In Honor of Black History Month

The Experiences that Shape Us 

Five African-American harpists, Lydia Cleaver, Maurice Draughn, Angelica Hairston, Jordan Thomas, and Brandee Younger, share stories of their love for the harp, the legacy that helped to form their passion, and inspiration for the next generation of African-American musicians and music lovers all over. Explore their stories that span generations.

Lydia Cleaver – Detroit, MI

LYDIA CLEAVER – DETROIT, MI Director, Cass Tech Harp Program 

Lydia Cleaver, Director, Cass Tech Harp Program  – The legacy of the harp program at Cass Technical High School is richly endowed with talented musicians.  Since its inception in 1925, public school students in Detroit have been afforded the opportunity to receive free quality harp instruction.  The program has produced many gifted African-American harpists including Harvi Griffin, Dorothy Ashby, Patricia Terry-Ross, Calvin Stokes, Barbara Rizpah Lowe, and Maurice Draughn.

Yearbooks from the school provide a historical and somewhat dramatic change in the racial makeup of the school population and consequently the harp program.  One of the pictures here, circa 1936, documents a group of exclusively African-American students from the harp program.  At the time, there were no Black students in the Harp & Vocal Ensemble, and many organizations in the city of Detroit would not allow people of color to perform for them.  Then (and now) owning a harp was a luxury for Black families but Clara Walker had a harp of her own.  Clara along with several other talented African-American Cass Tech students would perform at Black churches and community events.  She became a mentor to many other harpists and musicians including Harvi Griffin, Arcola Clark, and Patricia Terry-Ross.  Clara also was the first black harpist to serve as a board member for the American Harp Society.

Today, the Cass Tech Harp Program includes thirty students, including those of Middle-Eastern, Hispanic and predominantly African-American descent.  Populations change over time and even now as we experience more racial diversity in our school, one constant thing remains which is a legacy dedicated to the principles of excellence in music education.

Angelica Hairston – Atlanta, GA

What would you like to share with aspiring young harpists and other musicians?

When I was a young musician, I remember taking a trip to visit my mother’s side of the family in the tiny town of Chester, South Carolina. On Sunday, we’d visit my grandmother’s small Baptist church. I will never forget the way people were experiencing music together in that space. You could feel the floorboards cringing underneath the stomping of feet; stomping that happened for years and generations in the choir loft keeping tempo for those singing deeply chromatic gospel harmonies that captivated my young ears. I remember not only experiencing music but truly feeling music through the vibrations that were sent through my body and the emotions that would bubble up from the songs that were being sung.

In those early days, I caught a glimpse into a very unique community. It was there that I could see and feel that music was a connector for all of humanity. Whether expressing pain and strife, or joy and celebration, music was this deeply authentic and meaningful expression that cut across all boundaries.

From my early days experiencing the power of gospel music in my grandmother’s church, I learned that the world wasn’t looking for artists who only played the right notes. What the world needed were more artists who told a deeper and more meaningful story; musicians who speak to those deep parts of our shared humanity and bring all of the richness of their background, culture, and life stories to the stage every chance they get.

Any historical black figures that inspired you?

Angelica Hairston - Atlanta, GAIn 2007, I meet Ann Hobson-Pilot. Ms. Pilot was the first African-American female to hold a principal position in a major symphony orchestra, and she performed with the Boston Symphony Orchestra for 40 years. She lived through segregation tours in the South where clearances were needed for her to stay in the same hotels or often to eat in the same restaurants as her white colleagues. It was so gratifying to look into the eyes of a professional orchestral harpist from one of the top symphonies in the country who looked like me. She was and is a professional and an extraordinary player, but it was her likeness; this idea of representation that made a lasting impression. Her openness to answer and walk with me through tough questions about the orchestra profession and the complexities of navigating this space as a woman of color was invaluable. She taught me to understand that it is possible to pursue a classical music career that reaches major stages and secondly, that I was not alone.

What other information about yourself do you think would benefit a reader?

As an African-American harpist, I have always been acutely aware of the ways in which I don’t fit into my surroundings. With only 4.2% of US orchestral musicians being Black or Hispanic and less than 4% of opera audiences African-American, it comes as a norm for me to perform with musicians and for audiences that don’t visually resemble me. Growing up in Atlanta, I was often puzzled by how little classical music audiences reflected the diverse communities.

In 2016, I decided it was time to do something about it and launched Challenge the Stats, an initiative that exists to empower artists of color by creating communities devoted to diversity, inclusion, and equity in the classical performing arts. CTS also provides safe spaces to discuss social issues and present tangible solutions to create a more diverse, equitable, and inclusive society through the power of the arts.

In addition to my work with CTS, I also serve as Artistic Director of the Urban Youth Harp Ensemble. The non-profit organization owns over a dozen harps and offers free harp instruction to over 80 students in Atlanta. I’ve been thankful for the opportunity to pour into the lives of deserving and eager students who may not otherwise have the exposure, access, or opportunity to experience the harp first-hand.

Learn more about Angelica Hairston

Maurice Draughn – Detroit, MI

Maurice Draughn - Detroit, MIWhat would you like to share with aspiring young harpists and other musicians?

Learn to rise above obstacles and seize every opportunity. This applies to our journey as musicians and human beings. Having a good work ethic will foster integrity in your practice and performances.

As a harpist, what experience had a great impact on you?

I was fortunate to have wonderful teachers from my entry into the harp world in high school through my graduate studies. There were also mentors that inspired me as an African-American male harpist. One person, in particular, was Harvi Griffin.  During my time at Cass Tech, I had the opportunity to meet Harvi.  His annual visits to the school were always a treat as he graciously shared his artistry and wisdom with our harp class. He also played a pivotal role in my decision to pursue the harp as my primary instrument. I hope to inspire the aspiring young harpists in the Cass Tech program the way Harvi did for me over twenty years ago.

Any historical black figures that inspired you?

William Grant Still inspires me as a composer.  His accomplishments were prolific despite the racial barriers that existed during his career as an acclaimed composer and accomplished conductor. Mr. Still also wrote exquisite harp parts for his orchestra and chamber works.

Learn more about Maurice Draughn

Jordan Thomas-Chicago, IL

What would you like to share with aspiring young harpists and other musicians?

Don’t be afraid to think or be outside the box. If there is something that sets you apart from everyone else, go with it! Take advantage of it. Follow your own dreams and passions and go past the line that you think is the finish line. The most important thing that was taught to me by my teacher, Dr. Ruth Inglefield at Peabody, was “…be patient, your time will come.” Other musicians your age or younger may seem like they are zipping past you – it’s alright! Stay in your lane, and just go your speed limit. You will get to your goals at your own time, and believe me, it’s easier said than done, but it’s true!

As a harpist, what experience had a great impact on you?

Jordan Thomas-Chicago, IL

I did a concerto competition at the Peabody Institute, and prepared extensively for it! There were two rounds, a recital round and the concerto round. I thought I did well enough to get to the next round, but unfortunately, I didn’t pass. I was heartbroken and never wanted to compete in a competition ever again. However, one day, I saw an international concerto competition that offered the winners to play at Carnegie Hall. I thought, “why not?” A few months later, I won first place! I had the privilege to play the Ginastera last movement at Carnegie Hall! Moral of the story, never give up! When a door closes, there’s always a window open to greater things than the door would have offered you.

Any historical black figures that inspired you?

Ann Hobson Pilot, without a doubt! As a young African-American harpist who wants to have a career in the Classical music world (especially in the orchestral world), there are not many African-American harpists who play in major orchestras. It’s sadder to note that there are generally only a handful of African-Americans musicians in major orchestras. So, when I went to concerts, I had no one to really look up to who looked like me playing the instrument I loved on stage. When I heard about Ms. Pilot, I immediately turned to her as an inspiration. We have similar things in common actually! We’re both from Philadelphia, both went to Settlement Music School in Philadelphia, and we both had education in the Philadelphia School system, just to name a few. I felt a connection with her – plus her sound is amazing! I had a chance to meet her when auditioning for NEC, and I remember I was so nervous because I was meeting my idol. Honestly, I don’t remember how I did because I was so in awe of her presence. Still to this day, I always look up to her when I practice excerpts or prepare for auditions.

What other information about your experience do you think would benefit a reader?

I had traveled to all seven continents before I turned 21, thanks to being in the Keystone State Boy Choir. We went on summer tours every summer and having traveled for most of my life, I got to experience a lot of worldly culture that I found helped me with making music. Prime example, with the Ginastera “Harp Concerto” I connect with it with my time in Brazil in the Amazon Rainforest. The first movement was like being in the boat sailing through the forest. The second, going night-fishing and looking up to the sky and seeing all the stars. Lastly, the third, experiencing traditional rituals and dances before eating a big meal. Every piece I learn, I connect it with a place I have traveled and have a personal connection with. It helps! So… go travel!

Learn more about Jordan Thomas

Brandee Younger – New York, NY 


What information about yourself do you think would benefit a reader?   

It’s an honor to have a career as a full-time harpist and to stand on the shoulders of pioneers and trailblazers like Ann Hobson-Pilot, Pat Terry-Ross, Robbin Gordon-Cartier, Harvi Griffin, Dorothy Ashby, and Alice Coltrane.  During my performances, I have the opportunity to pay tribute to Ashby and Coltrane whose work represents an important musical and personal narrative. These two women, marginalized within jazz, tell the story of countless marginalized women in music.  Their contributions provide guidance and have helped me to shape my own artistic narrative as a woman in music. Today, honoring the past helps to inform and ground my work while pressing forward with new ideas. I think it’s important to look at our history and allow it to breathe life into our future.

 What would you like to share with aspiring young harpists and other musicians?

I think that everyone should read the American Harp Journal’’s recent feature on Ann Hobson – Pilot.  I’ve learned so much from her story over the years and believe that she is a true model for people of all backgrounds and walks of life.  She endured adversity with ultimate dignity and grace. Many harpists of color faced similar adversities that resulted in them seeking alternate musical and life paths. I feel that it’s very important for young harpists to understand and acknowledge the great contributions of women like Hobson-Pilot. Her work, strength, determination, and poise have cleared a path for generations of harpists to come and, moreover, gives harpists of color an image of what’s possible.  

Brandee is pictured with Robbin Gordon-Cartier

Any historical black figures that inspired you?  What brief story would you like to share?

My influences in harp history have always been clear – most notably, Dorothy Ashby and Alice Coltrane. I also feel incredibly fortunate and privileged to have mentors, leaders and trailblazers with us today like the great Ann Hobson- Pilot, Pat Terry-Ross and Robbin Gordon- Cartier.  However, in my own personal history is a harpist named Sarah Lawrence.

I grew up hearing Sarah Lawrence’s name constantly, and as fate would have it, Lawrence was an African-American harpist who grew up in my hometown, attended the same high school as my mother and aunt, and whom my grandmother roomed in her family’s home when she migrated north as part of the Great Migration.  I was about 12 years old when we first met in person. Over the years, she told me stories of growing up in town studying with Marian Bannerman, then in Ohio with Lucy Lewis at the Oberlin Conservatory. She transferred to the Mannes College of Music to study with Lucille Lawrence and during her studies with Lawrence, she would often say, “Lucille Lawrence saved my life.”  I was captivated by each and every story she ever told, but when she told me that she owns Dorothy Ashby’s Style 100, I nearly fell off of my chair. What were the chances? By this time, I had delved heavily into studying Ashby’s music and whatever history I could uncover. It was nothing short of serendipitous to learn that this person – who had in many ways been a lodestar for me – actually owned Ashby’s harp!  So, before I knew of Ann Hobson-Pilot, Dorothy Ashby, Pat Terry Ross, Alice Coltrane, and Robbin Gordon- Cartier, I knew of Sarah Lawrence.

Learn more about Brandee Younger