Sam Harris, lead singer of multi-platinum rock band X Ambassadors, discusses how self-care can feed into meaningful activism and how artists can lend their voices in the fight for justice.
“Zen” – X Ambassadors, K. Flay & grandson
This is and has always been a long battle, but we have to fight for equality and against injustice. That requires you to have a clear mind and be centered.
This interview was supposed to go differently. When the opportunity to speak with X Ambassadors about their recent single landed on my desk, there seemed to be room in the world for discussions of art. The shroud of COVID-19 clung tightly around daily life, but never to the point of asphyxia. Escape could be found in creating meaning from the chaos, from persevering through a long, plodding night.
Then, the world exploded. Following the on camera killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officers early last week, the collective frustration at centuries of injustice finally hit a boiling point.
The past few years alone have yielded a heartrending body count of unarmed Black people slain by cops, whether in their homes (Botham Jean), on a morning jog (Ahmaud Arbery), at a routine traffic stop (Philando Castile), the list extends tragically onward. But that’s only the tip of the iceberg. Systemic racism and inequality weave a deep root system beneath American soil, stretching as far back as our colonial origins. Slavery gave way to segregation, to redlining, to mass incarceration, to resource-starved communities, and to a justice system routinely at odds with people of color. Yet all the kneeling and the cries of “Black Live Matter” fell on deaf ears.
This time feels different. As protestors take to the streets in unprecedented numbers demanding police defunding and reform, all other aspects of life seem to fade away. We’ve reached a historical flashbulb moment, and though it often seems bleak with police descending in increasingly militarized numbers, this is the time to rise up in solidarity. Even the pandemic, still tearing a gaping hole in humanity, feels like an afterthought.
The question becomes, how do we in the music industry show up in this moment? With platforms geared around art and entertainment, how do we lend our voices to the struggle in authentic and helpful ways?
Sam Harris was on a mission early last month. After he and his band X Ambassadors teamed up with alt-rappers K. Flay and grandson, the trio of artists released their single “Zen” in observance of Mental Health Awareness Month. Rounding the bend on two months of quarantine, they sought to shed a light on the debilitating psychological toll that isolation takes.
I’ve been feelin’ flat like a pancake
I could use a hug or handshake
I could use some drugs or a Band-Aid
Cooped up in a hole I wanna lose all my control.
This sentiment paints a familiar portrait in cinematic color. Quarantine brings a consuming malaise that eats away at the mind the more it lies idle. “We wanted to encourage people to find something they can do every day to bring them Zen,” says Harris. “To center themselves, to create mindfulness, and encourage gratefulness. This can be doing anything whether it’s taking time to wash the dishes quietly in the morning and making a cup of coffee; or meditating, doing a bit of yoga, or just standing outside in the sunshine and breathing.” It coalesced around the hashtag #ZENCHALLENGE, a 10-day series of mindfulness activities to be shared on their YouTube channel.
It’s obviously changing now.
With only a few days left in the challenge, priorities began shifting. While cities burn and the whole mass of humanity launch to the front lines, focusing on self-care can feel like a skewed priority, even selfish at times. The fight for institutional reform is a big one, so huge in fact that we can lose ourselves in its overwhelming shadow. But to show up for our communities, we need to remember to show up for ourselves.
In Buddhism, the path to enlightenment begins first with the self. To care for one another in other words, we must first remember to care for ourselves. “I think you can’t have one without the other,” says Harris, echoing this sentiment. “We all need to be able to take care of ourselves, to breathe, and make sure that we are in fighting condition. That’s what it’s all about.”
The sea of information is relentless. Every day our timelines choke with more images of violence, of headlines portending hopeless outcomes. Police fire tear-gas and rubber bullets into peacefully assembled crowds. The federal government takes on a policy of escalation, deploying the National Guard in response to the threat to property while treating protesters as collateral damage. The world can feel hopelessly at odds with our goals. We stare up at Everest defeated before we’ve even begun. “This is and has always been a long battle,” Harris admits. “But we have to fight for equality and against injustice. That requires you to have a clear mind and be centered. There’s definitely still merit to finding time in your day to do something that grounds you and clears your head for a second, so that you can come back to the fight.”
There’s a lot of work to do, but it doesn’t have to feel hopeless. “We’re talking about dismantling a system that has existed for centuries. Racism is just an inherent part of this capitalist society that we live in. Dismantling that is a huge undertaking, but listen, it’s not impossible.” Self-care married with community action can help get us there. We can show up as allies to the best of our ability while keeping ourselves in fighting shape.
For X Ambassadors, the actions themselves take on several forms. As far as the #ZENCHALLENGE is concerned, the mode is shifting. Their YouTube channel boasts over a million subscribers, and they want to hand it over to discussions of Black Lives Matter and social justice. “Of course, this wouldn’t be a conversation that I would facilitate,” Harris clarifies. “This is us saying, ‘Hey, here’s a platform. Use it.’” As white allies, they want to employ their resources not to talk over Black voices, but to amplify them. Anyone with a following is uniquely positioned to do the same.
Even after the fight, the work doesn’t end. When the protests subside, the donations are made, and the representatives are called, there is still room to carry on the movement on a personal level. There exists a wealth of knowledge about the history of institutional racism in America readily available to download from your local library (Harris is personally halfway through Ibram X. Kendi’s How to Be an Antiracist and recommends it as a great place to start). For the literarily less inclined, there are also great documentaries and works of fiction on Netflix and HBO as well as educational podcasts such as NPR’s Code Switch and the New York Times’ 1619 to get the intellectual ball rolling.
When you zoom out, battling injustice is a full-time job, and with it comes the looming danger of burnout. To prevent that from happening, Harris encourages everyone to take a minute every day to step back from the screen and find that moment of Zen. In the rush to mobilize, we can forget ourselves, that we are people too with our own limitations. There is value in recognizing and honoring those limitations, so that we can show up on the front line with the vigor to topple the oppressive systems that tattoo the fabric of our nation.
Artists like Sam Harris are constantly navigating that balance, offering up their platforms to the voices who need them, rising up in solidarity, and remembering to keep both feet planted. It’s a mentality that if repeated could shake the millions of minds that they reach and unify them behind causes that matter.
Harris and I spoke at length about self-care and community activism in the wake of the George Floyd Protests. To keep the integrity of the conversation intact, I’ve included the transcript in its entirety. Read what he had to say below.
We all need to turn this anger that we have into tangible action into undoing the racist policies that have existed in this country for so many years.
A CONVERSATION WITH SAM HARRIS
Atwood Magazine: So how you doing? First of all, I know it's been a really rough weekend for everybody.
Sam Harris: I’m doing as well as can be. We were at a protest yesterday, my wife and I. Tried to do it as safely as possible, you know, masks and social distancing. We felt it was important for us to put our bodies on the line and be out there and show up for social justice and stand up for the Black Lives Matter movement. But, you know, COVID cases are rising here in Los Angeles, and we’re trying to be as careful as possible about that. The real work honestly is what needs to happen on an individual level and, you know, we all need to turn this anger that we have into tangible action into undoing the racist policies that have existed in this country for so many years. And campaigning to get new leadership in place and get Trump out and to campaign for budgets to be allocated differently in our communities. For example, I just learned the that today they were going to try and pass a budget here in Los Angeles that would give $3 billion — that’s 50 plus percent of the budget – to the LAPD instead of putting it back into Black communities.
Just trying to be proactive, man. It’s all a big fucking mess right now.
Yeah, I hear you. My partner and I were out there a couple of days ago on Fairfax when everything went down.
Sam: You guys okay?
Yeah, we got out of there safely, but it was just a mess once the police showed up.
Sam: Look, I mean, we’ve seen it for so long, the tactics that police have historically used with peaceful protesters. When you see that up against Second Amendment protesters standing with machine guns and they are not touched? It feels like insanity.
It does. And that actually changed what I want to talk about a bit today. I do want to circle back around to your recent single and kind of tie that into what we’re experiencing right now. Can you give me a little background first of all into how you came together with grandson and K. Flay to make “Zen?”
Sam: We as a band have collaborated in the past with Kristina before. We put out a song out on our last record called “Confidence.” She and I have written separately together. If there is any sort of sense of community in the Alternative space here in LA, she feels like my community.
I’ve always been a big fan of grandson’s work and he is specifically very politically active. He’s always raised his voice up and tried to spread awareness about voting rights and campaign for leadership that believes in equal rights and healthcare for all. He’s a really great artist and I really respect him. So we had a session together and came up with the idea for the song. Immediately I also thought of Kristine and was like, “Hey, wouldn’t it be great to get a supergroup together?” The two of them have also collaborated in the past, so it all felt very natural. It all came together pretty nicely and felt very timely and cathartic.
So I know in conjunction with this, you guys are doing the #ZENCHALLENGE. Can you tell me a little about that?
Sam: Well, it’s obviously changing now. I think we’re shifting gears in the last couple days of it.
It’s a 10-day challenge that is essentially encouraging our fans to find something they can do every day to bring them Zen, to center themselves, to create mindfulness, and encourage gratefulness. That can be doing anything whether it’s taking time to wash the dishes quietly in the morning or making a cup of coffee or meditating, doing a bit of yoga, working out, going for a run, or just standing outside in the sunshine and breathing. That was the idea behind it, to just try and find something to do every day to just concentrate on your breath and concentrate on being present in the moment. It’s very easy for us in this isolation we’re all in to let our minds get carried away.
But now, in light of everything that’s happening, we’re trying to shift that a bit. In the last couple days, we were doing events on our YouTube channel, which is our biggest platform. We have a million plus subscribers on there. I think the best thing to do moving forward would be to give up that platform to anyone who wants to use it to talk about Black Lives Matter and social justice. And we’re trying to figure out how to do that.
Of course, this wouldn’t be a conversation that I would facilitate. This is us saying, “Hey, here’s a platform. Use it.” So, we’re reaching out to a few different organizations. I know there’s some great ones. I just found out about Campaign Zero for instance. They’re this incredible online resource that breaks down all of the racist policies in place right now in this country and what policies are being proposed to dismantle them along with places that you can donate to contribute to the cause. It’s an incredible organization and I would love to get someone from them on the channel.
We also have pretty close ties with ACLU. We’re trying to figure it all out.
In the meantime, you know, I’ve been going on Instagram Live and doing a 5 to 10 minute meditation before playing a song. But lately, I’ve just decided to go live and talk with fans, check in on everyone and see how everyone’s doing.
Yeah, obviously a lot of things have changed. And it seems to me that with the protests, violence, and injustice we’re seeing everywhere, keeping ourselves centered is starting to feel less important than the big picture. Do you think there’s a way we can balance self-care with community action?
Sam: I think that you can’t have one without the other. We all need to be able to take care of ourselves, to breathe, and make sure that we are in fighting condition. That’s what it’s all about. This is and has always been a long battle, but we have to fight for equality and against injustice. That requires you to have a clear mind and be centered. I think that there’s definitely still merit to finding time in your day to do something that grounds you and clears your head for just a second so that you can come back to the fight
I think that’s a good way to look at it.
Sam: That’s certainly how I look at it because it’s very easy to feel overwhelmed. There’s a lot of work to do. I mean, we’re talking about dismantling a system that has existed for centuries that this country was built on. Racism is just an inherent part of this capitalist society that we live in. Dismantling that is a huge undertaking, but listen, it’s not impossible. When you look at the policies in place, it’s just about breaking it down step by step, campaigning, and getting the right people in office who will fight for everyone’s rights, specifically communities of color that have been oppressed for so long.
What I’ve been doing whenever I feel exhausted for options, like it’s the weekend, my council person’s office isn’t even open, I’ve called, I’ve left messages, I’ve donated to all the places. What can I do next? Well, there’s a wealth of knowledge out there. There are so many great books. I’m personally about halfway through Ibram X. Kendi’s How to Be an Antiracist. That’s a great place to start. Even reading works of fiction like Richard Wright’s Native Son or the poetry of Audre Lorde. There are so many great books to read and educate yourself. That’s a great way to be proactive even if there’s a moment where you can’t call your reps or you can’t donate or go to a protest because it’s not safe.
One thing that I’ve been doing is revisiting Wyatt Cenac’s Problem Areas, specifically the season he did on policing in America.
Sam: I never got a chance to watch that, but now I think I’m going to.
Yeah, it’s very thorough and a great place to start if you want to see all the different aspects of American life affected by the police. But getting back to it, what’s a message you would like to give to someone who is struggling with their mental health amid all the uncertainty and injustice we’re currently experiencing?
Sam: I would say this: if you are struggling with your mental health, there are resources for you to talk to somebody. For the LGBTQ+ community, The Trevor Project is a great one. There’s also a thing called Talkspace where you can chat with a mental health professional and/or a licensed therapist. Especially if you’re isolated, you know, it’s extra hard on your mental health.
And I would say finding ways to be mindful and breathe and be grateful to be alive right now. If you’re healthy, you have your health. Even just going outside is helpful. Being outdoors and getting sunshine is scientifically proven to be healthy for your brain, and when you’re isolated like this, it deteriorates. Take a walk around your neighborhood or maybe if you can drive to a different neighborhood and take a walk as long as you’re keeping social distance and wearing your mask. You know?
It’s hard. I mean, look, man. I struggle with it too. I’m struggling with my own mental health in this environment. We’re all figuring it out, but there are resources for you out there if you’re struggling and if you’re hurting. Just know that you’re not alone.
So obviously plans are hard to make right now, but do you and the band have anything lined up?
Sam: We have a new album that is written and we have some really exciting things around that. It’s a concept album so we’re kind of in the process of building a world for it and that’s going to take some time. But you know, it’s definitely giving us something to do.
I also have a couple other projects that I’m working on outside of music, and we’re trying to put holds on venues for next year, but it’s all so up in the air. The reality is that it is possible and impossible to make plans, right? The most you can do is take it one day at a time and focusing on the things that I can accomplish today. That’s taking care of my body and taking care of my mind, trying to be creative, trying to write a little bit, trying to be reflective, journaling, educating myself, and being active when I can.
You know, I’m campaigning for Joe Biden because I don’t want another four years of Donald Trump in office. I’ll be honest, I did not vote for Joe in the primary, but I definitely think he’s more fit to lead our country than our current leader, so I’ll be out there for him.
I’m right there with you. Okay, so one final question before we go. What are three X Ambassadors songs you think would be great on a quarantine playlist.
Sam: Throw “Unsteady” on there because it’s a crazy time. Then go to “Zen.” Finally “BOOM” to get the energy up.
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“Zen” – X Ambassadors, K. Flay & grandson
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