Cameron Pollack / Sun File Photo

X Ambassadors performs at the inaugural Cayuga Sound festival at Stewart Park, September 23rd, 2017.)

September 20, 2018

Music, Ithaca, Activism: A Conversation with Sam Harris of X Ambassadors

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If there’s anything we learned from last year’s Cayuga Sound Festival, it’s that X Ambassadors are more than just a band. They are expert showmen, skilled curators and philanthropists:  home-town-heroes in every sense. Cayuga Sound began last year as X Ambassadors’ homage to their roots and is hosted in Stewart Park — a place Sam Harris, the frontman of X Ambassadors, says holds tremendous sentimental value.

“I was a camp counselor at Stewart Park Day Camp … it was a place where I would go to play soccer as a kid,” he described. He continued on to discuss how he “has a very deep emotional connection with the park” and how “it is insane to be able to put a festival on there.”

Harris notes that as a kid he “just wanted to get out” of Ithaca. But it is clear to me that this statement is not one of resentment, but rather a celebration of how Ithaca embraced Harris and the rest of X Ambassadors to strive to be different and make their own paths. He cites this support as one of the primary ways in which Ithaca has shaped X Ambassadors’ discography. Harris points to world famous “Renegades” as a track represents this particular sentiment extremely well:

“Ithaca has always been a town that has supported us … especially in the strength and power that came from our difference … so that song is one that always feels different at home.”

From here our conversation bounced around from Ithaca music venues, both past and present, to Harris’ favorite Cornell memory, which he claims is the time he spent as the dishwasher for the Kappa Delta sorority on Cornell’s North Campus.

But soon our conversation quickly took a more serious tone. X Ambassadors have always publicly defined themselves as activists and their philanthropic endeavors have certainly been catalysts for their success. Harris discussed how last year, “we were able to donate to a lot of [local] groups that [they] benefited from growing up such as CSMA and GIAC.” This year, Harris and the rest of X Ambassadors have their sights set on a new concern, the Opioid crisis.

He said the Opioid crisis is “really hitting Upstate New York bad, and there are some local groups doing great work in helping to minimize some of the damage and honestly to take some of the stigma off of addicts. That’s a big thing. There are some organizations that are providing safe consumption sites for people who are using injectables. They will provide clean needles, blood tests, access to doctors . . . some of these places even will prescribe Methadone and refer patients to treatment centers. But mostly these places are lessening the mortality rate due to opioids.” Methadone is a drug commonly used to treat drug addiction.

When asked if he has any particular message to the Cornell and greater Ithaca community about that, Harris responded “that extreme punishment is never the right approach to this problem … in order to really treat the opioid problem in this country and upstate New York, you need to take a more compassionate approach and allow people to feel more seen and heard … Addiction is a disease and it needs to be treated as such — not in a criminal manner.”

Two days after I spoke with Harris, Mac Miller overdosed shocking both the country and the music community. Our conversation suddenly became all the more relevant and important. It is truly humbling to realize that as both IC and Cornell sit on hills, these issues penetrate the town that supports them. But beyond this, Harris’ message not only holds ground in the Ithaca community, but it has direct applications on Cornell’s campus. It isn’t strange to Cornellians to hear of our peers consuming drugs on an almost daily basis — and it is even less of an oddity for discourse to occur regarding the inaccessibility of mental health services on our campus.

It seems clear that Ithaca in general, but the Cornell community especially, should heed Harris’ message and work to help make people struggling with addiction “feel more seen and heard.”


Peter Buonanno is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at [email protected]