The scars surely run deep into his psyche. As a young child, he watched his homeland of Liberia torn apart by civil war; his mother, his "anchor," blown up by a reckless bomb. Years spent in a refugee camp in Ghana, West Africa with relocation to the United States in the new millennium could have left Zhalman staggering. Instead, Zhalman Harris, 26, has retained his sense of self, his composure, and his ambitions.
It’s not scars that run deep, but a sense of moral excellence. When Zhalman arrived here in the States, he tells me as we sit in Cahoots coffee shop in St. Paul, old friends and relatives who remembered his musical gifts back home in Africa urged him to return to those dreams. "They said to me, ‘you know, you were pretty good back home, why are you just sitting here? This is America where people have their dreams come true. So you’d better go back to what you do best.’ I decided to go back into music."
Zhalman met music producer Kwame, also known as KP, and they initially started up a business relationship. But making music is not the same here as it was in Liberia. "It’s a whole different ballgame compared to Africa. Over here it’s a big industry. It’s tougher. But our difference, that is, our originality, may be able to help us propel into the industry," says Zhalman.
Z-man’s difference is profound. Listening to his demo CD–his first album will be released in January–the music is contemporary as well as topical and weighty. The lyrics for songs such as "Warchild" are not taken from the latest headlines reporting fighting in different parts of the world, but gleaned from his own personal history, as he viewed it as a child.
Kwame recognized the light in Zhalman, almost from the start of their working relationship. "I expected to see a really angry, beaten, vengeful person, but when I was working with him and we encountered setbacks, he’d say, ‘don’t worry about it. If you work hard on it, if you put 100% into it, God will make it up.’ He just made me start looking at things in a different direction. This kid is really positive," praises Kwame.
As the producer, Kwame hopes that Zhalman’s music will appeal to the hip hop masses in beat and rhyme. Zhalman hopes that the message beyond the music will make their mark. "I want to reach out to youth because they’re the people I really want to touch. With things that are going on now, with kids shooting up schools, committing suicide and stuff…it’s pretty scary. I feel if the youth will listen to what I’ve got and look at what I’ve been through, maybe that’ll help enlighten them and make them see life in a whole different way," says Zhalman.
During the interim between anonymity and making it big, Zhalman has worked at other jobs. He held one position at a large discount store and it was there that the dissimilarities between African immigrants and African Americans distilled into Camp A and Camp B. "There’s a huge difference. The bottom line is we have the same brown skin. But the way they think, the way they go about doing things is totally different from the way we grew up doing things in Africa," Zhalman says.
The song, "Incarcerated Minds" on Z-man’s upcoming CD talks about cultural differences and the perceptions these differences create. "I have another job, that I’ll be ending in two weeks so that I can focus totally on my music. The sky’s the limit, that’s where I want to go, as far as I can," Zhalman says. "In five years I want to be in the majors. The Electric Fetus, Blockbuster, Best Buy, Sam Goody, I mean, everywhere you can find a CD sold, I want to be there. I want to be in there, not only because of the money, but because of the message that I’ve got to share."
Zhalman appears to have taken his childhood injuries and turned them around into a positive reaction. Kwame hopes that come January, Z-man will positively shine.
Susan Budig draws from music and poetry to create her own poems that she uses to bring healing and recovering from grief to others.