Interview: Harrison Stafford, aka the "Professor"

Groundation has rightfully and righteously become an international sensation in the world of reggae. Concluding a recent world tour, the talented ensemble continue to spread messages of peace on their North American Building an Ark Tour. Harrison Stafford, aka the “Professor,” is the founder and frontman of the northern California-based roots reggae and jazz-fusion band. A catalyst for positive change, the Professor took some time with Inity Weekly to talk about his upbringing as a Jewish kid, the impact of reggae in his life, and the responsibility he as taken on as a prophet of peace. IW: Could you tell Inity Weekly readers a bit about your background, whether you want to talk about your upbringing or what it is about reggae music that caused you to really dig deep into the genre and its history?

HS: Well, reggae music I’ve loved pretty much my entire life.  Growing up around music, my father was a jazz piano player.  So, from a young age I got to hear people like Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk, Duke Ellington, so music was really there.  When I was about six or seven, my older brother started listening to roots reggae music, Bob Marley, Peter Tosh.  For whatever reason, the rhythm, the music really struck me.  I loved reggae when I first heard it. At the same time, growing up in California in the Bay Area, I was also one of the only Jewish kids.  I would travel and go to Hebrew school three times a week and for the weekend, so at the same time I listened to Reggae music, which is a music about what you’re saying, social consciousness, and about, I don’t want to say “God,” but about spirits, about Jah, about this kind of collective unity that we all have.  And in the music of reggae you have all this stuff about the Bible, about Abraham, about Moses and Aaron, and the exodus and all these things. So to me growing up as a Jewish kid, reggae music really made sense to me. When I was six, seven, eight years old I was wondering, why do I have to go to Hebrew school and study all this foreign language and do all this stuff? None of my friends have to do this. So, reggae music was kind of my comfort of getting me through that and supporting me through that. Because of that, I had this mentality of awareness of poor people, of the great poverty that exists in the world, and wanting to be part of the message to help relieve it and to help improve people’s lives.  It struck me very early. I wondered why reggae music wasn’t getting any type of shows on MTV, no videos, no time at all promoting it and talking about it.  I wondered why these poor black people from this small island nation in the Caribbean, why their music is the only one talking about people’s rights and justice and love for all people.  You know, me coming from California, I want to be part of that. I want to take those tools and those great things that you have access to from California, first world, university, and I want to take those tools and join that fight and join that struggle.  I got serious about that from a very young age.

IW: You were speaking about references to the Bible and also Judaism.  What are the prominent links between Judaism, Christianity and Rastafari that you could explain to people so they could understand it?

HS: Well, it comes from the same lineage.  Rastafari is one out of a struggle, African people after slavery.  People who were forced the Bible, forced English, forced into this thing.  Out of that complexity came a want for self-identification.  After reading the Bible, which is the Old Testament of the Jewish Book, and the New Testament of the Gospel of Jesus of Nazareth, which is the Christianity Book, you read these things in the scriptures.   Out of the mourning of David there shall come a King and he shall be the redeemer, yeah?  You read about, letting the knots of your hair grow, not to shave your face and trim your hair, becoming a dreadlock, you know? You read Revelation that no one was worthy to look upon the books of the Seven Seals, but behold there was one man worthy, and he shall be the conquering lion of the Tribe of Judah.  And that is the crown of Ethiopia.  The crown of Ethiopia, it’s translation from Aramaic, is the conquering lion of the Tribe of Judah.  This is something that is very much Bible.  This is something that goes from King Solomon’s time, out of the line of David.  King Solomon was David’s son, King David. And Solomon had that romance with the Queen of Sheba and out of that becomes a new line, and that line comes from Ethiopia, of Menelik II, who was King David’s grandson from Solomon and Sheba.  From there, 225 kings later, becomes crowned in 1930, Haile Selassie.  That becomes Rastafari. So it makes complete sense, this is the black leader.  This is as Marcus Garvey said, if the white person wants to see their God through their white spectacles, you can’t really wrong that person.  But if the black person wants to see their God through their black spectacles, then you have to allow them as well.  So it’s a western religion that puts a black king as their redeemer.

IW: Well, I can see why they call you the “Reggae Professor.”

HS: Right (chuckles).

IW: Going back to the music, what was the idea behind forming Groundation?

HS: The idea behind forming Groundation was to start something different and something new.  Groundation was going to be a like a double-edged sword.  The message of Groundation was going to be very socially conscious and very revolutionary, and the music was also going to be revolutionary. So, it’s not going to be pop music.  It’s going to be different music.  It’s going to have long solos, improvisation sections. It’s going to be arranged very differently, something unique. We started from Sonoma State University, getting our grad degrees. Our Professor Mel Graves always said to us “You have to find your own voice. You’ve got to know all the history of music, internalize it, and find what it is you’re supposed to do.”  So I called the (Groundation) bass man Ryan and said let’s start this.  Let’s gets something together that’s uniquely us.  We started the group 14 years ago, seven albums ago, countless world tours, 30 countries a year we pretty much travel to, so it’s become what it’s meant to be.  Groundation. To be grounded, to be humble in life. That’s why Groundation is not Harrison Stafford.  It’s not like I’m the star of the show. We are all leaders of Groundation.  Just like Kim (Kim Pommel of Groundation), there are many songs where she can be lead and I’m singing backup to her and the band is supporting her.  Just like David on the trumpet.  He’s soloing, it’s his time, he’s the leader of the band.  So it’s very much trying to embody that oneness.  That’s what Groundation really is.  Trying to achieve that oneness of sound and trying to be part of a community.

IW: In Groundation’s albums, you feature a lot of legends. I like to call them “elders of reggae” such as  Don Carlos, who I had the privilege of meeting - he’s a beautiful soul.  The Congos, I Jah Man Levi to name a few.  Why did you find it important to include them in your work?

HS: Because of the history of reggae music, because of going to Jamaica at a young age, you really get in touch with the music.  That knowledge again from university time, from really learning music, there’s a respect for your elders.  For us, what a dream it would be to perform with these great people, Pablo Moses, Ras Michael, I Jah Man and The Congos.  I’ve known some of them for years and years, long before Groundation ever began and it was an opportunity to record these people’s voices because a lot of them aren’t recording anymore, they aren’t really touring, people aren’t really hearing from them.  But they’re still there and they’re still struggling and trying to put out that message of love.  And for us it was just important to be able to learn from them that music, life, doing the good thing and seeking the good bright future is a lifelong commitment.  The elders really come to support us. They love what we do and they come to the albums with a deep respect for us and it’s mutual.  That’s how music should be, a sharing from the elders to the next generation.

IW: As far as respect goes, how did you reach out to them, and better yet, how or why do you think you gained their respect?  It’s obvious that you have.

HS: I think it’s from the years of doing it. I think it’s from my nature to do the good thing and I think that shines through.  People can tell a lot from you within a few days.  I was in Jamaica with the lead singer of The Congos spending many, many weeks together.  So, there becomes a respect of like, this is Harrison, this is “Professor.”  He’s not coming here to steal money, steal music, or exploit people from Jamaica.  I’m married to a Jamaican.  It’s a deep love that I have for the culture and for the people and they feel it and they know it.  Throughout all of the years, those thoughts can be confirmed for them, I believe.

IW: That’s nice.  Going back a little bit to Jamaican history and Rastafari, I was inspired by your film, the documentary Holding on to Jah.  I want to know what inspired you to actually go out and put together the documentary and what you gained personally from the experience.

HS: Personally from the experience I gained the world and I gained my life. I gained so much spiritual energy and things that will carry beyond into the future, just from being with those elders.  Holding on to Jah was really a reflection of teaching the history of reggae music at Sonoma State University.  In teaching that course, it was really for me a great love to be able to pass on something that people don’t know that much about.  When I was in university taking History of America courses and they would have one or two paragraphs on Marcus Garvey, to me I was like, man, Marcus Garvey. What he did with the UNIA in NY in the nineteen-teens for black people. You cannot have a Malcolm X or a Dr. Martin Luther King or any of that if it wasn’t for Marcus Garvey.  So, just to be able to talk about these people, their lives, and their contributions to what we now live, to our liberty, to our experience here.  That is beautiful to me. The whole thing about Holding on to Jah was just recalling that moment when Rastafari was first really being born in Jamaica.  Haile Selassie stood on the throne of Ethiopia, came to Jamaica to bless his people.  I mean, you can only imagine how it was.  And the music…there were more recording studios in Kingston in the 1970s than there were in London or New York City.  That’s how much music was coming out of Jamaica. So you had the music, you had the philosophy, you had this revolutionary thing, and you had your living God supporting and strengthening you. It was magic.

IW: So what did you hope your students left with after completing that course?  I didn’t realize that the documentary was also something that built from your teachings at Sonoma State.

HS: I definitely believe that I achieved my goal. The goal was just to pass on a deeper understanding and love for Jamaican culture and for reggae music.  And that’s something easy to pass on because it’s there.  All you have to do is play the music and talk about the philosophies and the history of it. It’s intriguing; it’s something you’re not going to get in any other course.  If you have an interest in reggae, or just in Bob Marley or this Rasta thing, you’d come to the course and you’d be able to walk away with more knowledge than a lot of people have on that subject. I feel that it creates a deeper love when you put on that music and you understand what they’re speaking about when it comes to Selassie and Rasta.   A lot of people don’t know anything about it.  Even many people who call themselves Rasta haven’t learned the foundations.  So, to me it’s a great thing to be able to pass on and to create a deeper love for the music.

IW: And what better way to pass on a message than through music, one of the most powerful mediums, if not THE most powerful medium out there.

HS: Yeah, the number one.

IW: I know that you put out a solo project, Madness, and that was the result of a pilgrimage to Israel and Palestine.  What was your objective for going on that trip?  That seemed very significant.

HS: My objective as an American Jew was to be one of the few people to experience Palestine.  To go over “the green line” as they call it and spend time with Palestinian families, musicians, poets, students, university teachers and just learning from them about occupation, about what’s happening there.  As a Jew, I have been through Israel many times and even as Groundation we have performed several times in Tel Aviv and surrounding areas of Israel. It was very moving to see what was happening.  For me it was a sign that they’re not fitted towards peace.  That’s why on that album Madness you have songs that talk about the problems of occupation, that it’s not leading to a peaceful solution. It was a reflection of that trip.  I had my iPhone in the West Bank and every night I would sing songs into the iPhone and record it.  When it came time to record this music I wanted to record it 100% in Jamaica with the Rasta elders.  All the people who made the music that Bob Marley, Peter Tosh, Bunny Wailer, Burning Spear, and everybody.  It was for me a great joy to go back, this time with the musicians, to that first Studio One Bob Marley sound and record some revolutionary music for our time, about Palestine, about what people are experiencing there.

IW: On your website, you reference to your trip findings that you came away from this clear realization that there are no sides to the conflict in Israel and Palestine and that we’re all on the same side with the same goals and aspirations of peace and prosperity.  Is it really that simple? Obviously I’m on the outside looking in, really all of us are unless we go out and see what you’ve seen.  It seems that it’s the total opposite, that they don’t want to work together, that they’re not on the same side.

HS: That’s because we all know politics and we all know news media.  But I’m talking about just a generalization of the populations of Palestine and Israel. I’m not talking about the ultra orthodox Hasidic or the ultra orthodox Muslim.  I’m not talking about Netanyahu or Mahmoud Abbas.  I’m speaking of the people.  Let’s be honest, we really are connected as all people, we really are one.  It’s a trick that mankind has pulled on itself to separate it into nations, races, classes, religions, all this stuff.  But we’re talking about religion, faith, and people’s Gods, and that’s a very dangerous topic.  Unless we can get beyond those fundamental orthodox religious views, we’re going to have problems like we see on TV. But that’s not the majority of people, that’s just the people who are making news.

IW: With your music, it is obvious you challenge people musically and spiritually, make them think differently about what the possibilities are in life. I can hear it in your album Madness and in your works with Groundation.  Why do you do this?  Like you said, this isn’t pop music, this is reggae music.  Why go this path?

HS: I do this because it’s me.  It’s what I need to do to fulfill who I am in my life.  I have deep beliefs and things I want to accomplish. It has nothing to do with money, success, and with women and all this stuff. It has everything to do with the reminder that we have a greater purpose.  The music is just for me as it is for the people who buy it. I want to be challenged. I want to feel that there is hope.  People don’t really want to talk about serious issues, they get uncomfortable.  All I could do was to put it into music.  So that’s my way of being me every night, to be able to make a joyful noise, and to let it reverberate all over the planet that we’re going in a positive way.  We’re going in a peaceful way and a way that we’ll see a prosperous future. That’s it.

IW:  You guys are definitely worldwide. What do you think it is that has made Groundation so popular overseas, especially in countries like France and Brazil?

HS: I think it’s that commitment. I think people hear it.  France and these places want to hear good music.  They want to hear musicians who are taking chances.  If you don’t have that musical culture, that musical history, if you’re not going to concerts…America isn’t really like that.  We live a very pop life.

IW:  Where are Americans going wrong?

HS: Wow. That’s a serious question.  I think the thinking of news media, of marketing people of music and all this stuff.  I think the thinking needs to change.  If you don’t show that you care, then the next generation will care even less.  We need to start caring about each other.  We need to do the right thing.  All the Presidents and Prime Ministers need to do the right thing for people, but they don’t.

IW: Speaking of presidents, will you be voting in this election?

HS: I am not sure.  I am undecided at this point, but if I do vote, I’m sure to be for Barack Obama because I am not into raising defense funds and the military.  I’m a person who’s anti-war and if one candidate wants to invest money for war and one wants to not, then I’m going to go with the “not.”

IW:  At the end of the day, what is the message that you are spreading through your music and your other projects?  What is your ultimate goal and what do you hope to achieve?

HS:  Just hope and to inspire people.  The future requires change, so I want to be part of that change.

No doubt that the Professor is on the right path.

For more information on the Professor and Groundation:

Groundation Official Website

The Professor Official Website

Holding on to Jah - Documentary

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