Destiny Muhammad is known as the Harpist from the Hood, a celebrated musician with an eclectic style that can most easily be called jazz but that ranges from “Celtic to Coltrane,” as she likes to say. She is a favorite of the San Francisco Bay Area music scene and a passionate advocate for honoring the divinity within us, no matter our age, race, or place in the world.
One day when Muhammad was 9, her mother sent her to the den to watch television. It was the 1970s, and her family had just moved to Compton in Los Angeles. She saw Harpo Marx play “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” on the harp during an episode of I Love Lucy and was completely transfixed.
But life got in the way. Her parents were going through a divorce, and then it was time to commit to finishing school and starting a career. For the time being, she buried her dream of learning to play the harp. While she had performed as a vocalist at her high school, she couldn’t read sheet music, and a career in the arts didn’t seem possible. Instead, she earned her barbering license and, at 21 years old, opened her own barbershop.
“I thought, Well, this is going to be my life,” Muhammad says. “But I felt like I was forgetting something.” Her passion for music, for the time being, was confined to the radio, where she loved listening to KJLH, the station owned by Stevie Wonder. She fell in love with jazz, rhythm and blues, and soul and began to hear an undercurrent—an opportunity to merge sounds that would show up in her work again and again.
In 1992, at the age of 30, Muhammad finally had her first harp lesson. She was the oldest student in a class filled with kids and teens, but she already knew that it was never too late to start something new. and learning something new with students who could be her kids or grandkids showed her a generational unity she continues to treasure today. Now 60, she still seeks opportunities to collaborate with and learn new technologies from younger peers—and in exchange, she is delighted to share her history and to introduce them to great artists they may not yet have heard.
“We have a shared passion for mastering our craft,” Muhammad says. “We’ll shred some chord progressions together, and there’s a mutual respect between us.”
Understanding the Assignment
Now a mainstay in the Bay Area, with more than 20 years under her belt as a professional musician, Muhammad has graced plenty of stages with her harp—including the San Francisco Symphony, SFJAZZ, the Yerba Buena Gardens Festival, and the Healdsburg Jazz Festival. She has performed and collaborated with the likes of Rev. Michael Bernard Beckwith, Azar Lawrence, Marcus Shelby, Omar Sosa, and John Santos.
Like most musicians, however, she got her start with much humbler beginnings, playing for tips at farmers markets and coffee shops. She didn’t take any of it for granted, though, and she knew that God would provide a whole new adventure. Later, she would recognize that the delay in getting to the harp wasn’t a denial.
“It’s not about what I want in the moment but about what my assignment is in the moment,” she says. And the blessings of practicing that mindset haven’t stopped.
In the middle of 2019, she felt called to set some extra money aside, though she wasn’t quite sure why. Just a few months later, the pandemic was upon us, and performances were getting canceled left and right.
“God had already provided by helping me set aside that money,” she says. “And then the grants and support programs started showing up. It’s been a faith walk.”
Loving, Inconvenient Prayer
That certainly wasn’t the first time that Muhammad found herself putting her faith in a higher power. Her mother discovered the toll-free number for the Unity Prayer Ministry (Silent Unity®) in the ’70s and began collecting Unity books. Soon after, hundreds of affirmation cards (white with a green border, Muhammad recalls) were scattered around their home.
Muhammad began praying with Silent Unity at just 18 years old and has never stopped calling, both on her own behalf and for her friends and loved ones.
“Those folks can pray,” she says, remembering a time when she was young and panicking about her car, which she couldn’t get to start. She called Silent Unity, laid her hands on the dashboard, and prayed until the car started—which it did!
“Sometimes I’ll think, I don’t think I need this anymore, I’m okay on my own,” she says, “but then I always pray. Prayer is essential and we sometimes underestimate it. I had to mature in order to live in a state of unapologetic gratitude.”
Muhammad recommends learning to pray as early as you can. It’s as important as any other skill, she notes, adding that when we get quiet and listen, we realize God has our back.
“Spiritual teachings are at their best when they’re applied lovingly and consistently, even when it’s not convenient—and it’ll never be convenient,” she says. “You have to keep going with it.”
As a teenager, Muhammad got a job at Safeway to pay her way to Kansas City during the summer of 1980 for a weeklong seminar at Unity Village, just after she graduated from high school. She recalls a beautiful visit, including meeting James Dillet Freeman and taking a tour of the iconic Blue Room. She had missed the youth-focused version of the seminar the week before but found that she connected well with the older adults as the youngest among them. In fact, by the end of the week she didn’t want to leave.
“They told me I had to practice in the world what I’d learned at Unity,” she says, “and that’s what got me home.”
Cultivating a New Consciousness
Muhammad did as she’d been told and has since built a career and a life out of using music to promote healing, resilience, and social justice. In the jazz tradition, musicians will refer to their instrument as their ax, which they use to cut away everything that isn’t music. Muhammad similarly invented her own term, calling herself a soundsculptress, a moniker she still uses today. That mindset would lead her to write and perform “HOOD: Honoring Our Own Divinity,” a piece in which she reclaims hood as a sacred word.
“We hood when we curate and cultivate a consciousness of wholeness, a consciousness of holiness,” she declares on the track—a “soundscape that helps people”—which mixes spoken word, vocals, and harp in an exploration of what it means to be divine.
That sense of ongoing conversation is ultimately what keeps drawing her in, when it comes both to Unity teachings and to jazz, decade after decade.
“So much can bubble up within, and it can surprise you,” she says. “It all feeds the conversation. We read and apply what we learn, and we then start again.”
Destiny Muhammad is a professional harpist, educator, and community activist. To learn more about her work, see a list of upcoming performances, and purchase her music, visit destinymuhammad.net.
This article appeared in Unity Magazine®.