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Angelica Hairston
Hairston was a student of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra's Talent Development Program. (Photo by Kristan Toczko)

Angelica Hairston uses her harp and music as instruments for social change

Protest takes many forms. Harpist Angelica Hairston takes her fight for racial justice not to the streets but to the strings, producing concerts that showcase classical musicians and composers of color — artists who are sorely underrepresented in the classical music world. That, and education, is the mission of Challenge the Stats, the nonprofit she founded three years ago.

The organization’s Summer Celebration Concert — its first in-person concert since the COVID-19 shutdown — will take place at 6:30 p.m. Saturday outside East Point City Hall. The Tri-Cities Trio, comprised of three Tri-Cities High graduates, will play a set that includes works by Mozart, Duke Ellington, Mary J. Blige and OutKast. They’ll be joined by the African drum and dance ensemble, Giwayen Mata. Admission is free.

Angelica Hairston
Angelica Hairston’s father was a bandleader at schools around Atlanta. (Photo by Alex D. Rogers)

Hairston has made her harp an instrument for change. While studying for a bachelor’s degree in music performance at Toronto’s Royal Conservatory of Music she grew tired of being the only Black person onstage.

“I felt so alone,” she says. (A study commissioned by the League of American Orchestras in 2016 revealed that only 4.2 percent of orchestral musicians, and 8.3 percent of orchestral staff in the United States, are Black or Latino.)

Then Trayvon Martin was killed. Angry about his death, and the one-after-another deaths of Black men and women at the hands of police, she wanted to do more than play music, so she shifted her focus and pursued a master’s in music industry leadership from Northeastern University in Boston.

Hairston uses Challenge the Stats’ concert platform to bring attention to issues that disproportionately affect people of color, such as police brutality, homelessness and the school-to-prison pipeline. And she’s not afraid of controversy. When Congress passed legislation this year making Juneteenth a national holiday, she was unimpressed. “I’m reminded that there’s much work to do when we live in a country that can acknowledge Juneteenth as a federal holiday and in the same breath have national bans on schoolteachers from educating about the history of racism,” she says. 

Hairston grew up around music. Her father was a bandleader at metro schools and there were always saxophones and trumpets around the house. She got her first harp — a rental — when she was 12. “It was a huge ask for my family,” she says. “But I think the harp chose me.” In eighth grade she was accepted into the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra’s Talent Development Program and, at 16, she was featured on National Public Radio’s From the Top, a program that celebrates exceptionally talented young musicians. 

The first concert she organized was in April 2016 in Boston. It featured African American musicians, filmmakers, dancers and composers. Her passion for advocacy grew, and when she moved back to Atlanta in 2018, she decided to formalize her work. She registered Challenge the Stats as a nonprofit in 2019. From the Top funded the Challenge the Stats launch concert and, in January 2021, invited Hairston back to the show to celebrate her success.

Before the pandemic, Hairston organized monthly concerts at First Presbyterian Church of Atlanta, where Challenge the Stats is in residence. Like everyone else, she had to postpone her 2020 concerts and panel discussions, or go virtual, because of the shutdown. In April 2021, she hosted a virtual concert Rhythm of the Roots 2021; the musicians, dancer and spoken-word artist performed in the empty church. One of the works, Listen to the Cry for harp and French horn, was dedicated to George Floyd. The concert has been viewed more than 2,000 times.

Hairston believes in the power of music to make a difference. (Photo by Martha Williams)

Hairston has created an interesting niche that celebrates music as a form of protest and as a healing modality. Since October, her network of Black and Indigenous musicians has livestreamed mini-concerts into Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta, appearing on dozens of screens there. Renata Yazzie, a Diné pianist based in New Mexico, is one of the musicians. She speaks Navajo to the children and shares the music of her culture.

Before the shutdown, Hairston played in person for staff and patients at Grady Hospital under the auspices of the Serenbe Institute for Art, Culture and the Environment. One day, she played in Grady’s burn unit. As she was packing up, a man walked over and asked her to play in his son’s room. The boy had burns all over his body, the father explained, and had been there for months. She was deeply moved and again felt the power music has to make a difference.

Education has been an important part of her leadership. For five years, she was artistic director of the Urban Youth Harp Ensemble, giving free education programs throughout the city. She taught more than 100 students, 90 percent of them students of color. Her advocacy on and off the concert stage is getting noticed. Earlier this year, Atlanta magazine named her one of their Women Making a Mark.

Hairston has the tenacity and drive to keep moving forward. Her next event will be a noon concert on July 28 at First Presbyterian Church, with limited in-person attendance and a livestreaming option. “I’m grateful to be a part of a committed community of artists pushing toward systemic change and imagining a better future for our state and our nation,” she says.