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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

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Amira Unplugged and other contestants on Becoming a Popstar

Amira Unplugged / MTV

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A Black woman wears a long, salmon pink hijab, black outfit and pink boots, smiling down at the camera with her arm outstretched to it.

Amira Unplugged

Amira Unplugged / MTV

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