Becoming an best selling author is a very fulfilling and few things are as exciting as being an Ivy League actor. There is something completely special about being an activist for what you believe in. Hill Harper’s passion is infectious. His series of books are opening the minds of many and his heart for the undeserved is one to be admired.
Join us as we converse with Hill..
You’re an activist, an author, an actor and a mentor. Which one of your roles is the most meaningful for you?
Hill: I’d say without question, I’ve built my whole career around being an actor. I love being an artist; I love the ability to create characters that hopefully either make people laugh or cry or think or just help them escape. I’m an actor first and foremost and a lot of the other things I do, I do because I’m passionate about them, and I want to use the platform that acting has created for me to give back.
The platform is a wonderful platform, obviously, if used correctly. I’m very humbled and honored to be able to use the platform of acting to do good work in other areas.
Do you feel like every celebrity owes something back to the community?
Hill: Without question. What’s the use of having a platform if you’re not going to use it to do something positive? At the end of the day, the reason why those of us who are so-called celebrities whether you’re an entertainer or an athlete or a famous personality, the reason why you are is because the fans have put you in that position.
They either purchased something you’ve created. They’ve either watched you or supported you in some way. To attempt to remove yourself from the idea of, ‘I’m in a position, but this position is all it is,’ is to me, misguided. The other side of that is individuals who think that what they say and do doesn’t have an effect in terms of content. Obviously, content of what we create has an effect on young people, their psyche, what they think and how they react.
So, all of us need to be mindful about what we’re creating, what we’re putting out. I’m into freedom of speech and anybody being able to express themselves, but also it’s important to understand the power that the media has, and that a platform has.
You can either use it to do something positive; you can use it to do nothing, or you can use it to do something negative. My choice is certainly to hopefully lead by example and do something positive.
I’d never call anyone out, but hopefully, they see what I’m doing and they say, hey, “If Hill Harper can do it, I can do it.” There are certainly so many celebrities who are much bigger than I am that could hopefully take my example and do many more things and be much more impactful than I am.
When you speak of content, are you talking about the roles you take or comments celebrities make via Facebook, Twitter and other social media sites?
I’m speaking much more in terms of the roles you take—not so much the roles you take—but the message behind the projects you’re in and also the message behind what you create, meaning lyrical content, etc… I’m the first to tell you that if you take a role that is a so-called negative role; I like taking those roles.
I don’t get offered those roles much, but I have the most fun when I get to play the bad guy, but I only want to play the bad guy in a project where the actual message of the overall project is something that is in some way positive.
A good example is a movie I did called “In Too Deep,” where I played a drug dealer named Breezy T worked for LL Cool J’s character God, who was a drug dealer. If that film would have ended glorifying drug dealing and ended with me and LL’s character in a hot tub with Cristal, saying dealing drugs is great, I don’t do that movie, but it ended with the guy who was doing the right thing, which in this case was Omar Epps’ character, who caught us, who was infiltrating us, he gets the girl in the end. He rides off into the sunset. It says if you do the right thing, good things happen to you. If you do the wrong things, we had our comeuppance.
We had to go to prison and realize our wrong. There was a penalty to be paid for our wrong. So, the actual overall message of the project is more important than the individual role.
What is the Hill Harper brand?
Hill: I don’t really think of myself as a brand. I know that it’s really cool for people to walk around talking about, ‘Branding. I’m a brand.’ I don’t think about myself like that. I just don’t. Maybe I would be a much bigger “brand” if I did.
If my heart tells me that I should write a book about a certain issue, then that’s what I’m going to do. If my heart says I should play a certain character, then that’s what I’m going to do. If my heart says I should do speaking tours and speak at different colleges and universities, then that’s what I’m going to do.
I really think about myself in terms of what does my heart tell me to do. My heart is not a brand. My heart is just what’s intrinsic to me.
I guess maybe my brand is my heart; my heart is my brand. I really focus on what’s in my heart and I attempt to do those things that are in my heart.
Tell us more about Manifest Your Destiny
Hill: Manifest Your Destiny is my foundation I created after my 1st book, Letters to a Young Brother. It’s actually the subtitle of my first book. My first book is called, Letters to a Young Brother: Manifest Your Destiny. I wanted to create a foundation that had programmatic elements as well as scholarship elements and mentoring elements that could help empower young people to create the lives that they want to live.
Our main programmatic activity is a summer empowerment academy that we do for folks who just graduated from eighth grade going into ninth grade, attempting to deal with the drop-out crisis. We just have an empowerment summer and meet with the young people every third Thursday of every month during their freshman year of high school to hopefully keep them connected and motivated about achievement in school and graduation and going on to college.
There are other programs that we’re looking to build and create. It’s a slow build, but I’m very proud of Manifest Your Destiny. I’m proud of what we’ve done so far and the work we’ve done with young people, and hopefully we can just extend that.
What is the biggest challenge for minority youth today?
Hill: There are a number of challenges for our young people, but the main issue, the big challenge is lack of cohesiveness in terms of parenting. Three out of every four of our young people are being raised by single moms. That’s tough. It places a burden on one person who’s also attempting to be the primary breadwinner in the family. So, it’s difficult to give the proper time. We’re just talking about a time factor, and also the relationship of young men to a positive male role model.
If the father’s not in the home, there’s a lack there, then there can be a draw to certain things that are negative. The same thing with young women, if there’s not that relationship with a platonic, positive male, there can be problematic relationships with men. So, there are problems within the family and then you buttress that with real challenges and problems in our public school system.
You look at across the country and most urban centers, there’s a below 50 percent graduation rate for men of color. Our public school system is broken right now and that’s where most of our young people go to school. You combine those two things, if something’s not working at home as well as it could and should, if something’s not working at school, it’s a double whammy effect on our young people. To me, those are our primary challenges.
Obviously, my foundation is not going to be in people’s homes, but we can hopefully affect a young person’s relationship to their education: inspire them, motivate them and help in that side of things.
You’ve written several books on various topics, including Letters to a Young Brother, The Conversation and the Wealth Cure. How have you become an expert on all those different areas?
Hill: I never position myself to be an expert. I’m actually the antithesis of that. I always position myself as the person who’s just like the reader, on a journey trying to figure it out, and that’s really the point. You look at a lot of these non-fiction books, and people put themselves out as experts.
All of us are experts in our own experience, but none of us are experts in any area, yet we can try to search for answers and put the answers together in an interesting way. That’s what I try to do with my books. I try to go out there, search for answers. The idea is that I’m just like everybody else, searching. From doing that work and research, meeting people, interviewing people, talking to people for The Conversation, you realize men and women really are not communicating that well. We’re not even friends anymore. We’re not talking.
Maybe that’s where the answer lies, and for the Wealth Cure, the whole idea was realizing a lot of the people I worked with on my foundation, the number one excuse for why they weren’t creating the lives they want was always money related. The reason why people say the school system’s not working: ‘Oh, we don’t have enough money.’ The reason why they say that there are single parent households: ‘Oh, the welfare codes encourage men to move out of the house. So, it’s money related.
If money is the root of the problem in all these different issues that we talk about, let’s explore what true wealth is and what our relationship to money is. I wanted to explore that.
I wanted to explore my relationship to money and what created wealth for me. Once I was diagnosed with thyroid cancer, I realized that my biggest wealth factor was actually health, beyond money. So, I wanted to talk about those things. I try to bring up things to hopefully create a discussion. I’m in no way an expert in anything except the mistakes that Hill Harper makes.
Tell us more about your cancer diagnosis and how you are dealing with that?
Hill: That was tough. I’m a very active person, and I’m doing a lot of things. To get a diagnosis, that if this isn’t handled correctly, you’re not going to be around anymore was difficult. I’m also a very independent person. So, I also felt very vulnerable. Through the surgery, I was ultra-reliant on people, and I was not used to having to rely on people that way.
When you’re a fiercely independent person, and you’re in a position where someone has to help you to go use bathroom, that’s a problem, and it’s a shock to your system. It’s very humbling. You develop a great deal of humility and also empathy. I have so much more empathy now for people who are in any kind of hospice care or hospital care.
Thankfully, the surgery went great, and I am cancer free. Hopefully, the doctors were correct in that diagnosis and there aren’t little insidious cells running around my body that I don’t know about. As far as I know, I’m good to go. I’m going to keep living the best life I can, the best way I know how and hopefully continue to create and inspire, motivate and live a full, healthy life.
What’s the motivation behind your book Letters to an Incarcerated Brother?
If we don’t start actually having conversations about it, we’ll see an underclass being created in our community where brothers and sisters who have had a record will be locked out and we have to start dealing with that.