Ferguson native Keyon Harrold combines activism and music in role with Jazz St. Louis
As a teenage jazz prodigy hungry for more music and new experiences, Ferguson native Keyon Harrold had an open invitation to visit Jazz St. Louis, then known as the Ferring Jazz Bistro. On several memorable occasions, he had the chance to sit in on trumpet with jazz greats, including trumpeter Roy Hargrove and bassist Christian McBride.
By age 18, he was attending the New School in New York City and snagged a job as touring musician with hip-hop star Common. He has continued to collaborate with many big names in popular music, including Beyoncé, Jay-Z, Mary J. Blige and Erykah Badu.
Earlier this year Jazz St. Louis named Harrold its first creative advisor. The post will last three years and includes a commission for an album-length composition reflecting on the legacy of St. Louis music. Harrold also will participate in Jazz St. Louis’s educational programming. He plays Jazz St. Louis through Sunday, featuring a series of guests highlighting his broad musical interests.
Harrold’s credits as a bandleader include the well-received 2017 album “The Mugician,” [C.F.] which highlights his political activism after Darren Wilson, then a Ferguson police officer, killed Michael Brown Jr. Harrold’s 2016 song “Running (Refugee)” is a collaboration with Common, Gregory Porter and Andrea Pizziconi that raised money for groups that support refugees.
St. Louis Public Radio’s Jeremy D. Goodwin asked Harrold how music can be a vehicle to spur social change.
Keyon Harrold: Music is one of the most premiere platforms for getting messaging out there.
As an artist, the agenda is about bringing people together. The agenda is about showing injustice. It’s about showing beauty. It’s about showing what justice should be and what it should look like. So we have the ability to actually craft what the future should be, in the present.
Jeremy D. Goodwin: On your last record, you included a tribute to Michael Brown Jr. called “MB Lament.” What do you want people to hear when they put on that track?
Harrold: As a father, as a person from Ferguson, I remember being a kid in Ferguson and being profiled by the police. I remember literally going to jail for no reason — not charged, not anything. Unfortunately. So as a Black man, no matter how far I go in the world, no matter who I play for, no matter the opportunities that I get, I can see myself in Mike Brown. I can see myself in Treyvon Martin. I can see myself in George Floyd. I can see myself in Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery.
These are the things that as an artist I get the chance to highlight. I get a chance to talk to the people. Because they’re paying to see me. They’re coming to see me. So at least you can get what I say . At least you can get how I feel, in the most honest, unfiltered way.
Goodwin: When you express that through music, is there something the listener is able to get from that that isn’t quite what they’re getting from hearing a speech or reading an article or just having a conversation with someone? It’s a different form of language that creates a different impact.
Harrold: The absence of words, sometimes, gives a more visceral feeling. I look at my art, I look at my horn, as a microphone of my soul. That’s what it is. It’s my soul, amplified. And sometimes it’s deeper than words.
Goodwin: When you work with kids, do you get a lot of interest in the idea of music as a force for social change? Is that something that young people are interested in?
Harrold: I feel like there’s an opportunity for young people to really be involved in what’s to come. And if they have the right messaging, they have an opportunity to act. So music is a perfect medium for that. Everybody can dance, everybody can move a little. Most people can appreciate solid lyrics and good music with a nice beat. Most people can get with that. Which is why now I’m working on a nonprofit called Music Against Bias.
About a year ago, my son was attacked in the Arlo Hotel [in New York City]. I thank God I was there to be with my son and protect him in the situation, when he was totally violated and accosted. But I know there are many kids whose parents aren’t there when something is going down, when injustice knocks on their door.
So Music Against Bias will be something that really educates kids about the things that are not so kosher. Kids are like a garden. You have an opportunity to weed out biases. When it comes to racism, when it comes to sexism, when it comes to any kind of bigotry. If we can teach the kids now, they can grow. And we can weed out of them the things that aren’t productive for anybody. To create a global community, create a local community of people who are more understanding and trusting of each other.
Goodwin: You’re in the process of creating this new role as creative advisor to Jazz St. Louis. I know you've been going out and meeting with different groups. Who have you been talking with?
Harrold: Mathews-Dickey Boys and Girls Club. We met with Forward Through Ferguson. We met with the mayor. We met with so many amazing people here, who will support my artistic vision first of all, and create some initiatives to help these kids who are just like me — or not like me. To have an opportunity to express themselves and grow to be great human beings.
Goodwin: How do you see yourself being out there in community? What kind of projects might you get involved in?
Harrold: Oh, man. It is to be determined but it will be impactful. I plan on meeting the next generation of St. Louis greatness. I plan on figuring out how we can take that talent to different spaces. I plan on creating opportunities for people. I plan on being a mentor to some of the next generation. I plan on introducing these people internationally and nationally.
Goodwin: So if you find somebody who’s really got something going on, you can be a connection for them?
Harrold: Absolutely. I’m looking forward to being a conduit to their next iteration of greatness.
Follow Jeremy on Twitter: @jeremydgoodwin