Meet the Perth musician putting the harp into hip hop

Shaved head, pierced nose, brim full of attitude: Michelle Smith is taking the classical to the street.


She’s putting the harp into hip hop.

The Perth musician says she’s fast gaining attention around the music scene at home and abroad by fusing her jazz harp stylings with hip hop.

“My intentions are once I perform I want people to go: ‘I had no idea a harp could do that’, because it can do so much,” she said.

With her ornate pedal harp, she’s jammed to tracks by Mos Def and Nas in slick videos by Perth videographer David Vincent Smith and gained thousands of admirers along the way.

Nas NY State of Mind (language warning)

Mos Def Mathematics (language warning) 

The US president’s Turkish-born harpist Cagatay Akyol is one of her fans.

Ms Smith said he had contacted her on Instagram after seeing her videos describing it as “crazy” but he “loved her actions”.

She said she had also started working with a London-based hip hop producer after he saw her jam over Mos Def’s song Mathematics.

“So we’ve been sending each other ideas over since then to bring more harp into hip hop genre,” she said.

“Yeah, it’s insane.”

The 31-year-old trained as a classical guitarist before committing to harp in her early twenties.

A $25,000 personal loan later, she was learning classical harp, but with blues and jazz also in her soul she wanted to bring them to the classical instrument.

It meant a trip to America.

“There’s this amazing harpist over there named Deborah Henson-Conant and she was offering jazz harp tuition because there are no actual jazz harp courses in any campuses (in Australia) that can touch upon improvisations,” she said.

“So she was training me for three months intensively and, man, that was like a harp boot camp.

“I was up at seven in the morning, even after a 30-hour flight, on that harp, six hours a day for three months thinking I’m never going to get this, this is so hard.”

But she did and is bringing a new sound to a genre that broke the mould many decades ago.

Experimental music researcher Associate Professor Cat Hope from the Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts said musicians were just warming up when it comes to experimentation.

“You get things like base guitar turning up in an orchestra or electric instruments in the pit and laptops even in folk music so this whole idea of technology moving through experimental music is really important,” she said.

“I think this project makes the most of the tradition of the harp and new technologies and new approaches to music to develop something really new and exciting.”

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