When people ask the question, “What do you do for a living?” most of us answer it with a few short words—usually including a company name and a job title. But for St. Louis Park’s Mari Harris, the answer is a little bit longer.
Harris is a singer, songwriter, actress, vocal coach, life coach and certified reflexologist—and she doesn’t plan on slowing down any time soon. “In this lifetime, it’s been like, ‘What do I do with myself?’ ” she says. “I think the world isn’t necessarily designed for you to be multitalented or multidimensional or multifaceted.” But that’s exactly what Harris is.
Growing up in Illinois, Harris and her siblings sang together as an a cappella group, creating their own arrangements of popular songs. “I didn’t realize until years later that singing a cappella is an art form,” she says with a smile, “and that’s what we grew up doing.” Her first solo came at age 9, when she sang the Christmas tune “Little Drummer Boy” at church; her first time acting was in junior high, starring in the play Up the Down Staircase. Harris had caught the performing-arts bug, and she continued on stage throughout college at Northern Illinois University, where she traveled with the black choir and black theater student groups.
Since then, her resume has gotten longer and longer. Entries include acting in a commercial for Minneapolis’ KSTC-TV and in several films by local film students, and singing the national anthem at Timberwolves and Lynx basketball games, and at one Twins game. “It was Joe Mauer bobble-head night, and there were 24,000 people there,” Harris remembers, adding with a laugh that she credits her great performance for the Twins’ win that night.
In 1994, Harris was working at an environmental agency and wrote a song for the state of Minnesota called “Putting the House in Order,” about making homes more eco-friendly and sustainably built. She performed the song on the floor of the House of Representatives, which she says is incredibly noisy. “People were talk, talk, talk,” she says. “But I opened my mouth and started singing—and you could hear a pin drop.” Harris received a standing ovation after her performance.
Her work doesn’t only involve performing for others. She’s been a vocal coach since the 1980s and is part of a program called Project DIVA: dignity, integrity, virtue and availability. The program helps empower young girls to follow their dreams. Harris is a Project DIVA career coach for young women who are hoping to work in the music industry, and she says the experience is extremely rewarding. In a recent session, Harris was working with two girls, one of whom was very shy. “I got her to be in her body, and she heard her voice. She was startled,” Harris says. “One of the biggest things I do is assist people in [finding] who they are through their voice.”
Its arts-friendly culture has made St. Louis Park a great fit for Harris. “It’s cold here, but it’s an extraordinary community for the arts,” she says. Upcoming projects include work on the play As Black as I Am, by Bernard Turner, and organizing a concert.
While the world might not be designed for those with multiple dreams and multiple avenues, Harris makes it work: “I’m living the life I created.”