Fred Ho ’79, Fearless and Radical

The accomplished baritone saxophonist receives the 2009 Harvard Arts Medal and reflects on his college years.

Fred Ho ’79 was skeptical when he got a Voicemail from John Lithgow ‘67 asking him to call back. “I wasn’t going to return it because I thought it was a robocall,” he explained. But the message was indeed intended for Ho, the 2009 recipient of the Harvard Arts Medal, honoring achievement in the arts and contribution to the public good.

Over the past twenty years, Ho, an accomplished baritone saxophonist, has dreamed up inventive compositions, theater productions, multicultural ensembles, and literary works which fuse the African-American roots of the jazz tradition with his Chinese-American heritage and his commitment to social justice.

Coming from liberal Amherst, Massachusetts in the 1970’s, Ho found Harvard to be “white, stiff, sterile, and square.”

“I was pretty unhappy except for when I was organizing and challenging the dominant ideology,” said Ho, a self-described “unapologetic Marxist” who helped found multiple Asian-American organizations and fought for minority rights while at Harvard.

Classmate and activist Bill Fletcher Jr. ’76 describe Ho as a “dynamo.”

“He had an immense amount of energy, asked a lot of questions, and was thirsting after new knowledge,” said Fletcher.

As a member of the Jazz Band, Ho was one of only a handful of students in its history to compose an ensemble piece. But he dropped out of the Band during his sophomore year to focus on activism, and his signature fusion of Chinese and African-American musical styles did not develop until after graduation.

Today, his productions combine martial arts, dance, poetry, and music to represent cultural unity, social struggle, and power.

Ho’s unique style is not limited to his music. A self-proclaimed nudist, he is naked and painted green on the cover of his newest book. And he lovingly refers to the small patch of hair shaved on his head as his “vulva vector” or “pussy patch,” a representation of the vagina and his support of matriarchal politics.

“As I get older in numerical age I get even more radical and fearless,” said Ho.

“He has never picked the easy way out or picked any of the obvious choices,” said classmate and fellow saxophonist Salim Washington ’93 PhD ’00. “Here is a person who has dedicated his art to his political ideals. Even when many people who used to be on the same path have renounced their principles, he has stood firm.”

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