Does Kamala Harris’s music matter?
Those of us who watched the Instagram Live Verzuz battle learned that Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) is a “huge fan” of R&B singers Brandy and Monica. Clad in a Howard University sweater, Harris made a surprise cameo to voice her support for Michelle Obama’s When We All Vote campaign. As Harris settles into her new role as the vice-presidential candidate, the American electorate is also getting to know more about her multiracial identity. If you didn’t know before, you probably do now: Her father, Donald J. Harris, hails from the island of Jamaica, and her mother, Shyamala Gopalan, was born in India. Much less is known, however, about how the blended identity of Joe Biden’s running mate informs her musical tastes.
Despite Harris’s noteworthy family heritage, she sees neither Jamaica nor India as an indispensable feature of her public self-portrayals. Her national identity most often outweighs racial and cultural affiliations. “I am who I am,” Harris has insisted, “a proud American.” Perhaps that’s why my eyebrows raised during her speech at the 2020 Democratic National Convention when she called attention to some distinctly African American aspects of her background. “Family,” she affirmed, “is my beloved Alpha Kappa Alpha — our Divine 9 — and my HBCU brothers and sisters.” It was a joyful shoutout to Black solidarity that many of us raised as African Americans in the United States could appreciate.
It’s not that Kamala Harris hadn’t discussed her Black racial identity before. She is a proud Black woman. And like Tiger Woods, Meghan Markle, and, of course, Barack Obama, Harris has come to expect lines of inquiry that necessitate such acts of racial self-disclosure. But Harris’s DNC remarks felt like a calculated corrective to a 2019 interview in which she claimed that Snoop Dogg, Tupac, and Cardi B were her favorite artists. What was perhaps merely an ill-prepared response to a softball question became a cringe-worthy meme in which Harris’s grasp of hip-hop came across as slippery and her authenticity was called into question. Harris’s defenders complained that her “blackness” was being unfairly challenged and critiqued while snickering pundits accused Harris of lying and “playing up parts of her identity to impress Black voters.” Before announcing her presidential run, Harris had spoken much more convincingly of her love for Stevie Wonder, Bootsy Collins, and Aretha Franklin. But Harris’s subsequent summoning of’ Pac, Snoop, and Cardi B sounded to me like the type of self-validating dog-whistle Black politicians too often feel compelled to blow.
I wonder whether Harris’s playlist contains, for example, any Jamaican dancehall or Indian classical music. For generations, these and other “world musics” have graced the American soundscape, along with the colorful communities they represent. I suspect she is savvy enough to sense that hip-hop and R&B are less “exotic” and, for better or worse, more likely to register as sufficiently “American” to the battleground-state voters the Biden-Harris ticket needs to win over. Even if Harris wanted to embrace a more globally inclusive musical inheritance, dominant narratives of assimilation, not to mention “birther” conspiracy theories, would likely make it politically perilous. It’s too bad, given that her mother was an esteemed singer of Indian classical music. Before emigrating to the United States, young Shyamala even won a national gold medal in recognition of her talents. That this admirable aspect of Harris’s family history is unheralded stokes frustration among those, who feel she has “emphasized her African-American identity at the expense of her Indian heritage.”
To be sure, left-leaning voters care more about the Blackness of her politics than the Blackness of her playlist. Some progressives have offered only begrudging acceptance of Harris, arguing that her prosecutorial record makes her irredeemably complicit in the mass incarceration of African Americans. She may yet have work to do to show Black voters that she is not just “for the people” but for our people. And the awkwardness with which Harris has described her musical commitments only fuels speculation concerning where her racial loyalties lie. That speculation will no doubt intensify should she eventually occupy the Oval Office.
It turns out we have had a surprising number of music-loving presidents. George Washington was an art aficionado who insisted that his stepchildren become musically proficient; Thomas Jefferson was an accomplished violinist. Richard Nixon was a versatile instrumentalist who even played piano for Duke Ellington in the White House. In the run-up to the 1992 presidential election, Bill Clinton took his musical talents to the Arsenio Hall Show.
I was a saxophone performance major at Berklee College of Music at the time. My classmates and I rolled our eyes at Clinton-the-sunglass-wearing-
By contrast, vice-president Joe Biden was labeled “not cool,” in part because he once told People magazine his favorite band was the Chieftains, a presumably “unhip” Irish band. But Biden, like Bill Clinton and every other white presidential hopeful, had the privilege of expressing himself without the burden of racial stereotypes or ironic expectations of cultural legitimacy. Donald Trump’s favorite musicians include Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, Elton John, and, apparently, Eminem as well. In “Think Like a Billionaire,” Trump’s ghostwriter offers a nugget of wisdom that is worth considering, “If you love a certain kind of music, don’t let other people’s tastes influence your own. Whatever’s the best for you is the best. Never forget that.” It would be comforting to believe that a love of music signifies an appreciation for the diverse communities who make it. But, alas, musical and moral compasses do not necessarily align in this way, even among the most ardent fans and skilled performers.
As we approach the 2020 presidential election, does Kamala Harris’s music matter? Maybe so. But in the end, I am less interested in the music she listens to than whether she takes our collective concerns seriously. Music can be a vehicle for expressing those concerns, but let’s not subject our politicians — or ourselves for that matter — to facile litmus tests that arbitrarily define racial authenticity or confuse musical preferences with fitness for public office.
Our fascination with politicians’ playlists may say something about the value we place on music as a cultural symbol. But the fact that we care also points to our collective need to have leaders who can hear us and willing to listen closely to the proverbial songs we sing. Let’s hope our next presidential cabinet contains men and women who listen well and strive to create national harmony from our multilayered voices.
Melvin L. Butler, Ph.D., is an associate professor of Musicology at the University of Miami and a Public Voices fellow of The OpEd Project.
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