With the rising popularity of unusual accompaniment with in-demand hip-hop acts (think Trap Symphony and Einer Banks), it's not hard to believe that another traditionally classical instrument is entering into high hip-hop demand. This is where harpist Sara Kawai is making her mark on the music landscape. Having done live performances with artists like Jelani Aryeh, Blxst, Serena Isioma, Guapdad 4000, and many more as well as collaborations with Roddy Ricch, Pink Sweat$, and Zacari, Kawai has quickly been making a name for herself in the music industry.
A classically trained harpist since 8 years old, Sara more recently began applying her love of playing to her love of rap and R&B. "I've always loved classical music but I didn't think that was really who I was or what I wanted to be" she explains to EARMILK over Zoom, "I grew up listening to hip-hop and R&B and at the start of quarantine I realized I wanted to combine playing the harp with my love of rap and R&B." "During quarantine, I was asked to play with UMI at Shangri-La (Rick Rubin's studio) while she was recording her live album" she relates, "that was really my first time going to the studio. That was when I knew I loved the community and the environment, I just always want to be in this type of space." It was this realization that led Kawai to begin collaborating with popular online music platform Sparky on live harp performances set in the dazzling hills of Malibu.
The live performances with Sparky and Audiomack provide an inescapably soothing vibe, something that might not be as readily relevant in studio versions of the songs. The angelic twang of the harp creates a special sonic environment for any artist that Kawai has graced the stage with, one that allows free creative expression and a delightful tone-change for any track. Perhaps the most dazzling performance yet, Jelani Aryeh's hit "Stella Brown" comes to life off of the distinctly textured classical backing and gorgeous scenery. With the light twittering of birds in the background and the adept harpistry combining with Aryeh's pitch-perfect vocals, its an injustice to describe the atmosphere as anything less than heavenly.
When asked what special dimension the harp brings to hip-hop, Kawai had to say "It's so delicate, pretty and unique and combining that with rap (which can sometimes be rougher around the edges) makes something even more beautiful." Utilizing this unique pairing has allowed her to work with a myriad of different artists and has already opened many doors for Kawai, most recently playing the backing harp in Roddy Ricch's live Grammy performance last night. "My dream collaboration would be Smino" Kawai relates as she details recently running into him in the studio in LA. With a track record of high-profile performances and collaborations, it seems only a matter of time before her dream manifests itself.
Hip-hop is such an innately fluid genre that combining almost any accompaniment can easily be tuned to perfection. It is forward-thinking musical innovators like Sara Kawai that drive the genre forward into new avenues and new fans. The ability to translate the varied melodic textures of rap and R&B to an instrument with such an angelic lilt is a feat in itself, not to mention the ability to successfully collaborate with some of the industry's biggest names. When asked about the future of her musical career, Kawai says, " I want to be known as like the harp player for rap music." Already well on her way to carving out a niche, the future looks bright for Sara Kawai and her harp.