When I wrote the first article about this, I was overwhelmed by the support I received. I didn’t realize how many Black harpists there are, or even were in the last 100 years.
In a heart-warming shoutout from DJ Lynnée Denise, she mentioned how Black women and femmes playing harp is subversive. I recollect on the many times I’ve witnessed Black femmes and women suffer at the hands of people who seek to limit and contort their gender expression. Non-Black people, Black men, sometimes other Black women and femmes, deny Black women and femmes femininity and more pointedly full personhood. This is commonly enacted through placing the tropes of the mammy, jezebel, strong Black woman, sapphire, and others onto them; but also, an outright snatching of softness away from them.
Teaching about her music with little emphasis on her marriage to John Coltrane, provides a true opportunity to see her as Black woman composer who sought a connection to global cultures through affirming multi-musical and spiritual values.
A musical legacy apart from the confines of cisgendered, straight men ties are often dismissed and ignored. The denial of a Black femme, Black woman personhood full of complexities and even contradictions runs abound in all parts of our everyday life, especially in music.
Even more, given that the harp is often associated with and more readily accessible as an instrument to the wealthy and white, it is imperative that Black femmes and women continue to play this instrument, create as they see fit, and mold their own musical legacies. I’m not a harpist (I play cello, but I’ve always loved the harp), but I realize how this instrument is one of serenity and disruption in the hands of Black women and femmes.
When someone like Elizabeth Steiner holds her harp against her chest and plucks the strings, she simultaneously liberates herself from the aforementioned constraints and opens a pathway for other Black femmes, women, and girls to see and hear themselves.
Featured playing alongside Ms. Brandee Younger (who was mentioned in the first article) in Tia Adeola’s recent short film, “Black is Beautiful,” is Elizabeth Steiner. Elizabeth is a freelance harpist in Philadelphia, originally from Washington. She began playing piano at the age of nine, but the solitary nature of the piano led her to desiring a more group oriented instrument of choice. After deciding to join orchestra in sixth grade, she was introduced to the harp and the rest is herstory.
She shared in a recent interview,
I fell in love with it… the school was ready to support me. They had a volunteer teacher for me.
However, the overwhelmingly white nature of the harpist community did initially affect how Elizabeth felt about playing the harp. She cites her mom as giving her the “permission slip” she needed. It came in the form of a recording from Ann Hobson-Pilot, who is also a Black woman harpist. At that point, she knew she belonged. Since then, she garnered a Bachelors of Music from Cleveland Institute of Music and a Master’s Degree in Harp Performance at Temple University.
Now, she works as a teaching artist for the the Lyra Society, leading with the belief that students of low socioeconomic status should have the opportunity to learn the harp if they desire. The Lyra Society is a non-profit organization that “provides high quality instruments and weekly private harp lessons to 30 Philadelphia public school students.” Elizabeth intentionally makes space for these young harpists of varying levels to meet each other, as well as receive rigorous instruction. Her attention towards their growth and success is powerful, as she finds ways to creatively hold virtual harp lessons via zoom for students.
Elizabeth performed as a principal harpist with various orchestras such as the Baltimore Symphony, Orchestra 2001, and Maryland Symphony. Her strums can also be heard in songs and meditations by Josh Groban, Luna Maye’s Sound Lab, and Weird Al. Beyond those collaborations, she’s dipping her toes into more RnB and indie music, which she mentioned as extending her creative freedom, playing ability, ear, and musicality (particularly because there is a certain strictness present in classical music).
More recently, Elizabeth performed the harp parts for Ratatouille: the TikTok Musical released in January. She played with the Broadway Sinfonietta, which is composed of mostly women of color. Tickets to the musical can be found here and parts of the proceeds will go to the Actor’s Fund.
For Elizabeth, given the nature of the harp, it
“energizes, heals, and invigorates [me] immediately with it’s profound resonance…..always shifting my mood” as it is one of the only instruments with “no barrier between you and the instrument…it’s just your fingers and the strings.”
Watch Elizabeth Steiner playing “Hotline Bling”
Performing with Ms. Younger and Elizabeth Steiner on Moses Sumney’s “Quarrel” is Dr. Ashley Jackson. Dr. Jackson began playing harp and violin at the age of seven after learning how to play piano. Being a zealous multi-instrumentalist, she created a “groove beyond gentility” on the harp. She continues to widen her range of playing and sharpen her rhythmic precision (which is on point already), as a highly-sought after international artist. Dr. Jackson also performs “with the New York Philharmonic, Metropolis Ensemble, the Qatar Philharmonic, and is the principal harpist of NOVUS NY, the contemporary music orchestra of Trinity Wall Street.”
Her scholarly work and advocacy for diversity and inclusion in higher education pushes her to operate as a collaborator. Her website bio explains,
As a passionate advocate for developing new works within the classical music genre and across artistic disciplines,[…] In the Fall of 2018, Roya Sachs, Danielle Eva Schwob, and Dr. Jackson teamed up to create Infoxication, an interdisciplinary performance inspired by the Information Age.
Dr. Jackson’s dissertation examined the relationship between Black woman composer Margaret Bonds and poet Langston Hughes. According to Dr. Jackson, during the Harlem Renaissance the two were dedicated to utilizing art as a way to empower Black people, to change society. Even more, this art allowed them to “navigate[d] a sharply segregated society through their cultural practice.” While I read Dr. Jackson’s “Speak Now: How Classical Music Got Me Woke,” I am reminded of how the performing arts provide solace and healing for Black folks.
More recently, released this past December, Dr. Jackson created the musical documentary, “In Song and Spirit,” with The Harlem Chamber Players, Inc. featuring singer Freddie June. Under the direction and cinematic eye of Malik Isasis, Dr. Jackson and Freddie June guide listeners through the life of Harriet Jacobs in melody and monologue. With songs like “I’m Troubled in My Mind,” “This Little Light of Mine,” and personal reflections from Dr. Jackson the audience is left to ponder subjects of Black womanhood, migration, memory, and ancestry.
Musical Documentary on Harriet Jacobs
Nailah Hunter, like Dr. Jackson, is deeply influenced by classical music. Nailah began playing harp at the age of 19 as it gave her “the sound she was always looking for in her own music.” She said in an interview with KEXP’s Dusty Henry,
I always loved the sound of the harp, but I didn’t really see a harp in real life until I sang this piece called “The Ceremony of Carols” by Benjamin Britten with my choir in high school because I was way deep into choir.
The musician’s “choir years” never came to an end. Throughout her creations you’ll recognize vocalizations reminiscent of Gregorian chant and breath work. All these put listeners into a meditative state. Nailah’s music is a sonic oasis for reflection, grounding, and healing. With her expertise stretching across genres and instruments, she carefully plays with sound as a composer, singer, songwriter, and ethereal harpist.
However, the spaces and places she creates walks listeners into the fantastical worlds she is inspired by. Films, The Lord of the Rings Trilogy and Spirited Away, and stories from Nordic and Greek mythology became a safe haven for Nailah, who was “pretty angsty” as a youth. The soundscapes she draws from these inspirations, transmitting them through the harp, synths, and her voice, are spell-binding. The track, “Nacre Meadow,” placed me in the mindset of beachside fairies.
Aptly titled Spells, Nailah’s most recent EP, is a quick, and powerful testament to the impact of music that heals. Spells transports listeners away from the heavy worries of current events and realities. That element of travel remains essential to Nailah. She shares with Dusty Henry,
As a black woman living in 2020 singing about dragons and princes and stuff is such a choice.
But I still feel like it is political in some ways because it’s like, yeah, I am choosing to remain soft and I am choosing to go elsewhere but still acknowledging the realities around us, you know what I mean? I think that some people could say, “Wow, she’s really adrift.” But it’s not like I’m not aware of things. It’s on purpose. I’m trying to create a place removed.
Also a singer and songwriter, Lyrika Holmes, is a classically trained, Grammy-nominated, internationally known harpist from St. Louis, MO and began playing at a young age (she’s been playing for over 30 years). Lyrika blends the delicate nature of the harp with her soulful timbre influenced by Neo Soul and R&B on her two full length albums entitled Lyrika’s Harp and Harp for the Holidays. Her website biography states,
Lyrika has brought the harp into a futuristic world of electronic beats combined with R&B, Jazz, Pop, and Classical elements to create a style all her own.
And she truly has done so. Upon my first time hearing her perform, I easily recognized how she doesn’t compromise her unique voice or playing style for anyone. On this song, where Lyrika plays atop this intense EDM track, she proves even more that sonic landscapes are limitless in the hands of Black women.
Lyrika has used her magnificent singing and playing abilities to take her across the world as an artist with Cirque Du Soleil in Asia. Additionally, she’s had the honor of opening for Laura Izibor, Joe, Keri Hilson, Al Jarreau, and the one and only Aretha Franklin.
Along with her performance chops, Lyrika is a music teacher with over 20 years of experience. She earned her Associates Degree in the Arts (St. Louis Community College, Forest Park) Bachelors in Music Education (University of Missouri St. Louis) and her Masters in Music Education (University of Memphis).
She’s made time to reach her communities in Memphis, TN and Conyers, GA where she advocated for the opening of the elementary schools’ first harp program. There, she taught the students, leading her to eventually create her own non-profit: Artz for the Harp and write The Contemporary Harp Methods book that they use to learn.
And, harpists can certainly be from the hood. Destiny Muhammad, the “Harpist from the Hood” was mesmerized when she first saw Harpo Marx playing the harp on I Love Lucy at the age of 9. From that moment, she knew that her destiny would include playing the harp, or at least she wanted it to. Growing up in Compton, CA, her mother couldn’t afford harp lessons, let alone a harp. Destiny would spend part of her childhood trying a few instruments and singing. Those didn’t fully satisfy her. She wanted to play the harp.
It would take 21 years for the “oil to run.” After running a successful barbershop business in San Pedro, CA, Destiny would have the opportunity to walk into this curiosity. She brought her first harp at 30. During an interview with Jenee Darden of KALW Local Public Radio of San Francisco, Destiny recalls the beginnings of her journey as a harpist,
Literally starting out like a child…starting out with these little tunes as people call them, but they are incredible teaching tools: “Twinkle, Twinkle,” “Hot Cross Buns…” *laughs* I started from the basics.
However, it wouldn’t take long before she was playing at farmer’s markets throughout various cities. She would treat those performances like major sets and eventually gained a buzz around her skills. When Destiny first stepped on the scene she was well aware of how she might be perceived and that folks, white folks especially, would question her presence. They were supposed to see some sort of “angelic, white woman” sashay out onto stage and sit behind that harp. Nah, that ain’t the case here.
To her surprise and appreciation she has gotten mostly positive reactions from people as she played with, for example, The Oakland East Bay Symphony and Smooth Jazz Artist Gerald Albright. According to an article by Robert J. Carmack, Destiny “is the Principal Harpist for the Eddie Gale Inner Peace Orchestra, the Oakland Community Orchestra and performs with The AWESOME Orchestra.”
On her album, Sonic Legacy, Destiny aims to honor her musical and spiritual ancestor, Alice Coltrane. Destiny says that Alice didn’t have a chance to have her legacy fully expressed and appreciated (true!). Dorothy Ashby and Alice Coltrane remain a huge influence in Destiny’s life, particularly as it relates to how she connects music and her spiritual practices. Songs “are her personal pathway to spirituality.” Now, she continues to spiritually transport us through song via harp and voice with the Destiny Muhammad Jazz Trio.
Destiny’s musical journey is a testament to the saying “delay doesn’t mean deny.” As Destiny would say, “You gotta set the vision so high that it scares you.”
Again, I’m certain that this doesn’t begin to scratch the surface concerning the sheer amount of Black femme and women harpists that exist across the world. This is especially true considering the fact that various cultures similar instruments of their own; look to Sona Jobarteh, from the Gambia, who plays the kora, which is unique to the social and musical traditions of West Africa. However, I am grateful to take this opportunity to highlight these individuals and their musical practices that they have integrated into all aspects of their life. It’s inspiring. Let us continue to honor (& open ya pockets for) these folks for their sensational work and perseverance in this inherently unjust, anti-Black society.
Feel free to let me know other harpists I missed (21st century or otherwise!).
Davis, D. (2019). Listening to Bi-Musical Blackness: Towards Courageous Affirmation of Black String Musicians in Predominantly White Institutions. Retrieved from http://purl.flvc.org/fsu/fd/2019_Spring_Davis_fsu_0071N_15213
Elizabeth Steiner https://apnews.com/article/d5a6b40b76174d58be18fc5e3b6aa2c1
Brandee, Ashley, and Elizabeth https://www.thefader.com/2018/02/12/moses-sumneys-dreamiest-rendition-of-quarrel
Photos courtesy of:
Rae (of Nailah Hunter)
Destiny Muhammad (of herself)