Sonic salve: The healing power of harpist Brandee Younger

Erin Patrice O'brien
ByAngie Jaime

In late March, right before the pandemic would decimate the music world as we know it, leaving an industry scrambling to survive, Brandee Younger and her partner Dezron Doulgas had a concert scheduled at Columbia University. When that concert was inevitably canceled, Younger and Douglas decided to — like many musicians at the time — live stream their performance from the living room of their Manhattan abode. They hadn’t anticipated doing more than one of these concerts from home, but the feedback they received was particularly moving.

When the world was on the brink of mounting anxieties and collective depression, these living room sessions offered a moment’s refuge each week from the inescapable threats outside. “We live up in Harlem, near Mount Sinai, so as the weeks progressed, things got darker. The mobile hospitals were set up, the mobile morgues, and then the civil rights protests right outside of our window,” Younger tells Mic. “All this is happening and we're streaming through it whether or not we felt like it. Luckily I recorded it all.” Younger’s recordings, a collection of mostly pop and jazz covers are at once gently soothing and joyously uplifting. Together they meld into a complex moment trapped in amber, the product of a need to find respite that such cosmically resonating instruments in expert hands can offer.

It’s no surprise then that Younger, a classically-trained harpist whose work flexes within the jazz genre with the dexterity of icons Dorothy Ashby and Alice Coltrane, makes music for the shared experience of a wider public. This a worldview that separates her from her peers in classical music and has shaped her most well-known collaborations with hip-hop and rap artists known around the world, collaborations with John Legend, Lauryn Hill and even a feature in Beyoncé’s Homecoming documentary.

“When we're trained as classical or jazz musicians, many of us have this sort of tunnel vision, and don't always embrace pop culture,” she shares. As a kid taking lessons, she would show up with a cassette tape or CD of songs she’d hear on the radio, hoping to learn how to play along with her favorite tunes. “For me it's really important to play music that people recognize. When I say people I mean the general public, not just my musician friends.”

Younger’s democratic relationship to music-making and collaboration with artists beyond the rarified and too-often elitist worlds of classical music is an ethos that reverberates throughout her music. Her work with popular artists forms not just a connection to the world at large in a present moment of chaos, but also to the rich lineage of musicians she’s most admired. In this way, through time and space, she connects the rich ancestry of musicians in the genre with the power and potential of what could come to pass in future generations.

By chance, we spoke on the day Pete Rock’s Petestrumentals 3 was released, on which she is featured. “For me it has always been a dream to get to play with Pete Rock. Why? Not only because I played Pete Rock as a kid, but because a lot of his beats sample Dorothy Ashby who is my heart hero. These things are important to me,” she says.

Erin Patrice O'Brien

Most recently this egalitarian attitude to music-making is embodied in the collection of early-pandemic livestream recordings which were gathered into an album, Force Majeure, released in early December. Most of the songs, Younger says, were shaped by the pop culture moments shared with the community of viewers, like Stevie Wonder’s birthday or requests from folks at home. The songs dance from covers of Kate Bush to Sesame Street inviting the listener to join on a jaunt through communal emotions.

Beyond the healing of emotional wounds inflicted by a pandemic, her music is also a balm for the bruise of exclusion and lack of diverse racial representation — which dovetailed with a year of racial reckoning — within the classical genre, while honoring the pathfinders who came before her.

“If you don't see someone that looks like you or maybe you're not used to hearing on that instrument, and you hear it, you're like, ‘Oh, you can do that? You can play hip hop on the harp?' It really does plant the opportunity in your head before even having to touch an instrument,” she says. “I've been of that mindset my entire musical life, so I'm glad that people are finally like, ‘Oh hey! We can do that, too.’”

As for what’s on the horizon for the harpist, she has a debut album in the works for Universal Music Group imprint Impulse, which like her duo record of at-home recordings will draw much of its inspiration from the solitude of pandemic life and offer a more focus on the harp than her previous releases. “My goal before COVID was for my next record to be more harp-centered, because the past records, it's just like horns, horns, horns! So my goal for this [upcoming] record was to let the harp shine, and let the harp be the forefront,” she says.

It’s a stripped-back sensibility that mirrors much of the world’s experiences this year, a return to what’s most simple, and ultimately the ideals and values that we find are most important. “It’s quite humbling, because all I can do is just be grateful and thankful that my family is healthy. I feel very vulnerable, and I'm not that type of person — it's uncomfortable. And so, to be able to create from that place, I guess that's good for the art right?”