While it may be common these days to see popular R&B artists like Kendrick Lamar perform alongside a symphony orchestra, it’s not so common to see African-American musicians playing instruments in actual orchestras themselves. However, it was this uncommon rarity that brought classically trained musicians Monica Hargrave and Kim Scott together.
Hargrave is a professional harpist, while Scott is a professional flutist. The two met while playing together more than a dozen years ago in the Tuscaloosa Symphony Orchestra in Alabama. Scott recalls, “So I’m in rehearsal, and I look over and I see another unfamiliar African-American face, and it happened to be an African-American harpist, and I had never seen up close and personal, an African-American harpist!”
Scott says when she met Hargrave there were only two African-American musicians employed at the Tuscaloosa orchestra. This statement is consistent with a 2014 study conducted by the League of American Orchestras that found that less than 2 percent of musicians in American orchestras are African-American. Scott says this is why she immediately jumped at the chance to introduce herself to Hargrave after rehearsal and invited her to connect and play music together. The two ladies played so well together that in 2008 they decided to form the Kimoni Duo, a stage name that is a portmanteau of both ladies’ first names.
The Kimoni Duo has booked shows across the country and played music everywhere from celebrity weddings to international festivals. Scott says being invited to perform and teach at an international festival and convention in Lima, Peru, was definitely a highlight because they were the only African-American and United States representatives there.
“We played concerts, we taught at the conservatory there; and we were the only musicians from the United States so we were kind of ambassadors of our country in South America, so that was a beautiful opportunity!” recalls Scott.
While playing and teaching in Peru may have been a highlight for the Kimoni Duo, both ladies have experienced a great deal of success individually as well. Scott, who lives in Birmingham, Alabama, has several degrees in classical flute, has played with many major symphonies and traveled the world as a classical soloist. She is also a jazz flutist with four albums on the Innervision Records Label. Scott reached No. 1 on the Billboard Smooth Jazz National Airplay chart with her 2019 hits “Emerge” and “Free to Be Me,” and she currently has a newly released holiday single called “Five Favorite Things.”
Monica Hargrave of Atlanta is a versatile and accomplished harpist and University of Georgia music professor. She has served as the principal harpist with several Georgia symphony orchestras. With a repertoire spanning from classical to alternative styles including jazz and gospel, Hargrave has backed up notable recording artists such as Ray Charles, Johnny Mathis, Aretha Franklin, Natalie Cole, and Yo-Yo Ma.
Hargrave says “it was an honor,” when asked about playing this summer at the funeral of the late congressman John Lewis. She also fondly remembers other high-profile performances such as playing at the lighting of Rich’s Great Tree in Atlanta; the third-term inauguration for Atlanta Mayor Maynard Jackson, and being featured in a national TV commercial for Golden Corral.
As a music educator, “performing and teaching a seminar on the history of African-American music in China was an exciting and memorable gig,” says Hargrave. She currently has three CD recordings: “Divine Time,” “Divine Season,” and “Harp to Heart.”
Both ladies of the Kimoni Duo credit early exposure to different instruments and types of music as key to their musical success a classical and versatility.
“I played French Horn in fifth grade because that was the instrument I selected for playing in school, but I also took guitar at the YMCA, harp, and then piano until I got to the point that I had too many instruments going on at one time, so I just resorted to focusing on the harp and piano,” recalls Hargrave, who started taking private harp lessons at age 9.
Scott says “growing up in a house where music was appreciated and a priority” as well as encouraging and supportive parents, shaped her early decision in fifth grade to make a career out of music. This is why the Kimoni Duo is issuing a call to action for parents and music lovers to explore different types of music with their children. They say that despite many in-person limitations due to Covid-19, parents can still do a lot of musically creative things via the internet, such as playing a recording of the symphony from YouTube, as well as listening to an unfamiliar genre of music and having a conversation about it.
When it comes to a future crop of classical musicians, Scott is hopeful. “Symphonies are reaching out to many city schools to make sure that our people and students of color are exposed to classical music, are exposed to the arts, so they know that this is a profession that they can be a part of,” she said. “And I think in the next couple of years you are going to see more and more people of color on the main stage in classical music, and I’m excited for that!”