Arts

What to make of McKinney’s American Idol, Harper Grace

Harper Grace McKinney American Idol 2018 singer songwriter Plano Profile musician Alyssa Vincent

All photography by Alyssa Vincent

Yard Sale

The night before she said yes to American Idol, Harper Grace spent four hours praying in her closet. American Idol was returning to television for a reboot with Katy Perry, Lionel Richie and Luke Bryan. Harper had been offered an audition with the judges and a producer texted her, asking for her final answer. Though auditioning on American Idol had long been one of her dreams, now that it was in reach she hesitated.

“I don’t know if you’ve ever seen the movie War Room, but that closet is my war room,” Harper, a 16-year-old from McKinney recalls a few months later. We sit in her mother’s office; Harper is curled up on a chair in a soft pink sweatshirt. “I have a poster board in the corner where I write down prayers and things that the Lord has revealed to me. I was mad. I kept saying I wasn’t going on American Idol. But I decided to sit in there until God talked to me.” Unfazed, she adds: “I sat in complete silence for four hours.”

Finally exhausted, Harper decided no answer was her answer and got up to leave. “So I told God, ‘Fine, I’m not going.’ And he showed me a vision of myself standing over a cliff, my toes hanging off the edge. He asked, ‘Do you trust me?’”

Deeply thoughtful and faithful, Harper is full of surprises. When she speaks, her congeniality hides the powerful engine that emerges when she sings. Though she looks like any other teenager who orders Pink Drinks at Starbucks—thin with long, blonde hair—she lives a very unique life. She spends every other month in Nashville, writing songs. When she’s in Texas, she goes to work with her mother, who homeschools her. Her father is frequently in Uganda doing mission work.

If you watched the reboot of American Idol that aired in March, you’ve seen Harper Grace, who auditioned with a spirited, spunky original song, “Yard Sale,”  about a girl selling off an ex-boyfriend’s stuff after he’s cheated. “Everything must go,” she belted out. “… If it’s got a sticker on it, it’s as good as gone. Call it heartbreak retail. I’m having a yard sale.”

Read more: The Quickest Way to Save the World with Ron Bultongez

Harper describes herself as an open, outgoing person: “The girl who shows up wearing a bright yellow dress with cats all over it.”

She remembers watching the original American Idol and vaulting off the couch to sing along with the contestants. When she was 10, she “fell headlong” into singing and writing. Her first original song was about shampoo and conditioner.

“I promise [my songs] gotten better,” she laughs. Harper grew up with gospel music and loves pop as much as the next girl, but chose country as her genre for its story-telling ability, and what country writers call putting “furniture” in the songs. “Country writing is so detailed. You can express yourself and your thoughts openly,” she explains.

It took four hours in a closet to get her to American Idol, but once she was there, Harper embraced the opportunity with the enthusiasm only Harper has. Though sometimes playing original songs is risky, Harper played two originals, determined to be true to herself. Along with “Yard Sale,” she performed a heartbreak ballad based on a past relationship, “Rest in Peace,” that did wonders to show off her range and pitch.

“Both our lungs are breathing, hearts are beating, but you know you’re dead to me. Rest in peace,” she sang, accompanying herself on piano. Harper’s lyrical ability is far beyond her years; her originals won her extra points from the judges and viewers alike.

“She just shines,” Luke Bryan murmured to the other judges after she walked off stage.

Harper Grace McKinney American Idol 2018 singer songwriter Plano Profile musician Alyssa Vincent

R.I.P.

In 2012, Harper Grace got her first big gig: singing the National Anthem at an FC Dallas soccer game. Eleven years old, Harper was thrilled to perform at her first major league game. On the way over, she listened to C Sharp on her dad’s phone to lock in her starting note. She rehearsed on the astroturf field, with no sound system on, which was the first sign that something might go wrong.

“Don’t worry, we’ll turn it all on later,” the sound techs assured her and her mother.

It was a sold-out, blistering hot summer game: FC Dallas vs. LA Galaxy, David Beckham’s team. At the time, Beckham about to compete in the London 2012 Olympics and his stardom was at a high. There were 22,000 people out in the sun, pumped for the game, armed with blaring bugle-shaped vuvuzela horns. Cameras stood ready all around the stadium. Harper’s mom asked if they planned to televise the anthem.

“No, that won’t be televised,” they told her. Before Harper’s performance, she and her parents gathered to pray. Harper remembers that prayer very clearly.

“We prayed that the Lord would use me in a mighty way,” she says and gives a small, hapless shrug. “This was his mighty way.” Harper checked her pitch one more time and walked out onto the field amid the hum of the vuvuzela horns for what was supposed to be a simple minute-and-a-half performance.

“As I started singing, I started really low,” Harper recalls. “I knew it didn’t sound right but it would’ve been really embarrassing to stop and start over, so I kept singing.” The speakers were on for the first time, so Harper wasn’t aware that there would be a three-second delay between what she sang and when she heard it ring back to her. She waited to hear each line echo before beginning the next one. Time seemed to slow as her anthem distended into three long minutes. Harper did the best she could, voice straining on the high notes, pressure bearing down like August heat.

“When I walked off stage, maybe three people out of 22,000 told me I’d done a good job,” she says. “I knew I hadn’t done that good, but really? Only three people?”

Then, a family friend who lived out in LA texted them a grainy cell phone recording of Harper on her television, which was how they discovered that the anthem had been broadcast live.

“It turns out that because David’s team was playing, they aired it during a commercial break of the Olympics,” Harper explains sheepishly. “It was a perfect storm. The whole entire world saw my anthem. The next morning it was viral.”

Harper still remembers the first news site that put it online, DeadSpin magazine, and can recite pieces of it by heart: “Normally, we wouldn’t post something that made fun of a little kid, but this particular child publicly refers to herself as a ‘singer-songwriter’ and any kid who has that much pretension at age 11 deserves to be knocked down a few notches.”

Harper’s parents had no idea how to tell her how far her anthem had spread, or about the fire growing in its wake, but she overheard them talking about it.

“At 11 I was like, ‘Oh cool, I’m on YouTube.’ So I went behind their backs and searched for it.” Harper pauses and swallows. “It was really hard to understand what I saw. I read comments like, ‘She’s why abortion should be legal’ or ‘I’m going to murder her,’ people saying they wanted to attack me and describing how they’d do it and—I didn’t know what it all meant but I was hurt. Especially because they kept coming. And people were laughing.”

Apparently, many viewers watched this child fumble her first major performance and interpreted it as a purposeful attempt by Harper to desecrate the anthem on live television. Ridicule curdled into hatred and eventually, death threats. Someone even mailed a knife to her home.

At school, Harper endured intense bullying. “I’d sit down at a lunch table and everyone would stand up and leave. They called me names.” The name that stuck with Harper, and still appalls her for its racism, came because her family did mission work in Africa: “color lover.”

The kid with the locker above her liked to bang his door against her head when she tried to get her books. Another time, a student tried to beat her up between classes. Others gathered around watching until the teachers broke it up.

When Harper went to a school counselor for help, she was told that everyone always likes it when the queen bee is taken down. “You’re the queen bee, and we were all just waiting for you to be taken down,” she said to Harper. Her parents finally gave in and took her out of school.

Media outlets reached out as soon as she went viral, offering her platforms to tell her side of the story. Harper decided to start taking those offers and face whatever scorn came her way.

“It’s all internet courage,” she explains. “No one will say it to your face. So I did interviews and told everyone I was staying strong.” Inspired by the conversations she had, she wrote a song while eating lunch at McDonald’s and one radio station played it during their interview. Interested viewers can see Harper Grace’s original song, “I’ve Got a Dream” on YouTube, where it has 10,000 views. One clip of her anthem has over four million.

It’s a simplistic song that was clearly written by a child, but it’s heartfelt: “I’ve got a dream and I know my path. It comes from love, but I felt the wrath. The words were cruel and the jokes were mean but I’ve got a dream and I love to sing.”

Harper’s American Idol performances have millions of views too. There are still plenty of haters out there, but now their words shed off her back like water. “I push all of it off,” she said. “At 11, I promised myself I’d continue. I don’t listen to what anyone else thinks. I know who I am.”

Harper Grace McKinney American Idol 2018 singer songwriter Plano Profile musician Alyssa Vincent

Harper in her “pink room”, one of her favorite places to write

I’ve Got a Dream

Right away, Harper’s bubbly but earnest manner set her apart from the other American Idol contestants. She gracefully owned her viral anthem—saying, “Hey, at least my name’s out there!”—and transformed it into a reason to root for her. When 50 contestants were cut to 24, Harper was sent home, to the outrage of her burgeoning fan base. But Harper doesn’t mind. In some ways, American Idol can stifle the beginning of an artist’s career, and she got what she needed from the show: public redemption and a chance to reinvent herself, beyond and despite her rendition of the anthem.

“I don’t really want to be famous,” she admits. In fact, she doesn’t ever talk about Grammy awards, platinum records, or giving autographs. Her dream is something very different.

“My main goal is to build an orphanage in Africa and music is just a stepping stone to that,” she says. “Whenever I step off the plane, I feel like I’ve come home. It’s honestly beautiful. Just straight dirt roads for hours and so many colors. It’s all so green. You see wild dogs and pigs running around.” She describes houses made out of mud and water, with roofs constructed from bamboo sticks and hay, and kids climbing trees in bare feet. She smiles, tickled. “Some get scared when they first see me because I’m pale and blonde. It can take a little bit for them to warm up to me.”

Usually, once they get over their fear, the children grow fascinated with her. It isn’t unusual for Harper to have 200 kids following her around, wanting to hold her hands or play with her hair by the end of a trip. She talks about a 14-year-old boy she’d gotten particularly close to, who almost died of malaria. She was with him at the peak of his illness, his eyes sickly yellow, too weak to walk. Harper, and the hundreds of kids following her, helped get him home and laid him down on a bamboo mat. As his father, the village pastor, tried to bring his fever down, Harper sang to him. By the next morning, his fever had broken.

Harper Grace McKinney American Idol 2018 singer songwriter Plano Profile musician Alyssa Vincent

Harper in her “music room”

Harper already has a name picked out for her orphanage: “Shiloh. It means gift from God.” When she plucks out unformed melodies in her music room, or sits on the rug in her “pink room” with a laptop and a guitar on her lap, Harper thinks about returning to remote corners of the world, where money means very little and the goal of every day is survival.

At first it seems totally out of left field. However, this is a girl who sat in a closet for four hours waiting for a sign from God, wrote down the usernames who had written cruel things about her anthem in order to pray for them, and stopped getting $40 manicures when she realized that amount of money could send two kids to school in Uganda.

Harper’s fans—dubbed “Gracefuls”—are drawn to her cheerful spirit as well as her redemption story. She is, as most 16-year-olds are, a bit of a conundrum, but her energy feels honest. It’s hard to say who she’ll be at 35, or even 25. Yet she carries herself with a steadfastness most adults don’t have. While Harper has matured with time and talent, she’s still that same 11-year-old girl who loved singing and refused to be brought down for it.
Originally published in Plano Profile’s June 2017 issue titled “Grace Under Pressure”

Alexandra Cronin
Alexandra Cronin is the senior editor at Plano Profile. She has a Bachelor's in English (with a concentration in Creative Writing) from Rhodes College in Memphis, TN. After graduation she wrote for The Resident magazine in London, before returning to home. She loves great coffee, good food and average wine.

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