Lee Harris (born 1936 in Johannesburg), is a South African writer and performer who has lived and worked primarily in the United Kingdom since 1956.
He was one of the few white members of the African National Congress, where he helped with the Congress of the People and met Nelson Mandela. After moving to England at the age of 20, he acted with Orson Welles and Dame Flora Robson; wrote for the British underground press, including International Times; helped found the Arts Lab, and has been an instrumental figure in the British counterculture movement since the seventies. He published Brainstorm Comix and Home Grown magazine in the 1970s. Harris was born in 1936 in Johannesburg, South Africa, to immigrant Lithuanian Jewish parents. As a youth, he was one of relatively few whites in the society to join the African National Congress, opposing racial segregation at the time when the apartheidsystem was being enforced by the National Party, which had come to power in 1948. Harris helped with arrangements for the Congress of the People gathering in the summer of 1955, held at Kliptown, Soweto. The crowd of thousands was surrounded by 200 armed police.
Harris moved to London, England, in 1956 at the age of 20. He studied acting at the Webber Douglas Academy of Dramatic Art. In 1960 Harris got a role in the Orson Welles Shakespearian adaptation Chimes at Midnight, in which Welles both acted and directed. Harris also worked with Dame Flora Robson understudying the lead and playing a small part in The Corn Is Green.
Harris started writing plays. One was called Buzz Buzz. Lee described his first full-length play, Love Play, as “A boy’s journey through the underworld of emotional revelation”. John Peter’s review in the Sunday Times, 18 May 1969, said, “Lee Harris’s Love Play (Arts Laboratory) might have been inspired by some of Artaud’s equivocal, visionary phrases: The theatre as “The truthful precipitate of dreams” : “The human body raised to the dignity of signs.”
The play was awarded an Arts Council bursary in 1966. It was performed at the Arts Lab which Harris helped found in Drury Lane in 1967 with counter-culture figures Jim Haynes from the United States) and J. Henry Moore. The Arts Lab was hugely influential. During his time with it, Lee worked as a make-up artist for musician Frank Zappa and traveled on tour with Folk Rock group The Fugs.
During this time Harris also wrote various articles and reviews for many underground publications, such as IT (International Times). His work included an interview with San Francisco beat poet Michael McClure. In IT issue 52, Harris reported on a new play by Jane Arden at the Arts Lab. He also wrote various pieces for magazines Oz and Frendz.
Harris started being asked to do spoken-word performances in chill-out rooms around the UK. In 2002 he decided to release a celebration of his thirty years of counter culture in the form of a compilation album, including many of the artists, producers and musicians he had met along the years. They included producer Youth, Raja Ram & Simon Posford, collectively known as Shpongle; Howard Marks, The Mystery School Ensemble, JC001, Bush chemist, and more. He held an event at Subterania in Ladbroke Grove to celebrate the album’s release.
During this period he met poet Hicham Bensassi, who had also performed at the event. A few years later River Styx invited him to record something for a project he was working on. The album Angel Headed Hip Hop was developed. They brought in special guests such as writer Brian Barritt, and rapper JC001. Hicham Bensassi wrote the music, and performed vocally on four of the album’s songs. He remixed the song “Three men in a boat” with Howard Marks. It had originally been released on the album 30 Years of Counter Culture. The album Angel was released in 2009 on Arkadia Productions and was distributed by Gene Pool/Universal Music Group.
Harris and Bensassi travelled the UK and Europe on the “Don’t Hate, Create Tour.” It featured a special performance in Paris for the 50th anniversary of the publication of William S. Burroughs’ seminal work Naked Lunch. This event was organised by Oliver Harris, Andrew Hussey, and Ian Macfadyen. It accompanied the publication of Naked Lunch @50: Anniversary Essays, edited by Harris and Macfadyen. Lee Harris and Hicham Bensassi were inspired to create the experimental piece Hunterland.
Footage of Lee Harris has recently been included in a documentary Echoes of the Underground, which also features Jim Haynes, Brian Barritt, Henk Targowski and Youth. The score for the film was written and performed by The Moonlight Convention.
After making the album Angel Headed Hip Hop and performing live through the UK, Bensassi started to digitise and compile Lee Harris’ articles, play scripts and underground writings. Harris’ collected work was published as Echoes of the Underground: A Footsoldier’s Tales (2014).
This is a collection of ‘underground’ writings by Harris, the majority of which were originally published in the ’alternative press’ of the 60s and 70s; International Times, Oz, Home Grown and ‘Other Scenes’. The collection includes writings on the Beat Generation, William Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg, the 60s theatre revolution, and the South African apartheid era.
Also included are rare interviews with beat poet Michael McClure, the director of the musical HAIR Tom O’Horgan, the man who ‘turned on’ Timothy Leary by giving him some LSD, Michael Hollingshead, and Harry Shapiro, author of ‘Waiting for the Man’ and the Jimi Hendrix biography ‘Electric Gypsy’.