Daughters of Harlem Teaches Local Young Women to Record and Produce Their Own Music

Eve Glasberg
February 23, 2019

In a recording studio in the Computer Music Center, four teenaged girls listen to a playback of their spoken word track. Their instructor, Sondra Woodruff, a senior at the School of General Studies and an established singer, composer and recording artist, asks “How do you want your voice to sound?”

Lyrics float out of the speakers: “Dear mommy, dear daddy, tíatíoabuelaabuelo, you carry the mistakes of our colonizers on your back and make them your own; that changes now, our voices will be heard, stigmas will be broken, truth will be spoken.”

The young women were taking part in “For the Daughters of Harlem: Working in Sound,” a multi-year program organized by faculty from Columbia’s Department of Music. It brings young women of color from public high schools in Manhattan and the Bronx to Columbia for workshops on recording and producing their own music. For two consecutive Saturdays, the students work under the guidance of professors, graduate students and guest instructors.

“These girls produced this amazing piece after just three hours in the studio,” said Lucie Vágnerová, project director and core lecturer in Music Humanities who earned her Ph.D. here in 2016. “In comparison, musicians often talk about how they spend weeks on end in the studio recording a handful of songs.”

The first workshop took place last April, when a dozen participants gathered in the music department’s recording facilities in Prentis Hall. After an introductory session on the uses and values of music in everyday life, participants worked in small groups in the different recording studios, collaborating with professional musicians and working on state-of-the-art equipment. The day was so fruitful that the project was expanded to two days in the fall.

The scope of Daughters of Harlem was laid out by Professor of Music Ellie Hisama, who founded and directed the inaugural project and now co-directs it with Vágnerová. In 2017, they received a grant supporting the project from the Columbia chapter of the Collaborative to Advance Equity through Research, an Obama White House effort to study and address the education, health and social service disparities faced by girls and women of color.

“The mission of the initiative fit what Ellie and I had been discussing for a long time,” said Vágnerová. "Especially the inequities that women of color face when it comes to particular kinds of musical, university and technologized spaces.” Their guiding text was Music in Everyday Life by British sociologist Tia DeNora, who used ethnographic studies and interviews to show how music influences identity and social structure.

“We felt that the best way to connect with the students about music was to discuss how it impacts us personally,” said Hisama.

The girls responded with stories about singing in church or at school, being nervous before a performance and comforted by a friend, sharing musical moments with their family. “We also talked about music as a form of self-care, of finding out who you are through sound and music-making,” said Vágnerová.

Their passion in the group discussion translated into practical outcomes in the recording sessions. The students brought in instruments, original poetry, lyrics and other musical ideas, and were taught the basics of recording audio and working with studio software to bring their ideas to life.

As a culmination of their efforts, the girls showcased their work at a public performance attended by their families, friends, teachers and community members alongside students and faculty from Columbia and Barnard. Their musical work spanned vocals, beatboxing, rapping, poetry, percussion, clapping, guitar, piano and synthesized instruments.

Hisama hopes the project will continue at Columbia and that other universities will replicate it. There has already been interest from faculty at colleges in Massachusetts, Florida and California. Hisama and Vágnerová are co-authoring an article about the project for a book on collaborative perspectives in 21st century U.S. music.

“It enriches our industry to have diversity, to have women in every facet of the business, not just in production and engineering, but also in marketing, business development and legal issues,” said Ebonie Smith, an award-winning music producer, engineer and singer-songwriter, who led a workshop in October. “The industry that I’m in needs to reflect the world that I live in.”

“It’s so important for these high schoolers to have an opportunity to come to Columbia and sit face to face with Ebonie, and be able to say, ‘If she’s doing this, I can do this,’” said guest instructor Matthew Morrison, a music professor at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts.

“I’m living through these girls when I work with them,” added Woodruff, the General Studies senior who led an October workshop. “This program is a great platform. It gives them confidence and the mindset that anything is possible, that you are possible.”