Actor Hill Harper has made his mark in television as Dr. Sheldon Hawkes on the hit show CSI: New York, and has taken on memorable roles in movies such as In Too Deep and He Got Game. Although the Iowa native has dozens of movies and television shows under his belt, he has even more talent to share. A Harvard alumnus with a Masters degree in Public Administration from the Kennedy School of Government, Hill is an avid mentor and motivational speaker, spending much of his time traveling around the country giving teens his fresh, unique take on the world.
Hill recently inked a deal with Gotham Books to release his debut book Letters to a Young Brother: MANifest Your Destiny . The focus of the inspirational writing is to encourage and motivate young men. An esteemed member of Boston’s Black Folk’s Theater Company, Harper’s experience as an actor, activist, scholar and mentor has afforded him the opportunity to speak to the lives of many individuals, young and old, through many different avenues.
Hill is smoking right now, but manages to stay grounded and relentlessly relatable. AllHipHop.com Alternatives sat down and rapped a bit with the Hollywood hero about his book, the ever compromising entertainment industry and his views on the future of Hip-Hop. Surprisingly funny and very charismatic, he had a lot to say.
AllHipHop.com Alternatives: I noticed there is a strong correlation between your book and the Covenant with Black America. Was this intentional, and how do you feel your book will change our young men today?
Hill Harper: What’s really going on today, unfortunate as it is, has been a slow change over the past 15 years. Many young men have come to a place where they are defining self-worth by material things outside of [themselves]. One of my little brothers that I mentor said that he wouldn’t be happy ’til he had a platinum Rolex and a Bentley. I mean, I like nice things of course, but what’s inside is more important. Hopefully my book will help clarify self-worth, happiness and help many young men find and fulfill their destiny.
AHHA: What message would you give to the Hip-Hop community for moving forward with our destiny?
Hill: Basically, the Hip-Hop community is our community. People make a mistake trying to separate the two. Hip-Hop is everyone. It’s so strong and relevant in our society dress, act, politics – all been influenced by Hip-Hop. [The message] in my book is for everyone, because everyone, in my eyes, is a part of the Hip-Hop community. Hip-Hop pioneers are the best examples of individuals who have manifested our destiny. They came from “nothing” to creating something magnificent, lucrative and culturally amazing throughout history.
AHHA: What is your goal as an actor and an activist?
Hill: To use the platform I’ve been blessed to have to speak a different type of truth than someone who’s a politician-to try to raise the bar. Looking at the statistics, things aren’t looking good for [young Black men].
AHHA: Who or what influenced you most in your acting career?
Hill: A number of people. I believe in mentorship and taking cues from people you’d like to be like. When I did He Got Game with Denzel [Washington], Denzel didn’t know at that moment he was being my mentor. I watched everything he did, and I learned as an apprentice from observing him without ever going up to him. Morgan Freeman is another. These are individuals I look up to and try to emulate.
AHHA: Letters to a Young Brother: MANifest Your Destiny is a motivational book for young men. What was your biggest obstacle throughout the process of writing and publishing this book?
Hill: Making sure I was doing something worthwhile and meaningful. The publishing company didn’t want me to do this book, so I just want to prove them wrong. I know lots of young cats with great, influential books that can’t even get publishing contracts, so I wanted to make sure my book, my attempt was powerful since I’m in the position to change things.
AHHA: At what point in your life did you feel you needed to write a book like this one?
Hill: I wasn’t thinking about writing a book, actually. I visit a lot of schools through my mentoring and public speaking, and one day I was visiting a school in New York. I was signing pictures and things after my speech and these young brothers were coming up to me asking me questions, personal questions, and I wondered, “There has to be somebody in your life that can answer these questions.”
Afterwards, one of the teachers came up and asked if I had written some things down ’cause she wanted to follow-up with the things I was teaching through my speech. I never wanted paper to be barrier, so I didn’t have anything written down. I always speak from the heart and from experience. I thought about that, and when I went back to the hotel I started writing, thinking that maybe this way I could reach more people.
AHHA: As an actor, are you disturbed by the glorification of the “ghetto” and “gangsta” lifestyles?
Hill: I’m not disturbed, because I believe that every aspect of life should be explored via film, music, etc. However, I’m concerned when the connection between your worth and what you see on TV becomes tainted. The HBO show The Sopranos has been successful, but you don’t see Italians running around saying, “I’m the king of the city – I can whack this guy and that.” It’s like they don’t even aspire to be that. But somehow we have taken it as, “I see this on TV so I want to be this.” Hell! ‘m more afraid of the pretend gangsters than the real ones, because they don’t know why they’re carrying this gun, you know. We have to be careful as a Hip-Hop community with the choices we make in the world.
AHHA: I read somewhere that you were told that Black men don’t read. What’s a good list of books, or type of books, that they should be reading?
Hill: I don’t think they just have to read books. If magazines, newspapers or comics are your things then that’s fine, just read and be aware. Don’t just flip through the pictures or read the CD reviews. Read the actual content and take it in. Books I’ve enjoyed are the Grey Brain Series, Autobiography of Malcolm X, The Alchemist and a few others – all very different books that I would recommend for individuals at different points in their lives.
AHHA: In what ways can we encourage more Black men to read books?
Hill: The publishing community isn’t producing books for that market. They don’t believe that market exists, so we need more books, period. If my book does well, we could get the ball rolling. Unfortunately, the reason I even got a deal with a major publishing company is because I’m an actor on a major TV show. But what the publishing company doesn’t know is that this is going to start a whole phenomenon.
A good friend of mine wrote a book, Holla Back, and had to self-publish. I believe if more young men find something they’re interested in and know that things are actually out there for them, they will be more inclined to read and pass it along. There was a tipping point in Hip-Hop when it went from being a subculture to defining all culture. Hopefully that will happen with this book.
AHHA: Having such a strong educational background, what are your views on the countless number of young men and women entering the entertainment industry and sports arena without a college education, or sometimes even a high school diploma?
Hill: I’m a big supporter of education, but I don’t feel the old, world view of “stay in school, get a good job” is relevant still. Life moves faster than that. I’m more concerned with young men talking educating themselves for knowledge. So I’m saying that you don’t have to have multiple degrees, but that doesn’t mean you don’t need to educate yourself. There’s more info available at the local library and on the [internet] than I had at Harvard. I’d like money and education to be of equal importance in today’s society. More choices means more opportunities for happiness, and educating yourself gives you more knowledge and access to more individuals that can help attain that happiness.
AHHA: Is it a fine line to walk in the entertainment industry with staying true to yourself and “selling out” for the sake of your career?
Hill: Everyone’s on a different path, so if such and such does that, then let them do that. I just hope people are conscious of their decisions. If you want to play a coon or a whore, who am I to judge? I would just rather people back their roles or characters and be willing and able to explain it. I don’t have any regard for “selling out.” Like, if you have an album saying guns make you’re powerful etcetera, but you can’t own up to the fact that young men are going to [go out and get guns], then you’re a coward. That I don’t support.
AHHA: I know you’re interested in doing a similar book geared toward the young women in our communities. What is your view of the current craze with video vixens and internet models capitalizing off of telling their story with regard to their experiences with men in the Hip-Hop industry?
Hill: I want people as many people to buy my book as Superhead’s. I mean, there’s nothing wrong with her writing about how many dicks she sucked, but as I said before, she needs to own up to the image and perception she’s putting out there for people. I think she should have seminars about “how to,” like Martha Stewart. [Laughs] That would make her a lot of money. My problem is that people act like they care so much about young men and women, yet Superhead… well Karrine Steffans’ is on the
best-seller list. Society needs to take responsibility is all I am saying.
AHHA: [laughs] I feel you. So what’s next?