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First Look Friday: Madison Calley is the Black Harpist Reimagining Your Favorite R&B Songs

Madison Calley harp

It’s Madison Calley’s covers of popular pop and R&B songs that have landed her appearances at The Grammys and Latin Grammys and help with amassing over 500k followers on Instagram. Photo Credit: Courtesy of Madison Calley

On the first Friday of every month we highlight one burgeoning artist you should know about. For our latest First Look Friday, we spoke with Madison Calley, a young Black harpist who’s breaking barriers by merging classical music with contemporary R&B.

Madison Calley isn’t concerned with figures or numbers; her interest lies in legacy. Over the last year, the Washington D.C. native harpist has performed with Roddy Ricch at the Grammys, received praise from one of her idols Alicia Keys, and has been featured in major music publications for her ethereal and immersive talent. 

With less than 5% of orchestral musicians being BIPOC, Calley’s presence provides representation for young Black musicians who decide to dwell in the music industry space in other genres or learn other unconventional instrumentation. “It’s interesting because I still have yet to meet a black harpist in person at least,” Calley said. “I’ve connected with a few on Instagram but growing up, I definitely never saw any black harpists. It was a very rare thing.” 

Calley, whose parents encouraged her and her siblings to choose one sport and one instrument to learn while in their youth, now teaches harp lessons in her spare time where all her students are women of color. It is this principle that has followed her throughout her burgeoning career as she recalls growing up in the DMV area as her parents arranged for her to be classically trained. “Even in the harp community that I grew up in — D.C. and Virginia were all predominantly white. There were a few Asian students, but it was a very white-driven community.”

Despite these adversities culturally and racially, Calley has thrived due to her overwhelmingly distinct presence thanks to her Instagram account. It’s her covers of popular pop and R&B songs such as Ray J’s “One Wish,” Neyo’s “So Sick,” Jhene Aiko’s “B.S.” and Childish Gambino’s “Redbone” that have landed her appearances at The Grammys and Latin Grammys and help with amassing over 500k followers on Instagram. 

With the release of her debut project coming soon — and a new single dropping next week — Madison hopes to invite more of the world into her musically immersive experience while exposing more Black youth to reimagine what being a musician can be. “Not everyone is meant to be a mathematician or a lawyer or doctor. For many people that maybe their skillset and what they were born to do is in the realm of music,” Calley said. “They would never even be able to discover that just because they don’t have access to it.”

For our latest First Look Friday, we spoke with Madison Calley, who opened up about her experiences as a young Black harpist in Washington D.C., her rise as a musician in mainstream music, lack of diversity in the classical music space, breaking barriers, and what we can expect from her upcoming album. 

What do you think was the moment, whether it was a performance you watched or a moment that you personally had while playing where it all clicked for you like?

Madison Calley: I’m not totally sure if there was one defining moment for me. But I do know that I had basically kind of stepped away from music after college because I just really wasn’t interested in orchestra or weddings or the typical things that were presented as careers harpists can pursue. I stepped away from music for a couple of years after I moved [to Los Angeles] and I was approached by Willow Smith’s manager to do an acoustic set with her. That was the first time I had really explored playing R&B on the harp. So, I would think that performance and just pulling that set together, definitely inspired a lot in me. It kind of just opened up this whole new world to me. I don’t know why, but I never thought to play the music that I love on the harp and it translates so beautifully. That experience opened the door for that.

What was the process of creating this project and recording it?

It was the ultimate learning process for me. I’ve been telling everybody around me how much I really, really fell in love with being in the studio and recording. And it’s just a whole other realm of music that I hadn’t fully explored. So, we had agreed to do eight tracks, all covers and a little bit of it was trial and error because I had picked some songs that I thought would be amazing. Then when I started recording them, I realized, “Ah, this doesn’t really flow or feel the way I want it to.” What I found to be interesting was through trial and error, I started piecing together the project as a whole and seeing how each song I chose, although they’re pretty much all R&B songs, all hold a different kind of, I call it a color, but they’re all in a different mood.

I thought that was so powerful because I’ll have a song that’s more of an upbeat, almost Caribbean feel then I’ll have another song that’s more of a dark feel and it allowed me to explore so many different dynamics of myself. So, I found the whole process to be very therapeutic for me. 

What songs did you want to include, but didn’t? 

I wanted to do [Beyoncé’s] “Halo.” That was on my list because I did a cover on Instagram and it just blew up. Everyone loved that one. So I was like, “OK, I got to put this one on the album.” But what I’ve found to be somewhat challenging with the harp is playing certain vocals. So, the parts that Beyonce would be singing, I’m trying to pluck. And so if she’s like, “Hit me like a ray of sun,” it’s like, I’m plucking that same note so many times kind of fast. And sometimes it doesn’t really sound and translate well. So, I found that some songs with a little bit of a slower melody line or vocal line worked better. So, I ended up switching that one out for another song. I can say all of the songs that I chose I realized are all love songs, which I thought was kind of cool. I didn’t intentionally do that at first, but I loved it. It kind of came together that way.

Knowing the culture of D.C. and what D.C. holds, especially for African Americans, how important is your hometown to the work that you’re doing?

That’s an interesting question. I find it to be super important because [I grew] up in a predominantly white area, but I was born in D.C. in a pretty black community. They call D.C. chocolate city. So, that city was very important to me growing up because I was around so many white students that I made sure to have friends in some community in D.C. as well to get that cultural experience. And I think that’s so important for kids to be around other kids that look like them because you go through different struggles. And so I think too, that’s part of my drive now to want to serve inner-city communities because that’s the type of community that I grew up around. I mean, D.C. flavor and culture, I think is something that’s engraved in me and why I love neoclassical or neo-soul music.

Being that less than 5% of orchestral musicians in the United States are Black, how important for you is it to represent being a harpist, but also being in an orchestral environment? 

Yeah. I think that is everything to me and I’m honored to even be able to serve in that way. A lot of the people that reached out to me, especially all the ones I teach, had reached out to me saying that they saw a video of me playing and it inspired them to want to learn. I get so many messages [of] people [saying that they] have never even seen a harp before. This is surprising to me because I’ve seen it from such a young age, but it’s very cool that I’m now bringing that exposure to this instrument to so many different communities across the entire world. And I think that’s part of the magic of social media and one of the benefits of social media is that I can now project this message out even further and give people something cool to maybe learn on their own.

Would you happen to know about the origins of the harp and expand a little bit more about that? 

I didn’t even know this until maybe I got to college [but] the harp originated in Africa — in ancient Egypt to be specific. So, you’ll see harp players in old paintings and carvings from a very, very, very long time ago, which I think is awesome that it started with our people. There are so many different versions of the harp now. And so the harp that I play on is a concert grand pedal harp, which is a European model of the harp, but there are many different African versions of the harp too.

So, I also play the ngoni which they call the hunter’s harp because it’s the harp that the hunters would take on the hunting missions in Senegal and Mali to play music. Then there’s also the kora, which has 21 strings and they have a similar sound too. There are just so many different versions of the harp, especially in Africa. And I don’t think many people at all know that that’s where the harp originated, which is why I thought it was important too to purchase one of the African harps and start learning it too so that I can project that true origin out into the world as well.

Could you expand on your experience being in that orchestra and also, do you have any plans on in the future maybe one day going back to join an orchestra?

I had started off in an orchestra called the DC Youth orchestra. It was pretty much all minority musicians. And I did that when I was really young. That was probably when I was between eight and 10 years old. And it was fun. It was very interesting. That was my first experience doing recitals. And then I switched over to just doing some solo harp lessons with another harp teacher. And I had done that all the way up until high school. And then I joined the orchestra at my high school and I liked it then because I didn’t really have to do anything. When you play the harp in an orchestra, you’re really just playing for one moment. And then you’re counting again for like 30 measures. And then you come back in to play one little thing and then you’re counting again.

When I was a kid not taking it seriously, I was like, “This is an easy course to take.” But it wasn’t really until I got to college and I was in two different orchestras in college where I was like, “OK. I don’t think this is what I want to do with my skill set for the rest of my life because you don’t really get that much shine and you’re really just counting the whole time.” I did get very discouraged in college, but I don’t even know if it was just the orchestra environment, it was more so the type of music we were playing was all classical, which is beautiful, but it was never real music that resonated with my spirit. So, now that I’m doing more R&B and contemporary music on the harp, I did have another orchestra reach out, [like] the Inner City Youth Orchestra of LA, which is a minority orchestra. And they do a lot of covers of popular songs and they try to keep it hip and fresh. And so I’m definitely open to doing some performances with them, but I don’t know if I could say I would ever formally join an orchestra full time.

I know your grandfather taught music at Tuskegee. He was Lionel Richie’s teacher. How important is music education, passing down these traditions and these skills onto the next generation, especially to young Black kids?

I think it is critical because of multiple reasons. For one, I think music is very therapeutic and it doesn’t really matter what you’re going through in your life, everyone can find something, some source of peace through music, and music has saved so many lives. Just delivering messages to people across the world that you never know who you’re touching with your music. And then also being the person to perform the music. It’s a therapeutic experience within itself. And I tell my students, too, because I teach lessons to all age groups. My youngest student is six and my oldest is 50 and it keeps your mind very sharp and it develops an alternative way of thinking and pattern recognition that you wouldn’t really develop otherwise.

So, I think just for the pure sake of the developmental process of our minds, it’s important. And then I feel that in these underprivileged communities, music can be the ultimate outlet for a lot of people. And the other thing too is, we’re given five subjects in school, but our talent may lie elsewhere.

As you begin to move more into the spotlight, what are your goals? What are some things that you want to accomplish now that you’re in this space?

My main goal is to just further project my message of inclusion and representation. I want to be an example to young minority women that there are so many different ways to pursue art that’s not all twerking and selling yourself — which I know some people, some of my friends even, feel more obligated to do rather than things that they want to do. So, I like that I can provide an example of an alternative path that maybe doesn’t spark you want to play the harp, but maybe it’ll show you some sort of light within yourself that is unique that maybe you should be embracing. So moving forward, I want to do way more community work and I want to dive deeper into the message of wellness, especially. I plan to incorporate much more of my fitness care, my nutrition, and skincare as well. And I have a few partnerships that I’m working on for that purpose. So, my main plan is to just keep on elevating this message out to the world and just demonstrating by being a light myself.

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Kia Turner is a freelance journalist and music historian from Newark, New Jersey. Managing her album-based series Deconstructing or talking about Pussy Rap, you can find the Hoodaville princess at @ChasingKia on all platforms. 

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