“So I went, got a cup of coffee, came back out, Ben pulls in, and all of a sudden the whole place is surrounded by police,” he says. “Ben was on the ground and cuffed.” The studio was bordered by a wall, perhaps 12 feet high. And on the wall were sharpshooters. It was, Plunier says, a situation that could have easily taken a bloody turn.
Thankfully, the police were quickly persuaded that Harper, rather than being a truck thief, was instead a victim of mistaken identify. Later that day, Harper says, “the police captain came down to apologize, literally hat in hand.”
“Steal My Kisses” would peak at #15 on the Billboard charts. But seven records and three Grammys later, Harper is not immune to harassment. Eight months ago, he and his wife were followed by police for several miles, until an officer drove up next to Harper’s car, saw his face, and left the couple alone. “It happens a lot,” he said. “I drive a Honda Odyssey minivan, man. If you’re coming after me at midnight and following me—who’s sober, stone sober—someone else is getting away.”
* * *
The burden of being a person of color in America—call it a melanin tax—is among the thematic strands of Call It What It Is, Harper’s 13th record, which comes out April 8. The title—and the album’s main track—grew out of a conversation he had a couple years ago at a skate park.
Harper, a lifelong skater, was at L.A.’s Stoner Park. A few days before, 18-year-old Michael Brown, black and unarmed, had been shot and killed by a white Ferguson police officer. Two days before that, Ezell Ford, age 25, had been fatally shot by the LAPD. It’s what everyone was talking about. The conversation turned to the long history of police brutality against African Americans in the U.S., with the younger skaters hopeful that cell-phone cameras might discourage future assaults.
Harper, who is 46, took a long view. “I’m the old man at the skate park. These kids weren’t around for Rodney King and probably didn’t research Watts and other riots that have happened around the country in the name of racial inequality,” he said. He told them stories, suggesting, gently, that cops have been beating black Americans in full view of cameras for a long, long time. As the discussion wound down, Harper told the kids how frustrated he was that the police shield didn’t permit honest terminology when it came to such assaults: “What frustrates me is that people just don’t call it what it is. I mean, it’s murder!”
Harper went home and, in one sitting, wrote a song.
They shot him in the back
Now it’s a crime to be black
So don’t act surprised
When it gets vandalized
Brown, Ford, and Trayvon Martin are all mentioned by name in “Call It What It Is.” This was to some extent arbitrary. Harper has been asked why he didn’t name, for example, Eric Garner, who died after being put in an illegal chokehold by an NYPD officer. “The other names are there,” he said, “whether I say them or not.”