Women Making a Mark: Angelica Hairston

This young musician uses her harp and passion for music as tools to bring about social justice

Photo by Martha Williams

From Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come” to Beyoncé’s “Black Parade,” music has long served as an outlet for those advocating for social justice. After the killing of Trayvon Martin in 2012, Angelica Hairston, a harpist, felt moved to find that connection between social justice and classical music—a predominantly white corner of the music industry. In 2015,
 she launched Challenge the Stats, a nonprofit aimed at empowering and amplifying BIPOC musicians by using music as a tool for equity and inclusion.

“Everything we do is right at the intersection of classical music and justice,” the 28-year-old says. Challenge the Stats hosts concert series featuring BIPOC musicians, coordinates workshops with schools and younger audiences, and facilitates discussions with activists connected to the music world.

Hairston also is the artistic director of the Urban Youth Harp Ensemble, which provides free harp instruction to more than 80 students in Atlanta. “Urban Youth Harp Ensemble serves over 85 percent students of color, so it’s another way that my personal mission of empowering BIPOC artists lives every day through my work.”

Over the last year, her efforts have been particularly relevant. “Facing a pandemic—but especially as a Black woman facing this racial reckoning and all the violence that’s been happening toward Black communities—has been really challenging, but I feel grateful that the work I do has a direct impact on what’s happening in the world around us,” she says.

Recently, she’s been able to make a difference with the help of a Vital Sounds Initiative Grant from Project: Music Heals Us. The grant went toward developing a digital, bedside concert series in which performers who lost their jobs due to the pandemic were given opportunities to perform for healthcare workers and patients at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta.

Hairston sees the healing and uniting impact of music every day. She’s optimistic about the future of Challenge the Stats and the future of the city. “Atlanta has such a rich history of civil rights leaders, of justice leaders, of activists— there’s so many powerful roots,” she says. “I think there is a lot of opportunity for us to continue to be a voice here.”