Dorothy Ashby was the pioneer harpist who opened up the instrument to Black musicians like me

A contemporary of Alice Coltrane’s, Ashby mixed genres and broke down musical barriers. Now I am proud to be bringing some of her unreleased music to audiences for the first time

I began playing harp at 11 and the traditional path to follow with the instrument was the classical music one, where all the players I saw or studied were white. I found it quite an isolating, lonely life being the only Black person at every harp event or recital I went to. At the same time, growing up in New York, I was surrounded by hip-hop. One day I heard an amazing harp sample on a Pete Rock track and realised I could improvise and incorporate these other types of music on the instrument too. But I had no idea who was playing on that sample – until a few years later I came upon a picture of Dorothy Ashby.

Here was a Black woman photographed playing my instrument: I had an immediate desire to dig deeper into her life. I went on a rampage of discovery and found out she had done exactly what I wanted to with the harp. She improvised and played jazz on her own records but she also played popular covers, soundtrack music, and appeared on sessions with everyone from Stevie Wonder to Bill Withers and Minnie Ripperton. Hers was the harp I heard on that Pete Rock track.

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