How should organizations support employees who experience racist incidents in their personal lives and how can those kinds of experiences affect their work?
In December 2020, jazz trumpeter Keyon Harrold and his teenage son, who are Black, were attacked by a white woman who falsely accused Harrold’s son of stealing her smartphone. Captured on video, the incident made worldwide headlines as an example of racial profiling.
Harrold tells host Porter Braswell about the response he received from the music industry and how that incident has changed his career.
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KEYON HARROLD: I think the industry at large is more receptive. I mean, but we got to see how it all pans out. It’s still a process, it’s still ongoing. What can the industry do to help rid this systemic problem? You know, what are they doing for artists in their contracts? For me specifically when this incident happened with my son and I, many of the establishments reached out to me, the Grammys reached out to me.
So many people reached out and are more receptive of things that maybe they didn’t pay attention to before
PORTER BRASWELL: From HBR Presents, this is Race at Work. The show that explores how race impacts our careers and lives. I’m Porter Braswell. I left a Wall Street career to start a company called Jopwell because I wanted to help corporate America build a more diverse workforce. Each week, we talk to a different leader about their experience with race and how it impacts our daily lives.
Racism can affect people of color inside and outside the workplace, and it can come in many different forms from micro-aggressions at work, to blatant racist attacks while going about daily life. Therefore employers have a responsibility to make sure that all employees feel supported, whether at work or in their personal lives.
That could mean scheduling check-ins, conducting internal surveys and providing mental health resources. In this episode, we explore how racist attacks can affect the careers of professionals of color and how that has a ripple effect in our communities, our networks, and our families. That’s why we reached out to Grammy award-winning trumpeter and social justice activist, Keyon Harrold. Keyon, and his 14-year-old son, Keyon Harrold Jr., were attacked in late 2020 by a woman who wrongly accused Keyon Jr. of stealing her smartphone at the Arlo Hotel in Soho New York. I’d imagine by now, you’ve seen that video as the video went viral and it made worldwide headlines. As a parent, Keyon has been supportive of his son who in his words was traumatized by this event. And as a working musician, this attack has affected Keyon and his music. Since it happened he’s been trying to raise awareness around other instances of discrimination and racism that Black people experience every day in this country. He’s currently working on an album centered around exactly that. We started our conversation talking about Keyon’s lifelong relationship with music starting with where he grew up.
Let’s start at the beginning. So you’re from Ferguson, Missouri. What was it like growing up there? Tell me about your household, your family life and growing up within that city.
KEYON HARROLD: Growing up in Ferguson was, it was great. I mean, it was interesting in the sense that many things I didn’t understand about race until I moved to New York City. In St. Louis, in Ferguson, many of the, like very overtly racist things that would happen between law enforcement, I just thought they were regular. I thought they were normal things. Like I thought it was just okay for people to be stopped and basically be harassed.
Everybody got stopped. Everybody got arrested and never charged, you know, so it was just a part of the way it was. And until I moved to New York City where I realized that, oh, people don’t just stop you just for the hell of it. I mean, I guess sometimes it happens, but not nearly as often as it was happening.
You know, you had that part of St. Louis, but then you had the beauty, you had the idea of a real family, real character building, real love, like a Gabi love. My dad was always about that and family first and the whole just morals and different things like that.
PORTER BRASWELL: Yeah. That story of it being normal to be pulled over and to be harassed that will come up, I think later on in this dialogue as well, because it’s unfortunate that there are a lot of things that happen that are not uncommon to people of color, but it becomes this normalized thing. So you categorize it, you push it off to the other side of your brain, but when you realize that it’s not normal, then it shocks you.
So talk to me about music. How did music enter your life? Where was the inspiration behind becoming a professional musician? How did that come to be?
KEYON HARROLD: Music was always in my house. My grandfather started a drum and bugle corp in which he was a Sergeant in the police force, but he wanted to do something more impactful with the community, with children.
So for years he started this drum and bugle corps and he would teach people for free.
He was actually doing an amazing service by providing the arts to people who wouldn’t ever be able to pay for it.
So, but his grandkids, myself and my siblings, we all learned music. I fell in love with it. He would give us the lowdown on Miles Davis and Count Basie. So many amazing people, which was a beautiful thing.
PORTER BRASWELL: So in 2017, you released an album that was focused on Michael Brown and you have a new album coming out this year. What’s the inspiration behind this album?
KEYON HARROLD: The new album that’s coming, it’s the idea of basically reflections. I feel 2020 was a, is a year of reflection that we have, I think cultural amnesia about what really happened.
We remember like two or three things. We remembered the people who died. We remember protesting, and we remember either the love that you kept or the love that you lost. Other than that, it’s kind of a blur. And the fact that we can do zoom calls and not wear shoes, you know, that kind of thing. But it’s more of a reflective thing as a point of looking into yourself and realizing that the source comes from within and then in pours out in the name of it, it’s called melancholy aura.
It’s just a vibe and not in the traditional sense of me playing a lot of super fast melodic lines and stuff like that. It’s more of reflection and taking a listen. Long notes, sounds and yearnings from different instruments and the baseline is vibing and it’s the music of today. It’s the collaboration of jazz quote unquote and the hip hop drums.
And it’s the quote unquote, classical harmonies on top of that. So it really is, uh, a pretty interesting mix of dopeness.
PORTER BRASWELL: Hmm, that’s awesome. The music industry has a history with artists who use music as a means to communicate their lived experiences, take Billie Holiday and her song, Strange Fruit for example. People high up in the federal government didn’t want her to sing a song about lynching because in 1937, the Senate did not pass an anti-lynching law. And much later in the eighties and nineties, she was investigated by the FBI. Also the group N.W.A rapped about police brutality and racial injustice.
They were also targeted by the FBI for their music. So watching this play out over time and time again and over the decades, and even throughout your professional career, how has the music industry been more receptive to music centered around topics of race and social justice?
KEYON HARROLD: The music industry has been, I say I’ve seen a lot of music people really be supportive of the movement. I mean, it makes sense. Cause if they don’t, I mean, can you think about it. Hip hop is the number one selling genre in the world. When we think of music being creative, you got rock and roll, you got jazz, you got hip hop, you got all these things that are created by Black people.
And if you don’t support them, what is your purpose? Like the narrative of Black people is in the airwaves. Period. It’s the culture. It must be supported. How these songs received, I think, you know, people have been writing these songs forever, unfortunately, and we have to keep writing, keep writing the same song about, um, lamenting somebody else who was killed over and over again.
It’s unfortunate, but we have to keep doing it until people get the message. I think industry is a little b