Brandy, an R&B singer, was teeing up her first song in a much-anticipated Verzuz battle against Monica, another '90s star. The duo, famous for the smash hit "The Boy Is Mine," hadn't been in the same room in years. Excitement was building and about 1 million viewers watched live on Instagram on Monday night.
Then Brandy asked Monica to pause, like she was waiting for something, and a few awkward seconds later, Sen. Kamala D. Harris, in a Howard University T-shirt, emerged on-screen. "You both have used your voice in such a powerful way, and an extension of our voices is our vote," said Harris, who made history last month when she became the first Black woman and the first Asian American to join a major party's national presidential ticket.
Brandy jokingly fanned herself, saying, "I'm fangirling right now!" Commenters typed KAMALA in all caps or sent long strings of fire emoji. Twitter exploded with mentions of the cameo, which unfolded in the sort of setting — an R&B battle — that has rarely featured appearances by politicians.
The moment highlighted the role Harris has taken on for Joe Biden's presidential campaign since she became the Democratic vice-presidential nominee. Biden is seeking to energize African American voters by embracing the Black Lives Matter movement, while simultaneously reassuring White swing voters that he is not a radical activist. As part of that strategy, Harris has become an ambassador to the Black community — sometimes praising Biden's racial justice plans, sometimes listening, other times simply urging African Americans to vote.
In the past week, Harris has spoken at the launch of a Black women's group in Michigan, made a virtual appearance at the "Get Your Knee Off Our Necks" Commitment March on Washington and held a private call with about 100 Black male leaders, including civil rights lawyer Benjamin Crump.
The appearances are often unannounced and unpublicized — a direct pipeline to Black voters that takes advantage of Harris's status as an African American woman who shares many of her listeners' challenges.
“For us, it's not just, 'Does this person check off a box?' " said Hamilton Grant, a South Carolina businessman and activist who was on Saturday's call. "For us, it's, 'Is this someone we can relate to and have a conversation with?' And that's Kamala."
Grant, whose wife's grandfather was murdered in 2015 when a white supremacist opened fire at Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, S.C., said Harris has credibility in addressing such incidents. "Having someone like Kamala that can speak to it from a personal standpoint and not just an outreach standpoint is an advantage she has over Joe Biden any day," Grant said.
Harris's appearance on "Brandy vs. Monica" — with proceeds going to former first lady Michelle Obama's voter registration group When We All Vote — was arranged by her political director, Vince Evans, who, like Harris, graduated from a historically Black college and knows the doors that community can open.
As a Howard University graduate, Harris is the first alum of an HBCU to run on a major party ticket. She is a member of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, or AKA — one of the "Divine Nine" public service-oriented Black fraternities and sororities. (When actor Chadwick Boseman, who also attended Howard, died last week, Harris posted a photo of herself with the movie star, lamenting the loss of her "fellow Bison.")
Leaders of various Divine Nine organizations joined Harris on Saturday's call with Black men. Among them was Crump, who is representing the family of Jacob Blake, a Wisconsin man left paralyzed after a police officer shot him seven times in the back. Crump also represented the families of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown and George Floyd, among others.
Dina White Griffin of Middletown, Del., left, greets her Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority sister Beatrice Harris of New Castle, Del., outside Alexis I. du Pont High School in Wilmington, Del., where their sorority sister Kamala D. Harris was holding a news conference. (André Chung/for The Washington Post)
According to people on the call, Crump and Harris addressed the Blake shooting and police violence against Black men in general. Most of the conversation, they said, centered on Biden's racial justice plans and how the participants could carry those plans to their communities.
Before the call, the campaign contacted Black mayors, encouraging them to take part. They asked Steve Benjamin, the mayor of Columbia, S.C., and a former head of the African American Mayors Association, if he would bring a few mayor friends along, and he recruited up-and-comers including Little Rock Mayor Frank D. Scott Jr. and Birmingham Mayor Randall Woodfin.
Benjamin had hosted Harris when she visited South Carolina for AKA's Pink Ice Ball last year, and he remembered becoming a pseudo-security officer as he tried to escort her through a room of enthusiastic sorority sisters who all wanted to chat. He said he sees that same excitement in Black women now that Harris is the vice-presidential nominee.
"I think she adds a great deal of value to the ticket," Benjamin said.
No small part of that value is Harris's ability to speak personally when she talks to Black activists about voter suppression or police misconduct. "Why do you think they don't want us to vote?" she said at Wednesday's event, using "us" in a way that Biden cannot. "It's because they know when we vote, things change."
Throughout the Democratic primary, Harris's advisers believed her path to the nomination ran through Biden, whose long-standing connection with Black voters limited her ability to mobilize that group. Her record as a prosecutor also emerged as an obstacle for some Black voters, many of whom said they thought she had not done enough to change California's criminal justice system when she had a chance.
For the moment, Black activists appear to be trusting Harris to deliver, while also planning to push for action on their agenda should Biden win.
Grant said he still hears Black acquaintances occasionally express concerns about Harris. But he said that building trust takes time, and that as Harris addresses her record and explains her thinking, any demands for her to speak out more forcefully will probably subside.
"I guess some people expected more [from her], which a lot of times is an unrealistic pedestal to put someone on," Grant said. "I think in our community we do that a lot, which places a lot of unneeded burden and weight on our Black leaders."
Aimee Allison, founder of She the People, which promotes women of color in politics, said many Black women — including some who were critical of Harris in the primary — are lining up behind her in the face of potential racist or sexist attacks. "If you're attacking her, you're attacking all of us," Allison said.
Not all Black activists are sold on Biden, and Harris has sought to reassure those skeptics. Last Thursday, in her first solo event as the vice-presidential nominee, Harris addressed those who have suffered from police brutality. "In a Biden-Harris administration, you will have a seat at the table — in the halls of Congress and in the White House," she said.
The day before, Harris spoke to the group in Michigan, beginning what the campaign called the Sister-to-Sister mobilization program, an effort to engage Black women to turn out. Essence magazine streamed the event.
The group has started organizing. Nancy L. Quarles, a Democratic county official, described an initiative to bring chairs to the polls on Election Day so voters can rest if the lines are long. The effort is called "John Lewis chairs," named after the civil rights icon and Georgia congressman who died in July.
Quarles said the Biden campaign is contacting groups that Democrats have neglected in the past.
"What I'm beginning to see and have appreciation for is they're doing things, such as doing more grass-roots training, that are extending themselves to coalitions that had not been tapped before," Quarles said.
Garlin Gilchrist, Michigan's lieutenant governor, said Harris could mobilize two important constituents in his state: Black voters, in particular Black women, and Indian Americans, who he said make up the fastest-growing population in Michigan. Harris's father was from Jamaica and her mother was from India.
In a state where Donald Trump edged Hillary Clinton by about 10,000 votes, Gilchrist said Harris's connections with those groups could make a difference. "I think Senator Harris will be a significant factor in mobilizing people in that community," he said.
The pain Black voters are feeling in the wake of police violence against Blake and others is not new, he added, and the Biden team needs to acknowledge that as it promises to give African Americans a voice they have not had before in the corridors of power.
"I think that is the conversation that the Biden-Harris campaign apparatus needs to communicate, and that's not a message about Trump," Gilchrist said. "They have to say, 'Look, there's a clear and credible path that is dependent on your participation in order for us to make this agenda real.' "
Chelsea Janes, Washington Post, September 2, 2020
September 3, 2020
Voices4America Post Script. As we saw at the mid-terms, black women voters have been the backbone of the Democratic Party, the most reliable voters and workers. Now Kamala, by her very existence, tightens that relationship and the relationship with black men, the Caribbean community, the Indian community. This is happening though it may be outside your line of vision. #NoStoneUnturned #NoVotersLeftBehind #BidenHarris2020