Exclusive: 'The High Note' Star Kelvin Harrison Jr. On Self-Work, Love & Vulnerability

"I've learned that vulnerability is a weapon, it's a tool, and it's a good thing."

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Kelvin Harrison Jr. isn't exactly who you'd call "Mr. Romantic". In fact, he doesn't really know who that guy is at all. That's a side he hasn't really tapped into in a "long time." And honestly, who could blame him? Between making waves alongside some of Hollywood's biggest names, such as Sterling K. Brown, Issa Rae, Octavia Spencer, Forest Whitaker and now hitting sweet high notes with the likes of Tracee Ellis Ross––Kelvin really doesn't have time for romance.

But what he does have time for is journaling, perhaps even more so thanks to this seemingly never-ending quarantine. In fact, one could argue that journaling is actually his new love. Admitting to being put on by one of his actor friends during the start of his career, Kelvin divulges that journaling has now become the outlet where he feels free to release all of his thoughts instead of unhealthily keeping them inside. "I think what's been so cool about the quarantine is that it's allowed me the time to reflect and so I journal a lot," he tells xoNecole over the phone on a midweek afternoon. "Every audition, big moments, it's literally a library of understanding the psychology behind what you're experiencing. I found journaling to be a safe space for me to always be transparent with myself and I'm always in-tune with my feelings––I think it's required of me with the job."

And if you needed further proof of that, look no further than his latest film The High Note. In it, Kelvin stars as the sarcastic yet mysteriously talented musician who takes an up-and-coming-music-producer-slash-overworked-personal-assistant (Dakota Johnson) up on her offer to help make his album. As we watch the musical journey progress over the course of the film, we also get a glimpse inside another layer into the Kelvin's pool of talent.

All of Kelvin's songs on The High Note's soundtrack are sung by him and him alone (the same goes for the duet he has with Tracee). There are no voiceovers, no heavy auto-tune, just a man and his arguably impressive vocals. And while he admits to holding some insecurity against his voice, much like his co-star Tracee, it was the time in the studio with Grammy Award-winning producer Rodney "Darkchild" Jerkins that proved to be the most eye-opening part of the whole process. "I learned so much from Rodney, our producer, about story-telling and personalizing lyrics and allowing it to be an extension of my acting. Like now when I go back to do a serious drama, I think that was a great tool because I can kind of use my melody once again."

xoNecole got the chance to briefly chat with the New Orleans native about The High Note, vulnerability, and why he feels love shouldn't have to feel right to be worth it. Read on to see what he had to say.

xoNecole: You've had quite a busy year: 'Luce', 'Waves', 'Godfather of Harlem', 'The Photograph', and now 'The High Note'. So tell me, have you had a high note career-wise thus far?

Kelvin Harris Jr.: Yeah, I mean I think I looked back at some of that stuff in my journal and I was like I have grown so much in the past five months. I got to go to London for the first time and I was nominated for a BAFTA and that was really cool. That was a really big moment for me, that was a high note. And my two best friends that I talk to every day, they've been a high note for me––but that's kind of been my quarantine and life and my career things. So, there have been a lot of beautiful moments.

What was your favorite part of filming 'The High Note'?

I think it had to be the time in the studio. As much as I was afraid of going in there, there's always that insecurity and that fear when you're doing something you haven't done before, so I was very vulnerable. But at the same time, I think that vulnerability that we bring to the table, it's all interconnected.

I love that you brought that up because I know vulnerability can be a tough but necessary road to navigate especially as a young Black man. And in light of everything going on, it can be sacred to hold onto as we know the next day isn’t exactly promised to us. How did you get comfortable enough to tap into that side of yourself? I know it’s probably still a work in progress…

It is, I think it's been a long process with just getting to know me. But I think once again the journaling has had a huge part of that. We have so much going on and so much that happens from ages zero to 14 that we carry with us--and then as adults, we sometimes try to move because we have to operate in the real world. And we have people to please and expectations of us, and obligations. And even after 14, you're in high school and now it's like you have to get ready for college so you can get ready for life. I think putting myself in vulnerable positions, I always know that some growth is gonna happen because of it. Because if I look at the patterns it's like, "OK, when I did this: what did I feel?" Or, "This helped me do this, and that allowed me to learn this about myself." It's an ongoing pattern of success because there are no real failures when you look at it that way. So, I've learned that vulnerability is a weapon, it's a tool, and it's a good thing.

"We have so much going on and so much that happens from ages zero to 14 that we carry with us--and then as adults, we sometimes try to move because we have to operate in the real world. And we have people to please and expectations of us, and obligations. And even after 14, you're in high school and now it's like you have to get ready for college so you can get ready for life. I think putting myself in vulnerable positions, I always know that some growth is gonna happen because of it."

You mentioned earlier that the quarantine has allowed you the time to do some serious self-reflection. What new revelations have you come to learn about yourself that you didn't know previously?

It's not even just in quarantine really but, it definitely has taught me that I still have work to do. I came into this knowing, after I did this movie called Waves, I was like: 'OK, after this I need to go get therapy and I need to do a fun rom-com.' So, I got the therapist going, I did this rom-com, I'm like, 'Cool, cool, cool. We're having fun, we're not taking ourselves too seriously, we're repairing old damage, we're getting better, we're loving harder. We're implementing our boundaries, we're doing self-work, we're taking time for ourselves.' And so I came into quarantine like, 'Oh, I'll be fine.' But the quarantine doesn't work like that. (laughs) I still have a lot of stuff to do. And it's been interesting because I've been listening to that Lauryn Hill MTV Unplugged "I Gotta Have Peace Of Mind" and she says something like, "Sometimes we think we need to retreat when we have problems and stuff going on in our lives, but really it's about confrontation, confronting those things."

That's been on my mind since the beginning of quarantine and so I've just been taking it one day at a time. When I'm triggered by something or something upsets me, or something brings me great joy. I ask the question, 'Why? Why did it do that?' And being OK with the fact that I'm still in progress and there's still work to do. And not tricking myself to believing that I've arrived--no one has--because we still have much more to do.

I want to switch up and talk a bit about love. Does that sound good?

Yeah, I'm down.

As millennials, there’s often a lot of talk around how we define modern love and relationships. So, I want to know for you, what's something that you think we tend to over-complicate or over-simplify when it comes to love?

That's an interesting question (laughs). I don't really know I've seen a lot of different things. In my own experience, I've seen versions of codependency, I've seen people not respecting their boundaries. I'm really big on boundaries right now. I've seen people thinking that love doesn't require work and that relationships don't require work. It's an ongoing process. I do think though that there's a lot of relearning of individuals as we grow with partners––we both have to grow at the same time or at least be actively working on yourself. If one falls off, then suddenly we're not of the same mindset, so that's not sustainable.

I think everyone's on different journeys, but the most common thing is that it doesn't take work. Or that it's supposed to be easy or feel 'RIGHT'. Everything's supposed to feel right. But also on the other side of that, there's trauma bonding, there's flames––people always talk about 'twin flames' that happen sometimes. I think there are a lot of things we aren't aware of that can cause relationships to suddenly seem like that's the new moment. But it will only be a moment if you're not continuing to do the self-work. It takes work.

"I've seen people thinking that love doesn't require work and that relationships don't require work. It's an ongoing process. I do think though that there's a lot of relearning of individuals as we grow with partners––we both have to grow at the same time or at least be actively working on yourself. If one falls off, then suddenly we're not of the same mindset, so that's not sustainable. I think everyone's on different journeys, but the most common thing is that it doesn't take work."

Who is Kelvin as a romantic partner?

Currently I don't know who I am as a romantic partner (laughs). I'm pooped when it comes to finding relationships or finding people. And where I'm still at in my work--it's important that I'm not shrinking myself for someone or trying to "lift someone up". I have the tendency sometimes to want to play the "savior", I want to save or I feel like I need to be saved. Right now, I've been feeling like I need to be focused on my job, so I've been focusing on work. And that's the only thing going on right now (laughs). I don't really know who that guy is. He hasn't been explored in some time, in a long time.

So, when you do get to that place where you maybe want to start looking for a relationship, what are some of your non-negotiables?

To be honest, I make lists--I do make lists. And I know some people think lists are crazy, but I make them based truly on what things I think are necessary. I feel like, for me, I need you to understand what art is, you have to love movies--you don't have to know movies--but you have to at least appreciate and love them and want to watch them. You have to be independent…

I was wondering if you were going to mention that. I saw you speak on that in another recent interview with Tracee Ellis Ross…

Yeah, she has to be independent, independence is sexy. It's very sexy. I just want a secure attachment-style (laughs). You go over there and do your thing and when we come back and we're together, it's amazing. Everyone's looking for that––well. I take that back, some people aren't. Based off some of the stuff I've seen (laughs)...

Last question, because I know you’ve got to go. Do you know your love languages and if so what are they?

I like quality time. Physical touch. And I'm not gonna lie, I like gifts (laughs).

(Laughs) Gifts aren’t a bad thing at all.

Yeah, I like things (laughs). But yeah gifts, physical touch, and quality time, those are the top ones. Those other ones I can do without.

The High Note is available for video on demand now and for more of Kelvin, keep up with him on Instagram.

Featured image by Ron Adar / Shutterstock.com

ACLU By ACLUSponsored

Over the past four years, we grew accustomed to a regular barrage of blatant, segregationist-style racism from the White House. Donald Trump tweeted that “the Squad," four Democratic Congresswomen who are Black, Latinx, and South Asian, should “go back" to the “corrupt" countries they came from; that same year, he called Elizabeth Warren “Pocahontas," mocking her belief that she might be descended from Native American ancestors.

But as outrageous as the racist comments Trump regularly spewed were, the racially unjust governmental actions his administration took and, in the case of COVID-19, didn't take, impacted millions more — especially Black and Brown people.

To begin to heal and move toward real racial justice, we must address not only the harms of the past four years, but also the harms tracing back to this country's origins. Racism has played an active role in the creation of our systems of education, health care, ownership, and employment, and virtually every other facet of life since this nation's founding.

Our history has shown us that it's not enough to take racist policies off the books if we are going to achieve true justice. Those past policies have structured our society and created deeply-rooted patterns and practices that can only be disrupted and reformed with new policies of similar strength and efficacy. In short, a systemic problem requires a systemic solution. To combat systemic racism, we must pursue systemic equality.

What is Systemic Racism?

A system is a collection of elements that are organized for a common purpose. Racism in America is a system that combines economic, political, and social components. That system specifically disempowers and disenfranchises Black people, while maintaining and expanding implicit and explicit advantages for white people, leading to better opportunities in jobs, education, and housing, and discrimination in the criminal legal system. For example, the country's voting systems empower white voters at the expense of voters of color, resulting in an unequal system of governance in which those communities have little voice and representation, even in policies that directly impact them.

Systemic Equality is a Systemic Solution

In the years ahead, the ACLU will pursue administrative and legislative campaigns targeting the Biden-Harris administration and Congress. We will leverage legal advocacy to dismantle systemic barriers, and will work with our affiliates to change policies nearer to the communities most harmed by these legacies. The goal is to build a nation where every person can achieve their highest potential, unhampered by structural and institutional racism.

To begin, in 2021, we believe the Biden administration and Congress should take the following crucial steps to advance systemic equality:

Voting Rights

The administration must issue an executive order creating a Justice Department lead staff position on voting rights violations in every U.S. Attorney office. We are seeing a flood of unlawful restrictions on voting across the country, and at every level of state and local government. This nationwide problem requires nationwide investigatory and enforcement resources. Even if it requires new training and approval protocols, a new voting rights enforcement program with the participation of all 93 U.S. Attorney offices is the best way to help ensure nationwide enforcement of voting rights laws.

These assistant U.S. attorneys should begin by ensuring that every American in the custody of the Bureau of Prisons who is eligible to vote can vote, and monitor the Census and redistricting process to fight the dilution of voting power in communities of color.

We are also calling on Congress to pass the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act to finally create a fair and equal national voting system, the cause for which John Lewis devoted his life.

Student Debt

Black borrowers pay more than other students for the same degrees, and graduate with an average of $7,400 more in debt than their white peers. In the years following graduation, the debt gap more than triples. Nearly half of Black borrowers will default within 12 years. In other words, for Black Americans, the American dream costs more. Last week, Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, along with House Reps. Ayanna Pressley, Maxine Waters, and others, called on President Biden to cancel up to $50,000 in federal student loan debt per borrower.

We couldn't agree more. By forgiving $50,000 of student debt, President Biden can unleash pent up economic potential in Black communities, while relieving them of a burden that forestalls so many hopes and dreams. Black women in particular will benefit from this executive action, as they are proportionately the most indebted group of all Americans.

Postal Banking

In both low and high income majority-Black communities, traditional bank branches are 50 percent more likely to close than in white communities. The result is that nearly 50 percent of Black Americans are unbanked or underbanked, and many pay more than $2,000 in fees associated with subprime financial institutions. Over their lifetime, those fees can add up to as much as two years of annual income for the average Black family.

The U.S. Postal Service can and should meet this crisis by providing competitive, low-cost financial services to help advance economic equality. We call on President Biden to appoint new members to the Postal Board of Governors so that the Post Office can do the work of providing essential services to every American.

Fair Housing

Across the country, millions of people are living in communities of concentrated poverty, including 26 percent of all Black children. The Biden administration should again implement the 2015 Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing rule, which required localities that receive federal funds for housing to investigate and address barriers to fair housing and patterns or practices that promote bias. In 1980, the average Black person lived in a neighborhood that was 62 percent Black and 31 percent white. By 2010, the average Black person's neighborhood was 48 percent Black and 34 percent white. Reinstating the Obama-era Fair Housing Rule will combat this ongoing segregation and set us on a path to true integration.

Congress should also pass the American Housing and Economic Mobility Act, or a similar measure, to finally redress the legacy of redlining and break down the walls of segregation once and for all.

Broadband Access

To realize broadband's potential to benefit our democracy and connect us to one another, all people in the United States must have equal access and broadband must be made affordable for the most vulnerable. Yet today, 15 percent of American households with school-age children do not have subscriptions to any form of broadband, including one-quarter of Black households (an additional 23 percent of African Americans are “smartphone-only" internet users, meaning they lack traditional home broadband service but do own a smartphone, which is insufficient to attend class, do homework, or apply for a job). The Biden administration, Federal Communications Commission, and Congress must develop and implement plans to increase funding for broadband to expand universal access.

Enhanced, Refundable Child Tax Credits

The United States faces a crisis of child poverty. Seventeen percent of all American children are impoverished — a rate higher than not just peer nations like Canada and the U.K., but Mexico and Russia as well. Currently, more than 50 percent of Black and Latinx children in the U.S. do not qualify for the full benefit, compared to 23 percent of white children, and nearly one in five Black children do not receive any credit at all.

To combat this crisis, President Biden and Congress should enhance the child tax credit and make it fully refundable. If we enhance the child tax credit, we can cut child poverty by 40 percent and instantly lift over 50 percent of Black children out of poverty.


We cannot repair harms that we have not fully diagnosed. We must commit to a thorough examination of the impact of the legacy of chattel slavery on racial inequality today. In 2021, Congress must pass H.R. 40, which would establish a commission to study reparations and make recommendations for Black Americans.

The Long View

For the past century, the ACLU has fought for racial justice in legislatures and in courts, including through several landmark Supreme Court cases. While the court has not always ruled in favor of racial justice, incremental wins throughout history have helped to chip away at different forms of racism such as school segregation ( Brown v. Board), racial bias in the criminal legal system (Powell v. Alabama, i.e. the Scottsboro Boys), and marriage inequality (Loving v. Virginia). While these landmark victories initiated necessary reforms, they were only a starting point.

Systemic racism continues to pervade the lives of Black people through voter suppression, lack of financial services, housing discrimination, and other areas. More than anything, doing this work has taught the ACLU that we must fight on every front in order to overcome our country's legacies of racism. That is what our Systemic Equality agenda is all about.

In the weeks ahead, we will both expand on our views of why these campaigns are crucial to systemic equality and signal the path this country must take. We will also dive into our work to build organizing, advocacy, and legal power in the South — a region with a unique history of racial oppression and violence alongside a rich history of antiracist organizing and advocacy. We are committed to four principles throughout this campaign: reconciliation, access, prosperity, and empowerment. We hope that our actions can meet our ambition to, as Dr. King said, lead this nation to live out the true meaning of its creed.

What you can do:
Take the pledge: Systemic Equality Agenda
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Featured image by Shutterstock

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