Mirabelle Morah

Interview with Nevada State College's communications professor, Christopher Harris

Bringing People Together Through Education, Media and Rap

  • Title: Bringing People Together Through Education, Media and Rap
  • Written by: Mirabelle Morah
  • Description: Christopher Harris, associate professor of communication speaks about the unifying power of music and teaching
  • This interview was originally published for/on Salzburg Global Seminar

People go into teaching and lecturing for different reasons. For some, teaching is a means of making a living and for others it’s simply a way of satisfying their curiosity. But for Christopher Harris, teaching isn’t just a mere job – it’s his calling.

“I see teaching as a vocation. It’s both my calling and a way of making an intervention in this world,” Harris said while delivering a lecture to 75 students from around the globe at this year’s Academy on Media and Global Change.

Christopher Harris is an associate professor of communication at the School of Liberal Arts and Sciences at Nevada State College in Henderson, Nevada, USA. His research focuses on media portrayals of ethnicity and the power of music – especially rap and neo-soul – to unify people.

Harris has been working with the Academy since 2016, and in a recent interview with Salzburg Global Seminar, he told of his earliest encounter with music and his role in using media, music and teaching as a way of unifying people.

“Hip hop and rap were like big brothers to me growing up, in terms of certain aspects of wisdom and ideas around the music,” Harris explains. “I remember they [the artists I listened to] would use ideas, and concepts and words that talked about the world,” he reminisces. Some of the hip hop artists Chris listened to included Scarface and AZ.

After participating in the W.E.B. Dubois Scholars program, an intensive leadership and academic program for African American students, Harris’ life changed. Attending the program between his freshman and sophomore years in high school, he explains that the program had a “huge impact on me, in terms of making me want to do something that would benefit the black community both in America and globally.”

The W.E.B. Dubois Scholars program was a stepping stone for Harris, creating in him a strong desire to improve opportunities for the Black community in America and beyond. Music is one of the major tools Harris thought to use in order to create the change he wanted to see, to build a much more unified Black community with a better future.

“The black banker listens to rap, the black custodian listens to rap, the black student listens to rap,” he explains.

While people go in their different directions, in their lives and their careers, Harris believes that the music that they listen to during the formative periods of their lives has the power “to unify [them positively] in a certain way.”

“Let’s use it [music] as a tool. Let’s use that as a site [for dialogue]. If it was a site for a conversation, then let’s go back. Music represents [an] informal transcript of a dialogue around the future of Black people. So let’s go back and pay attention to it and look at it and try to make sense of it and see what we can pull from it to use to further our efforts now,” Harris explains, voicing his strong beliefs in the power of music and positive lyrics.

To Harris, when a people are unified, they stand better chances of improving their future. The lyrics from rappers and hip hop artists contain messages that speak about the world and try to bring people together. Trying to unify people, however, whether through music, media or photography – as in the case of Shahidul Alam, who gave the opening keynote lecture at this year’s Media Academy – is never an easy task.

“If you’re ready to push for a more just world, you have to be ready for confrontation and conflict,” Harris told Academy students during his lecture. In his interview, he elaborated: “The people who rebelled throughout history, the people who [presently] push, the people who try to get us to a more just world do so because they look at what’s going on around them, they look at the demands of the current society and just say, ‘I can’t,’” he passionately emphasized, taking inspiration from the book, The Wages of Rebellion by Chris Hedges.

“It’s not about ‘I should.’ It’s not about ‘am I called to do this?’ ‘Is this a choice?’ They look around and they say ‘I can’t do these [conventional] things that this society demands of me [to fit into social stereotypes].’

In fulfilling his calling as a teacher, Harris seeks to help students to better recognize themselves in order to work independently and interdependently.

“In general,” he shared, “I just hope that students [at this Media Academy] find a way to push themselves to overcome whatever internal boundaries that they came here with; that were stifling them or causing them to hesitate from taking the risks necessary to make their own imprint on the world.”

Yearly, Harris also has to make deliberate efforts and decisions about whom he brings from Nevada State College to the Media Academy. He selects students with different backgrounds and different experiences because to him, “this Academy has had such a tremendous impact on me … I know what it can [positively] do [especially] when I saw what happened to students [who attended the Media Academy] in the past.”

For example, Harris explains that one student might have a lot of “passion and fire,” and might “want to do big things in this world but not know how to use their passion in an efficient manner.” He selects such a student with hopes that they learn how to prioritize and efficiently use their passion for good.

“I might want another student that may have never been on an airplane before they came here; may have never met anybody other than someone who is a Latino, African American or a Caucasian. Those are the only three types of people they’ve ever met in their life. So I want that person to speak with as many different people from as many different cultures as possible and just expand horizons of what they believe the world could be,” he elaborated.

On his hopes and expectations for the 75 students attending this year’s Media Academy, Harris shares that he wants his students “to get inspired by what’s going on here [at the Academy], and to really feel comfortable and confident that they made a good decision in terms of trying to use education to better themselves [and] add substance to what they are.”

The Salzburg Global Seminar program, The Cost of Disbelief: Fracturing Societies and the Erosion of Trust, is part of the multi-year Salzburg Academy on Media and Global Change. More information on this multi-year series is available here.

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