Brandee Younger draws a crowd at Charlotte festival that mixes classical music with other genres

Charlotte hosted the inaugural Black Notes Project last week, a two-day event aimed at amplifying Black music. The festival spotlighted the fact that Black music includes all genres — be it hip-hop, jazz, R&B, or classical. A big focus was trying to draw a younger, more diverse audience to classical, orchestral traditions by mixing it with other influences.

Max Muter, 25, held his festival ticket as he was directed toward his seat at the Knight Theater. He knows classical music, but the event’s blend of genres was new — and intriguing to him.

“Contemporary music, in a lot of ways, is the future of classical music and taking a lot of the styles and themes and putting it in a modern context,” Muter said. “Seeing that in classical music, being mixed together, I think is exactly what music needs to be doing nowadays.”

The crowd included a range of ages. There were even some teenagers. They came to see musician Brandee Younger, who mixes different genres of music — with her harp. Muter was curious to see how the instrument could be adapted.

“The harp is just like, I guess, a typical classical instrument in a lot of people’s minds,” Muter said. “ Hearing it in a jazz setting is something that I’ve never heard before, and it sounded kind of unusual. So I think it will be really cool.”

Younger sat on a stage with a harp as tall as she is while her fingers smoothly plucked the strings. Some in the audience scooched to the edge of their seats and tilted their heads up to get a closer look at her.

Younger started playing the harp at the age of 11. After the concert, she said she’s mostly seen as a jazz artist but plays music that doesn’t constrain her to one genre.

“I try not to be genre-specific on purpose because my training is in classical music; what I’ve always listened to and socialized with are hip-hop, R&B, and soul music,” Younger said. “And I’m mostly visible in jazz, so I guess it would combine all those elements. I think of it as soulful, which is what I like to use.”

Harpist Brandee Younger signs an album cover for a fan after the show at the Knight Theatre in uptown.

Elvis Menayese

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WFAE

Harpist Brandee Younger signs an album cover for a fan after the show at the Knight Theatre in uptown.

Despite being trained in classical music, Younger grew up idolizing harpists and jazz artists Dorothy Ashby and Alice Coltrane, Black women who played in a male-dominated industry in the 1950s and ’60s. They were part of the reason she pursued the harp. As a harpist, Younger said she found it challenging at times to break into the music industry with her fusion of different genres.

“I felt that musically speaking, if it wasn’t classical, then it wasn’t really widely respected,” Young said. “But, yeah, it’s a challenge for all Black musicians, but especially classical.”

Younger said those challenges are tied to the classical music industry being mostly a white space. Despite those obstacles, Younger became the first Black solo woman to be nominated for a Grammy Award in the best iinstrumental composition category in 2022. Younger said her achievements are down to her willingness to persevere.

“[I] keep going, keep going, keep going, and it’s tough because you have to, you know, take a lot of beatings, figuratively speaking, and just be able to push through,” Younger said.

The event also included performances by the Black Notes Project Ensemble, a group of local musicians, and DJ Mad Skillz. The festival was hosted in partnership with Blumenthal Arts, the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra, the Mint Museum, the Bechtler Museum of Modern Art, and The Harvey B. Gantt Center for African American Arts + Culture.

Michael Kitchen, who started the production company Sol Kitchen, is one of the Black Notes Project’s co-founders alongside Amy Carleton.

The Black Notes Project Ensemble, comprised of local talent, including members of the Charlotte Strings Collective, performs in uptown as part of the music festival.

Elvis Menayese

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WFAE

The Black Notes Project Ensemble, comprised of local talent, including members of the Charlotte Strings Collective, performed in uptown on Friday, Jan. 19, 2024, as part of the music festival.

Kitchen said he set up the festival to engage a diverse audience.

“I thought it was a cool way to get younger kids interested in classical music,” Kitchen said. “Where they can see Black and brown people playing violins, playing horns, harps, whatever the case may be, and they can say, ‘Oh, I can do that as well’ and ‘I want to be up there.’”

Teenagers like Brea Gordon, 14, from Charlotte are who Kitchen had in mind. Gordon went to the performance with her mother.

“I actually liked it a lot. And I was kind of surprised because I don’t usually really like classical music and stuff like that, but it was actually the mix of modern music and classical was really amazing,” Gordon said.

Gordon said the festival has shown her that she can tap into and enjoy other types of music.

“Music is an everyday thing in my life and part of everything. So, to be able to add a different genre and a different part of music will definitely add to my day,” Gordon said.

The Gantt Center will host a panel discussion Wednesday night, Jan. 31, with Black Notes Project co-founder Michael Kitchen, musicians and community leaders. The event will look at the importance of archiving and exploring the foundations of Black music. There will also be a live performance. The event starts at 6:30 p.m.

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