ROBERT GARCIA, HOST:
Oh, oh, oh.
ADRIAN BARTOS, HOST:
GARCIA: I check it out. Yo, I check it out. (Rapping) Here we go with the flow. It's NPR rocking real far, and I don't drive a car. I drive a bicycle, and it's not a tricycle. And my man, Stretch, rocking in a unicycle.
BARTOS: Yo, you got skills, B - skills.
(SOUNDBITE OF JAMES BROWN'S "THE CHASE")
BARTOS: Yo, yo, yo, yo, what's up, everybody? This is Stretch Armstrong.
GARCIA: Oowee (ph). My name's Bobbito Garcia aka Kool Bob Love.
BARTOS: Welcome to STRETCH & BOBBITO. We're talking about music, art, culture and everything in between.
BARTOS: And today's guest will be the one and only Hill Harper. Many of you know of him as an actor but he's so much more than that.
GARCIA: He's an activist, entrepreneur...
GARCIA: ...Basketball player.
BARTOS: This guy has done a lot and we're about to kick it with him. But, Roberto...
BARTOS: What's happening?
GARCIA: Stretch, I love your shirt.
BARTOS: Do you? It's - hey, it's plaid season.
GARCIA: Do you like my T-shirt?
BARTOS: Did you get that at the Knicks first anniversary? 'Cause that shirt looks 69 years old.
GARCIA: I was the first Latino broadcaster in the Knicks' 60-year franchise history. Back in 2006, I was the halftime reporter. And that was incredible because I would interview Patrick Ewing, Dan Marino, Ciara, Mike Rapaport, Fat Joe - whoever was in their celebrity row - at halftime. So I got to see the Knicks - front row seat. I mean, there is no better seat than what I had that whole entire season. Now, the downside was that that was the year that they broke a franchise record and only won 23 games.
GARCIA: So we were terrible.
BARTOS: They blamed it on you.
GARCIA: And then the next year, I got fired.
GARCIA: Stretch, honestly, it's nice to talk to you about basketball. You're so focused on tennis. You're so focused on tennis.
BARTOS: But I feel like I try to explain some of the recent games that are - have really caught my attention and captured the tennis world and it just doesn't work.
GARCIA: You know the point that you lost me?
BARTOS: Uh-oh (ph).
GARCIA: No, no, no. You mentioned - I was like, oh, how was the Open? And you were like, oh, man, it was great. But you know what, Bob? I don't know if you would have had a good time. I said, why you say that? And you said that at matches, people in the audience are not allowed to oowee, oh, you know. Stretch, I'm an announcer. I'm a ballplayer from Uptown. I play in Harlem. I play in Washington Heights.
BARTOS: I know this.
GARCIA: I know. We can't stay quiet during action.
GARCIA: It sounds like torture to me.
BARTOS: Well, that's why I said you wouldn't have fun. You'd be frustrated.
GARCIA: Yeah, I'd be frustrated.
BARTOS: You need to put that energy...
BARTOS: ...That can't be funneled into a scream...
BARTOS: ...Into a - you need to internalize it.
GARCIA: (Singing) It's just a shadow. It's just a shadow.
Where's Hill? Is Hill here? Hill, where are you? Paging Hill Harper.
GARCIA: I've found my thrill.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GARCIA: Oh, yeah. And we're back, people.
BARTOS: And today, we're in conversation with actor Hill Harper.
GARCIA: He played crime scene investigator Dr. Sheldon Hawkes on "CSI: New York" for nine seasons.
HILL HARPER: Oowee.
GARCIA: Hill, not yet - chill.
HARPER: OK. Sorry.
GARCIA: He's had roles in dozens of films, including Spike Lee's "Get On The Bus" and "He Got Game."
BARTOS: In fact, weren't the two of you in a film together?
HARPER: Yes, a classic.
HARPER: One of the great cult classics. It's one of the best sports movies ever made.
GARCIA: Well, you're so much than an actor - activist.
BARTOS: Harper has a law degree from Harvard University.
GARCIA: Basketball player, former teammate of President Obama. How does that sound?
BARTOS: This guy has done a lot. And I don't think we've covered even half of his resume but we got to start the show. Welcome, Hill.
HARPER: Thank you.
HARPER: Thanks, guys.
GARCIA: You know, we actually were in a film, as Stretch mentioned earlier at the top of the show.
GARCIA: Originally called "Full Court Press." "Full Court Press" eventually got released years later as a film called "30 Days." And, you know, it's not going to win any awards or anything like that. But one thing I appreciate about you particularly is that not many actors who are cast in the lead roles of films surrounding basketball can actually play. You played with and against someone who became a very special person in this world, President Barack Obama, while you were at Harvard.
GARCIA: So when you first met him on the court, were you serving him up? Was he serving you up? Was he giving you buckets?
HARPER: No, no, no, no. You got to...
BARTOS: He said, no, no, no.
HARPER: Here's the thing. There's a couple things you have to...
GARCIA: Was he a hog? Was he a ball hog?
HARPER: No, no, no. Actually, let me go in reverse order. Number one, I think you can tell a lot about a person by the way they play any team sport.
GARCIA: Absolutely. Absolutely.
HARPER: Particularly basketball because it's glaring. And are you the type of person who gets other players involved, you know, plays - actually plays defense, tries to help out on defense, tries to make the team better? Or are you a ball hog who doesn't play defense, doesn't care and then calls ticky-tack fouls? He was definitely somebody who wanted the team to be great, wanted to make the team better, play defense. You know, the person that he is that we see now is the same person he was on the court.
Now, that being said, he's older than me. You know, he's like six, six and a half years older than me. And, you know, I was quick. You know, and I played college football. You know, I'm an athlete. Even though he's taller than me and had longer arms, it would be like me playing Stretch. It just wouldn't be fair.
HARPER: Stretch is taller than me and has longer arms, but there's a skill level that's required. So that's the same thing. Now what's difficult about him to guard, let's be real clear, is that since he's a lefty with long arms, it's deceptive because you get so used to guarding people who are right-handed. And so that sneaks up on you a little bit. But the most important basketball game that he and I ever played together - well, arguably - we played two very important basketball games.
One is a game that not very many people know about at all. When we were in school at Harvard, I had gotten a letter from a brother who was incarcerated. And this was way before I was going to do any work or even thinking about doing work in the criminal justice system or in the prison system. And he was like, he's like, man, how come you Harvard negroes don't ever help us dudes in prison? And I was like, I don't know, I mean, you know, but - so I said, call me. You know, so he called me. And we would talk and, you know, toll-free calls. And we just started talking and building and talking and building.
And I was like, man, what do you like to do? And he's like, I like to play basketball. I said, I like to play basketball. He said, well - I said, why don't we play? OK. I said, I'll call the warden. So I called the warden. And I said, Warden, I'm a student, you know, Harvard, and I'd like to arrange a basketball game at the prison. Man, what are you talking about? We've never done anything like that. What? I was like, well - so needless to say, fast forward, we get the game arranged. The whole prison shows up for it. The whole court is lined up.
GARCIA: And it's you and Barack Obama?
HARPER: It's me, Barack Obama and some other cats.
HARPER: And we drive out. I remember renting a van to drive everybody out there. We drive out there. And the whole prison is stopped. And everybody's betting. We're warming up. And people are like, hey, hey, hey, you any good? Because I'm betting. I'm betting, man. I'm betting on this, you know? So I said, listen, you watch us warm up and you make your best decision. And the president actually jokes about it. He says, yeah, I asked the guy that was guarding me, you know, what he did, what he was in for. He said, double murder. I stopped shooting.
HARPER: So he remembers that. And he says it's the first person he'd ever visited. And then what's so historic about it to me is that he's the first sitting president to actually visit a prison. These cats who played against him don't know that they played against a future president. And if you talk about the story of black men in America, you know, you take one man and change a couple different circumstances in his life and he's the one in prison. And you change a couple different circumstances of the cat who's in prison's life and he's the one that may be running for president. And that's just the reality of where we are in this country.
BARTOS: I guess that's as good a segue as any into criminal justice and some of the work you've been doing in that chamber. If you want to speak on that, we'd love to hear it.
HARPER: Well, the real work I've been doing is more bottom-up. And we hear people talking about we're 5 percent of the world's population but 25 percent of the world's inmates. We're the only country in the world that will give life sentences to juveniles. So when we talk - we hear all these numbers, what gets lost, though, are the individuals, these people that - with real names in prison ID numbers and family back home. So I wanted to do empowerment work around that.
So the prisons I visit, I really try to do empowerment work 'cause it's the work I do on the outside. It's the same. And that's why I wrote "Letters To An Incarcerated Brother," which is just basically a motivational book. Anybody could read that book, whether you're in prison or out of prison. It's just a standard motivational book. But I specifically wanted to write it for young men and young women that were incarcerated because they need a book for them. And that's the work I've been doing, and I'm proud of it.
GARCIA: You should be. You should be.
BARTOS: I was watching a talk you gave and you were talking about how the publishers didn't actually want to greenlight a book...
HARPER: Geared towards young Latino and African-American men - without question.
BARTOS: ...Saying because they don't read. They don't buy books.
BARTOS: But the book actually became...
HARPER: A New York Times bestseller.
BARTOS: ...A tremendous success.
HARPER: Yeah. And it just goes to show you that we have these institutions. And whether you want to call it institutional racism or institutional prejudice or whatever...
BARTOS: What was the other one, subconscious bias?
HARPER: Subconscious bias, exactly. That's the polite term people want to use, right? They want to water it down, say, it's just subconscious bias. It's easy to blame the audience. And if you say, you know what? None of our data shows that young Latino or African-American men are reading our books. OK, you're right. Your data shows that because you're not publishing books that they're interested in reading. What about that?
For you to make the leap that they're not reading your books means they're not readers, you're wrong. They're reading Sports Illustrated, Source magazine, they're online, Complex, whatever. They're reading. What about finding authors, people who have a voice that could speak to them? Let's do that. Let's actually mine this community where we aren't getting revenue.
GARCIA: Well, I think the other part of that too is not just the narrative but it's also the marketing, right? So they may not believe that people of color are reading, particularly in the youthful community, but if they are picking authors - like, I'm a published author, Stretch is about to be one as well, you are. What effort is put in to have that voice reach the right audience...
GARCIA: ...A diversified audience as well? So it's like it's a two-sided coin.
HARPER: I agree.
GARCIA: You know, applause to you for all you've done in that space. And it's inspiring, bro. So, Hill, I want to take it back. Stretch and I were exploring your deep resume, your deep history. And I'll be honest with you, I've only met one person who was born and raised in Iowa.
GARCIA: And he happens to be African-American as well. I imagine there is a strong - probably small - community of African-Americans. But at this point, you're 50 years old. You are a prominent voice and an activist and beyond. What developed this sort of sensibility in Iowa?
HARPER: OK. Well, that's an interesting question. First off, I think that we all develop our sensibilities or connectedness or just things that we're passionate about through our families, you know, in whatever ways and then our communities. Families first, communities second, you know, maybe education and maybe experiences and it kind of goes that way. My grandfather in Iowa, Harry D Harper Sr., was the head of the Iowa NAACP during the whole civil rights movement.
HARPER: Amazing story about my family's history in the small town of Fort Madison, Iowa, is that my great grandfather was a dude who did all the pipes and the water works, right? But he wanted his kids to be professionals. He really wanted them to be doctors. And so he had five boys. And as one went off to med school at Howard University - you know, historically black college in Washington, D.C., HU, the Bisons - as one went off, one would come back and pay for the next one to go. And one would come back, pay for the next one to go.
So they all went, they all went. And my grandfather and his brother opened up a small little family medical practice in Fort Madison. The banks at the time would not take his money. Even though Iowa, you know, wasn't part of Jim Crow officially, we know Jim Crow states did not have a monopoly on racist behavior, right?
HARPER: And so they wouldn't take his money. The Great Depression happened. People needed cash. They had cash. They bought up a city block in Iowa and they opened a black hospital. And that black medical facility served the black community for states all around because he set up a obstetrician practice where he was delivering babies. And really incredible that these black women from four states around would come to him and have their children delivered here in this little hospital.
So my family goes way back in Iowa. And there are very distinct black communities throughout Iowa, Midwestern roots. Yeah. It's cool. Tom Arnold's from Iowa, not so cool. I like Tom Arnold. I don't want to - I'm not saying - Ashton Kutcher's from Iowa.
BARTOS: Oh, yeah?
HARPER: Yeah, yeah.
BARTOS: Do you know who Ashton Kutcher is, Robert?
GARCIA: I don't.
BARTOS: One of the things I love about Bob is that he has his own filter when it comes to popular culture and TV doesn't really play a big role in that. No offense to the TV actors out there.
HARPER: None taken.
HARPER: I also do theater and films so thank you. You can catch me then as well.
BARTOS: But pivoting to TV, on "CSI," you played law enforcement.
BARTOS: You know, how has playing the role of an officer informed your ideas or changed your ideas about law enforcement, or did it not at all?
HARPER: Informed it a great deal because over the course of doing that show for nine years - and I'd played other law enforcement, you know, as well in my career - I've met so many cops and worked with them and scout, followed them. And I had to ride in the back of cars just trying to learn and go into morgues and doing all these different things. And most cops are good cops. You know, they want to do a good job. They want to do it the right way. They got into it for the right reasons. They got families. They come from communities.
The biggest problem we've put our officers in in this country is military style systems of policing. You're setting him up to fail because you're putting him in the wrong system. First of all, we should have community policing. You should be required, like back in the day, to live in the community that you patrol and police. Most of the communities and most of the officers that we've seen - we have problems with, they're from communities that are an hour away, hour and a half. And they come in to basically patrol this foreign area which they have no context in.
And so there's that - just the system itself, changing the system and keeping the exact same officers with better training would solve a number of our issues. These people aren't being taught how. They're not being - and they're not being held accountable. One of the number one ways to curb police behavior is - Bobbito, I'm going to test you. What would you say would probably be the number one way to curb individual police conduct?
HARPER: No. Replace most of the DA's and change out the way - the types of DA's that we have in place because if DA's stop prosecuting these bad pickups, cops will stop doing these stops and bad pickups just because they don't want to just do paperwork all the time for someone that's going to get released the next day, right? So stop prosecuting those bad pickups. Start prosecuting officers that act poorly, right? So it's a double-sided whammy. If you actually have a DA in place that will prosecute cops - bad cops, cops will start checking their own behavior.
BARTOS: Clearly a lot more that we could be talking about. Hopefully we'll have you again, but...
HARPER: Oh, we're done already?
BARTOS: No, we're not.
GARCIA: (Imitating trumpet) Coming up, it's time for the Impression Session.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
BARTOS: Bong, bong, bong, bong, bong, bong, bong.
GARCIA: (Laughter) Stretch, it's time for the special part of the show.
BARTOS: The Impression Session.
GARCIA: Yes, where we play music for our guests.
BARTOS: We play it and they say it.
GARCIA: There it is.
GARCIA: All right. Stretch, I think you said you have a song cued up for Hill that you selected for him?
BARTOS: I do. It's on the turntable.
GARCIA: Let's rock.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YES WE CAN")
LEE DORSEY: (Singing) Make this land a better land than the world in which we live. And help each man be a better man with the kindness that we give. I know we can make it. I know darn well we can work it out. Yes we can. I know we can, can. Yes we can, can. If we want to, yes we can, can.
GARCIA: Was that - what did that make you think? What did that make you feel?
HARPER: Well, first thing is I - you hear all the different types of musical influences in that. You hear like a little bit of New Orleans. And then you hear that church organ with just one single tone.
BARTOS: Well, you're on the money because this is New Orleans.
HARPER: It's New Orleans? OK.
BARTOS: That's 1971, Lee Dorsey.
HARPER: Lee Dorsey.
BARTOS: And this was made famous by The Pointer Sisters.
BARTOS: But that is the original.
HARPER: They did that song after him?
BARTOS: In '74, right - "Yes We Can Can."
HARPER: "Yes We Can Can."
GARCIA: And so what does the yes we can can...
HARPER: Well, obviously...
GARCIA: Come on, Hill, help us out.
HARPER: Yes we can. I'm helping you.
GARCIA: Wait. Let me throw you an alley-oop.
HARPER: Si se puede. Si se puede. Si se puede. So the si se puede, the yes we can - I remember eight years ago, the presidential election, November 8. That very day, we played basketball. I played basketball with the president. A group of us played basketball in Michael Jordan's gym in the South Side of Chicago for good luck. We played basketball for good luck.
And John McCain had joked with him in one of the debates where he called him that one - it was either this one or that one. And the T-shirts we had at the basketball - it was the Obama symbol with a finger like as if it was spinning on the finger, and it said that one.
HARPER: And no one knew what was going to happen to the results. But so many people worked so hard to say, yes we can. And the beautiful thing is, yes, we did. And - but it doesn't stop. We got to keep boots on the ground in doing the work every day because it's not just about one election day. It's about all of us.
And the we part is the most important thing. Yes, we - we is us. It's not who we elect, it's actually we, the people. And we can do this. We can - this country is the greatest country in the world because it's a participatory democracy, but it only works if we participate. And too many great people I know are sitting out. And I'm not just saying on voting day. I'm talking about every day, making your community better, making your families better, make all this - loving each other.
GARCIA: Yeah, yeah.
HARPER: What's your song?
GARCIA: My song is - I'm not going to tell you what it is.
GARCIA: You may not even recognize it because it's new. It's new. Hit it, Stretch.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "STILL STANDING")
PHAROAHE MONCH: (Rapping) Not MTV but my sweet 16s married the mic, a love supreme. I'm clear, it was a miracle the way I wetted (ph) the rhythm, spiritual looking back at it, a lyrical exorcism, a half of the Afro-American dream, to rap or quarterback for the professional team. I'm still standing. Yeah. I'm still here. I'm still standing.
JILL SCOTT: (Singing) Still standing.
HARPER: So still standing to me means for - and when I hear that, it's that, you know, I've been doing what I've been doing a long time and I'm going to keep doing it. I'm so - been so blessed, man. I've been so blessed to be able to do what I do as an artist, as an advocate, as a writer, as an actor. And this is what I do full-time. You know, so many people who want to do what we do, they're forced into a way that they have to do something else to make a living and then do what they do on the side.
Which is great too because just having the blessing, I mean, you know, it's like we're talking about champagne problems because, you know, 90 percent the rest of the world can't even have off-hours to make music, you know, or read a rhyme or do a play because they are struggling in ways that are horrific. And so I've just been so blessed and fortunate and to be still standing. You know, I was diagnosed with cancer in 2010. My father's gone from cancer. My grandfather's gone from cancer.
But it's not even just about cancer or health. It's just about being a black man in America. It's also about just being able to do what I do and having longevity. And so, you know, I've been at - I've been here for 50. I'm going to be here for minimum 50 more. And as much as I've done in these first 50, I'm going to do - double down and do twice as much in the next.
GARCIA: Word. I mean, that's - yeah.
BARTOS: Well, listen. You sound 60 and you look 30.
GARCIA: No, but not for nothing, I picked out the Pharoahe Monch. That's who the artist was.
HARPER: Oh, Pharoahe Monch.
GARCIA: Yeah, Pharoahe Monch, who I know you know...
GARCIA: ...And a member of Organized Konfusion.
BARTOS: One of our favorites.
GARCIA: One of our supreme favorites, right?
GARCIA: And Jill Scott actually sings the chorus...
GARCIA: ...When you heard - in the background. And later on, she has a little bit of a solo.
HARPER: What year is that?
GARCIA: I think it came out like three years ago. Yeah.
GARCIA: So it's something that you should put on your radar.
BARTOS: Aka new for us (laughter).
HARPER: Yeah. No, it was beautiful, man.
GARCIA: You know, powerful record. And, Hill, you're a powerful human being, man. We've got nothing but love for you, all right?
HARPER: Hey, fellas, same here. And anything I can do to support whatever you're doing, we all have to figure out ways to work together. And I mean that sincerely. So let me know how I can help support whatever.
HARPER: Carte blanche.
BARTOS: Thank you. And likewise, if you ever need us for anything.
GARCIA: So that's a wrap, yo.
BARTOS: Thanks, Hill. Thanks for coming through.
HARPER: Yes, yes. Thank you.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
BARTOS: That's our show. This podcast was produced by Sami Yenigun, edited by Steve Nelson and N'Jeri Eaton and executive produced by Abby O'Neill.
GARCIA: Special thanks to our VP of programming, Anya Grundmann.
BARTOS: If you like the show, you should check out our interviews with Mahershala Ali and Dave Chappelle. Listen on Apple Podcasts, NPR One or wherever you get your podcasts.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.