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Brandee Younger: The harpist's journey from orchestra girl to emerging icon

 Brandee Younger
Jonathan Chimene
Brandee Younger

When it comes to instruments that are not easily designed for improvising soloists, there is perhaps none more difficult to handle than the harp. And when it comes to contemporary jazz harpists, there is perhaps none more influential in this moment than Brandee Younger.

From the very beginning, as a young music student growing up on Long Island, Brandee Younger was toeing the line between her classical, orchestral musical education and the hip hop, soul and pop music that she grew up loving. She spent her early years musically code switching, trying to figure out how to make sense of her sensibilities.

But for those who listened closely to the samples on records by Jay Z, Pete Rock, The Pharcyde, J. Dilla, or Common it was clear that the sound of the harp had become part of the language of modern music.

Many of the harp samples heard on those in early hip hop records featured two African American women, who, like Brandee, learned to thrive beyond their perceived limitations: Dorothy Ashby and Alice Coltrane. Eventually both Ashby and Coltrane would become two of her biggest influences.

Younger eventually made history as the first Black female solo artist to be nominated for a Grammy - for Best Instrumental Composition in 2021, for “Beautiful is Black” from her album Somewhere Different. She has also worked with the likes of Beyonce, John Legend, Drake and Lauryn Hill, as well as jazz artists including Christian McBride, Kat Edmonson, Marcus Strickland, Kassa Overall, Makaya Mccraven, and Ravi Coltrane.

On her recently released album Brand New Life she honors Dorothy Ashby and enlists icons of hip-hop and R&B, including Pete Rock, Mumu Fresh & Meshell Ndegeocello. The album was produced by Makaya McCraven.

We spoke recently about her journey from orchestra girl to emerging icon, the challenges of playing the harp in a contemporary context, and why she’s done running from the harp police and the jazz police.

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Leo Sidran is a Grammy winning multi-instrumentalist musician, producer, arranger, composer, recording artist and podcast host based in Brooklyn, New York.