Destined for Music
Lessons From the Harpist From the Hood
Not many people today make a living by plucking harp strings. Even more rare is to pick up the instrument in midlife, leave the projects of southern Los Angeles County and become one of the Bay Area’s most prolific harpists. In her 30s, after 14 years doing old-fashioned shaves in a Compton barbershop, Stephanie Louise Davis put down her straight razor, picked up a harp on a layaway plan and moved to Alameda to pursue her unlikely dream. She changed her name to Destiny, became an Oaklander, referred to herself as the Harpist From the Hood and soon found herself flourishing in the East Bay’s eclectic music scene.
Her three-piece band is called S.O.N.G./Strings of a Nubian Groove, described on its Web site as “classical/crossover eclectic jazz for vocals and harp.” From ephemeral solo performances at weddings to singing stories with a Celtic-jazz infusion to getting sweaty with S.O.N.G.’s funky rhythm, Destiny plays it all with sweet grace. She also plays with the jazz group Richard Howell Quintet in various roles at an impressive array of venues: from opening for the Oakland East Bay Symphony to “sound sculptures” at San Francisco’s Grace Cathedral to ensemble jazz acts at Yoshi’s and the Monterey Jazz Festival. In addition, she has released seven CDs.
Her musical career did not follow a typical trajectory; no one can accuse Destiny of being average. She’s the sort of person who honors her instincts and feels at ease making life’s biggest decisions because of a sudden burst of inspiration.
Take her name, for example.
“I told my husband, I’ve got this name change, and I’ve got to move on it,” she remembers. “I said my name is now Destiny. And he has never called me anything else since.”
In fact, after filling out the official name change paperwork, neither has anyone else. With the support of her husband/manager, Cristwell Muhammad, Destiny soon lived up to her name’s promise, playing benefits and festivals around the Bay Area, affecting everyone she meets with the sunny charm of her courage.
“After 10 years, I still laugh when people say it,” says the artist. “People are usually looking for their destiny—and here I am.”
It’s astonishing how quickly and thoroughly the Harpist From the Hood mastered her new craft. Although she first fell in love with the instrument during a chance encounter as a child, Destiny had no opportunity to sit at the harp until she was in her 30s.
“The first time I ever saw a harp, I was 9 years old and heard Harpo Marx playing it on TV,” she said. “He played the most incredible rendition of Take Me Out to the Ball Game. I said that’s what I’m going to do.”
However, her nascent aspirations were put on hold as her mother dealt with the stress of being newly divorced and trying to put food on the table. “I never mentioned it again; it just sat in the back of my brain.”
To add to the peculiar trajectory of Destiny’s life, prior to moving to L.A. County, her family had been stationed at an army base in Japan. She went from a military base in an orderly setting to the projects in L.A. during the early ’70s—a time of great transition and upheaval. “Life in Compton was crazy,” says Destiny. “Martin Luther King had just been killed, race riots were taking place. You could still just about smell the smoke.”
Already a girl of vision and action, the soon-to-be Destiny rewrote her future. Borrowing a new in-law’s ZIP code, she finagled her way out of the tumult of the projects and into the high-achieving school district in Torrance.
“No disrespect to the school in San Pedro, but I was in a community of people who were just struggling to create their own identity, so someone who was clear about theirs almost became a challenge.”
After graduating high school with a focus on music, Destiny returned to her family, still struggling in the projects. She admits she wanted to study music, but was unwilling to leave her family behind. “I was looking at my family and wondering, if I leave, what will happen to them,” says Destiny. “So I went to barber school. And for 14 years of my life I was a barber.”
Life in the two-seat barbershop continued peacefully until the day she heard the harp a second time. In a flood of insight, she realized she had to trade her security for the risks of the unknown; she had to leave the confining walls of the projects and follow her passion for this complex instrument. “I put down my clippers and picked up a harp,” says Destiny. “People thought I was crazy. But this particular flash, it almost sucker-punched me, if you will.”
Taking private lessons from jazz harpist Stella Castellucci of Los Angeles, Destiny laid the groundwork for her future in music. Moving to the East Bay, she continued with private instruction, studying with Anne Adams, a well-known harpist, and other talented local teachers. She quickly branched out into performances.
Her courage paid off. In the last 15 years, Destiny, Harpist From the Hood, has become among the Bay Area’s premier harp players. She now plays full time, too busy with numerous gigs each week to even consider brushing off her clippers.
“I’m a sound sculptress,” says Destiny. “I use the medium of sound to sculpt an environment of peace and harmony.”
Destiny turned 46 last November, yet her years can only be detected in her eyes, where wisdom waltzes with mirth, each taking turns leading. Otherwise she looks as she feels—on a second spin through youth. When she’s not touring, Destiny is busy making up for lost time, taking formal lessons in jazz alongside kids and teenagers at Oakland’s Malonga Casquelourd Center for the Arts.
She doesn’t mind that she’s three times their age; in fact, according to her math, they’re identical. “I refer to myself as an adult prodigy,” says Destiny. With a contagious grin she adds: “Musically, I’m really only 16 years old.”.
Destiny plays 5 p.m. March 14 at Studio One, 35 45th St. For more information about her performances, visit www.harpistfromthehood.com.