Retired Newton teacher Kemp Harris Inspires change through story and song

Kemp Harris worked as an elementary school teacher in Newton Public Schools for 38 years. (Lauren Comando / For the Heights)

By Genevieve Morrison and Laney McAden

Kemp Harris, an activist, singer-songwriter, and retired Newton educator, has a deep and colorful history and an even brighter future, making an impact on the city with musical and political commentary.

“When he sings a song, I feel like his heart’s in it, and his history’s in it, and his passion’s in it,” Harris’ manager Ralph Jaccodine said.

Before Harris performed full-time, he worked as an elementary school teacher in Newton Public Schools for 38 years, using music and storytelling to instill a love of music and fun in his students.

Lauren Comando, a fourth-grade teacher who worked with Harris, said her students were captivated by his engaging teaching style when he visited her classroom. 

“The children were glued because, not only was he beloved, but because of his storytelling abilities and just their love for him,” Comando said.

Harris explained that his students’ takeaways from his songs and stories were often surprising.

“There are these special moments that students will take away, that you hadn’t even thought as being important,” Harris said. “You find out that something really meant a whole lot to them.”

Harris grew up in segregated Edenton, N.C. before moving to Newton in 1957. He said his experiences with racism remain with him as an adult and artist. 

“When you went to the movie theaters then, you bought a ticket outside but then you went up the fire escape because that’s where Black people sat,” Harris said. “You couldn’t sit downstairs.”

Harris said moving from his hometown to Newton was an important and positive transition for his family.

“Newton, for us, was sort of part of that whole migration north kind of thing,” Harris said. “A lot of folks were leaving the South, and we just found Newton to be a very welcoming community.

As a teacher in the city, Harris found that discussing his own experiences with racism could help his students understand the issue.

“When you put a personal thing there, it affects people,” Harris said. “You know, you see black-and-white photos of the Civil Rights Movement, and it makes it seem like it was millions of years ago, but it wasn’t that far back.”

Comando said Harris’ retellings of his childhood experiences deeply moved her students.

“He started to share about his childhood growing up as a little Black boy in the segregated South, and this just spoke to my kids as such an emotional thing,” Comando said.

Harris produced music on the side throughout his teaching career, releasing albums in 2002 and 2006. Comando said Harris gave her class a CD with many of his songs during one of his visits. According to Comando, her students played his song “Edenton” so frequently that she worried they would burn holes into the disk. 

“It became like a theme song for fourth grade, and for understanding that they were on the cusp of turning into people who were going to have ideas about things,” Comando said. “He really, in so many ways, he made a great impact.”   

Harris said he also educated his students on political participation by taking them to watch people vote every time an election took place at the school.

“Every time there was voting, the whole class, we would just go down and we would sit on the floor in the gym and just watch people vote,” Harris said.

After 38 years of teaching, Harris retired in 2019 and pursued singing, songwriting, and performing full-time. He has acted in the film Bleed for This and Showtime’s SMILF series, performed in a television storytelling series with WGBH/PBS titled Stories From the Stage, and more.

“I retired at 60 because I really wanted to get into this other part of what I do—the performance side of what I do,” Harris said.

Harris says he has always regarded art as a venue for activism.

“I grew up in a time when, you know, the folk music, protest music, and all the music that I heard was for a purpose,” Harris said. “I think that one of the things that artists should do is to keep reminding people of what our situation is.”

Jaccodine said as an artist, Harris is relentlessly truthful and persistently optimistic.

“A good artist can tell a history to talk about pain, but leave you more informed, more hopeful, and that’s one thing that Kemp’s really good at,” Jaccodine said.

At the end of January, Harris plans to record his next album, The American Chronicles, at Fame Studios in Alabama, where artists such as Aretha Franklin, the Rolling Stones, and Demi Lovato have also recorded. Harris says the album will document his lived experiences as a Black, gay man.

“I’m just taking my views as a Black gay man in this country, looking at what’s happening in our government, just the world in general,” Harris said. “They’re all these little short statements on what’s going on and my reflection of it.”

Harris said his 2020 single, “Goodnight America,” encapsulates his mission as both an activist and an artist—to speak truthfully about his own experience and the world around him.

“I was so tired of the noise and the yelling and the partisanship of what’s going on,” Harris said. “I’ve done other things that are sort of more pointed in terms of my politics, but with this, I just wanted to write a gentle lullaby for the country.”

Jaccodine said Harris often concludes his live shows with this song, which he says switches the mood in the audience from energetic to somber, as Harris reminds his listeners of the nation’s political reality.

“It changes the room, because he’s joyful and all over the stage and doing this, and then he leaves with ‘Goodnight America’ and it’s beautiful, but it makes you think,” Jaccodine said.

Over a simple score of melodic piano notes, Harris sings his heartfelt wish for peace and progress.

“Good night, America,” Harris sings. “Doors will open for you / But there are miles to go before you find your way back home again.”

The Newton Beacon has partnered with The Heights, an independent, nonprofit newspaper run by Boston College students, to share some of their work here. Stories produced by The Heights have been written and edited by The Heights.