NiLu Peoplez: Karen Taborn

Karen's done a lot in her life so far - tour guide, historian, musician, ethnomusicologist, author…and the list goes on.  She grew up in Kalamazoo, Michigan, but has been living in Harlem since the 80’s, eventually creating a tour guide business and publishing a book, Walking Harlem.


Where did you grow up?
Kalamazoo, Michigan
 

How long have you been doing this work?
My Harlem research and writing took place in two focused periods, from 1992-1993 and 2006-2013.


In short, what is a music anthropologist and how does it mix with your tour business? 
An ethnomusicologist (aka musical anthropologist) is trained in all the research, interviewing, writing techniques of an anthropologist except ethnomusicologists focus on music and music making in diverse cultures. We go to the cultures that we study and stay there long enough to deeply engage with the people we are studying. Then we identify a research topic of interest and write about it.
 

How is your tour different from downtown?
The first difference is that my tours are located in Harlem. I bring my special skills as a trained ethnomusicologist (especially deep library, archival research) and interviews to Harlemites and research libraries.

 
Why did you decide to start a tour business?
I wish to share my love of Harlem's history beyond "cliche" tours. 


How do you feel about the question, Is Harlem safe?
This is a question we long term Harlemites used to get regularly in the 1980s-90s, at a time when not only Harlem but New York City in general had a lot of crime issues. As someone who experienced living through the crack cocaine epidemic of NYC but who loved the history of my neighborhood, I found it offensive. My concern was to see and assist (if possible) in the restoration of Harlem's glory, not get stuck focusing on the problems then (or now).

 
What is it that people don't get about Harlem?  
Generally, people know of the currently most famous iconic sites, The Apollo or Abyssinian Baptist church, The (current) Red Rooster). They don't know the hidden treasures ... like why such a treasure as the Maya Angelou home is important to us.

 
Name one good thing about gentrification in Harlem? 
The value of the properties has risen which mean better police presence (sad but true).

 
Sylvia’s or Amy Ruths? And why? 
Have to think about this.

 
What's your go-to for fun uptown? 
Concerts and talks at the Schomburg Center.


What do you despise most about tourism? 
When folks express curiosity, but not identity (identity may be with similar values of preserving any one's culture, across ethnic boundaries).

 
Do you have a favorite gift you purchased from NiLu?
No.  I’ve been in a few times but haven’t yet found that special item.

 
What is your most treasured possession? 
My apartment (my refuge).

 
What would your superpower be?
I already have it! To be able to go to that place within, for focus and direction.


If you could bring something extinct back to life, what would you choose? 
I'm tempted to say the Harlem Renaissance (1920s-30) but as long as this period exists in my or our minds it is not extinct.
 

What is your favorite meal? 
I eat healthy so a salad with chicken or fish.

 
Which book changed your life?
Too many but I'll say Langston Hughes Semple stories or his The Ways of White Folks for starters.

 
What is your guiltiest pleasure? 
Staying in bed long beyond the time I should rise.

 
How do you relax? 
Rest, Go for walks or to the gym.

 
Ella or Lady Day? And why? 
That's really difficult. Ella for her supreme scatting and "carving up changes". Billie for her subtle but killer swingin'.

 
How would you like Harlem to be remembered? 
My book focuses on the positive in Harlem. I'd like Harlem and Harlemites remembered for their determination to survive with dignity.

 
What is the most important lesson life has taught you? 
To listen, trust and act on my inner voice of truth


You can find Karen’s book - Walking Harlem: The Ultimate Guide to the Cultural Capital of Black America on Amazon and in NiLu.


Karen's Book, "Walking Harlem"
Opening reception for Harlem Week 2019 at Gracie Mansion
Karen in front of the former Pod & Jerry’s speakeasy

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