mississippi Goddamn” which takes a hard look at civil rights for blacks in America. “It just grooves,” Harris said. 

The politics of prisons has been a lifelong issue for Harris. 

“My father spent 12 years in prison. Most of the males in my family have been in prison for most of my life. I believe the best way for me not to go to prison is for me to work at keeping these issues out there,” he explained. 

“The word black is used in a very negative way,” Harris added. “Everything from expressions like ‘black sheep’ to how blacks are portrayed in literature. “I wanted to get away from that and say black is not harmful or bad.” 

A two-year activist with Critical Resistance, the national organization that opposes the expansion of prisons, Harris said America needs to pay attention to how the prison system is run. 

“It’s horrifying,” he said. “There are six million people in jail right now. We need to abolish prisons. It’s modern day slavery.” 

Harris, who teaches after-school kindergarten in Berkeley, said he’s excited about what he believes his work can offer the community. 

“I want to show that you’ve got to just be yourself,” he said. 

The La Pena show will also feature the acoustic alternative hip-hop duo Bridge and Tunnel.