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Aisha Harris on her book 'Wannabe', which traces the pop culture that shaped her


What makes you, you? For some, it's the culture you consume - the books you read, the movies and TV you watch, the music you just can't get enough of. Aisha Harris definitely counts herself in that group. And yeah, she's the other Aisha at NPR, the very talented host of NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour. She's written a new book called "Wannabe: Reckonings With The Pop Culture That Shapes Me," and we just had to talk to her about it because we had to have an attack of the Aishas at NPR. So welcome, Aisha Harris.

AISHA HARRIS, BYLINE: Yes, I'm ready to conquer the world with my fellow Aisha.


RASCOE: Yes. Exactly, exactly. We have to start with your first essay. And this is not just because we share a name, but the first essay of the book is about your name. You write that you took a lot of pride in the idea that your name came from a Stevie Wonder song, "Isn't She Lovely." But then you learn that's not quite the case.

HARRIS: Well, you know, it's funny because - I don't know if you've experienced this as well as a fellow Aisha, but growing up and being a millennial who grew up in the '90s, there's a different song that a lot of people would recognize more so than the "Isn't She Lovely" song. And that song is called "Iesha" by Another Bad Creation.


ANOTHER BAD CREATION: (Rapping) Iesha, Iesha, so glad to meet ya. See you in the schoolyard strolling with your teacher.

HARRIS: And that song was a Top 10 hit, and people like to sing it to me when they meet me sometimes, as a way of, like...

RASCOE: And you didn't like this.

HARRIS: I did not like this. Because I - you know, there were a lot of things going on there. I thought it was a lesser song. It wasn't as prestigious or, like, notable as a Stevie Wonder song. I mean, I still think that.

But I also kind of wanted to unpack in that essay how it wasn't just about that, but it was also about some, like, deep-seated, uncomfortable feelings I had about being Black and how that song kind of felt like a song that I didn't want to have my name attached to because it felt - you know, I used the word ghetto, and I used that in quotes, because that was kind of the word that was used when I was younger. And I had to sort of unpack this, like, deep-seated, like, anti-Blackness that I was kind of giving off in that period. And so that essay is just kind of a journey with how I came to accept my name and its origins.

RASCOE: One thing that you talk about in your book is what it's like being a Black critic and having to critique Black art and how that can be kind of complicated.

HARRIS: Yeah. There's this scarcity mindset of, like, oh, we've had so many years where we didn't have this kind of representation. When I review this movie or this TV show, how harsh should I be if I don't like it? I count 2016 as kind of this turning point in mainstream Black pop culture where you have everything from "Atlanta" premiering, "Insecure" premieres that year, "Lemonade," Rihanna's "Anti" - this moment where, like, Black culture was sort of at this apex. And I think that because we have so many more people working in Hollywood, and we have so many different types of representation now, especially of Black art, we shouldn't necessarily need to be as concerned as we were 40, 50 years ago or even 15, 20 years ago about, this is good for Black people or it's bad for Black people. Like, I want to focus on, is this good art, period? And that can be difficult to do because some people - especially when you're talking about a beloved property like "The Little Mermaid," for instance, with Halle Bailey...

RASCOE: Oh, no.

HARRIS: Yeah, I did not write a kind review of that film. And...

RASCOE: And then people came for you.

HARRIS: People came for me...

RASCOE: (Laughter).

HARRIS: ...And called me anti-Black. Some people said, you know, they're not going to make more movies if people like you review - I'm like, I'm just a critic. (Laughter) It's like, I don't have that much power.

RASCOE: Speaking of "The Little Mermaid" and Disney, do you think that the pop culture that we love as kids and teens - that it plays a bigger role in shaping us than maybe the things we fall in love with as adults?

HARRIS: I definitely think they can and do because those are our most formative years, right? If you are someone like myself who grew up in front of TVs and in front of movie theaters and reading, you know, books and whatever, that stuff is going to be a huge part of how you learned about the world. What I love about being able to go back and look at some of those things, whether it's something like "The Little Mermaid" or teen comedies from my youth, is that I can still enjoy them for the most part, but I can also look back at them and say, like, oh, some of this is a little - I hate the word problematic, but, like, it's challenging.

RASCOE: What's the most challenging thing that you loved as a youth that you are less in love with now as - or that you still love as an adult, but you recognize that it's challenging?

HARRIS: I mean, I think the one that instantly comes to mind is one that so many especially millennials like myself can point to, and that's "Sex And The City." I grew up on that show, like many people. It was the show that made me really, really want to move to New York City and live that, like, young 20-something single gal gallivanting around the city and spending way too much on shoes - like, that was the dream, right?

RASCOE: Yeah. Yeah. People now can get so into the shows or the movies or the things that they love to the point where it becomes their entire identity. They can, you know, almost - they almost get to the level of violence. Is there a dark side to pop culture?

HARRIS: I think a lot of it has to do with social media and how people are able to hide behind social media and really take to really extreme measures and sometimes harassing people, strangers, on the internet. One reason for that is because, like you said, we've turned some of these franchises and artists into our identities. And I think it's really kind of warping our perception of what it means to be a fan and also what it means to enjoy pop culture. And I hoped that I could kind of convey the fact that, like, we don't need to put all of our identity into the pop culture that we consume.

RASCOE: On the flip side of that, what do you think is the best thing about how pop culture is shaping society at this point?

HARRIS: I never want to put too much stock in representation, but I do think that, like, the more we see different types of people in different types of scenarios and lifestyles and class and all of those things in the pop culture we consume, it does move the needle a little bit in terms of where we are going and how we treat each other.

RASCOE: That's Aisha Harris. She co-hosts NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour. Her new book is "Wannabe: Reckonings With The Pop Culture That Shapes Me." This has been awesome - attack of the Aishas. We got to do this again. Thank you so much.

HARRIS: Yes. Thanks so much, Ayesha. It was such a pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ayesha Rascoe
Ayesha Rascoe is the host of Weekend Edition Sunday and the Saturday episodes of Up First. As host of the morning news magazine, she interviews news makers, entertainers, politicians and more about the stories that everyone is talking about or that everyone should be talking about.