Grady alumni form band, Rising Appalachia, inspired by their childhood and social justice


Courtesy of Chloe Smith

Sisters and Grady alumni, Chloe and Leah Smith (left to right) formed internationally recognized band, Rising Appalachia. Their music style blends folk and hip-hop, inspired by traditional Appalachian music and their childhood growing up in Atlanta. They have used their music as a platform for advocacy and social justice and have started movements such as the Slow Music Movement and #IamResilient.

Ava Smith

“What are we going to do with the wickeds of the world? Make magic.” 

This is a lyric written by sisters and Grady alumni, Leah (stage name Leah Song) and Chloe Smith. Since their graduation from Grady in the early 2000s, they have gone on to create an internationally recognized band,“Rising Appalachia,” which blends the folk and hip hop music influences urban Atlanta immersed them in growing up. 

The Smith sisters went to all Atlanta Public Schools starting at Mary Lin and continuing through Grady. Chloe, the younger of the two sisters, described her  Grady experience as “rowdy,” but she credits much of her “street smarts and social skills” to growing up in Atlanta. 

Chloe was in the art program at Grady.

“Art, as it so often is, was a lifeline for my teenage hormonal self and added a breath of fresh air amidst a tumultuous time in my maturation,” Chloe said.

Smith was part of art teacher John Branhorst’s first group of seniors. Brandhorst says he immediately could see Chloe’s creative drive and ambition.

“She was just totally vibrant and wide awake and like she is now — this really cool Bohemian chick who understood an awful lot about the world, way past what high school could provide,” Brandhorst said. 

Chloe attributed Brandhorst towards being an  “instrumental” part of her Grady experience. 

“Mr Brandhorst was a life saver as an art teacher who really listened to the students and allowed us to carve our own paths,” Chloe said. 

However, being an artist was not Chloe dream in high school. After meeting her cousin’s wife who worked for the CIA, she wanted a high-profile job such as a pilot or public defense lawyer. 

After graduating, however, Chloe took a year off to travel, during which time she lived in a tree, “tree sitting,” for four months in Northern California, in order to protect a population of redwoods. What she thought was just a gap year turned into “a lifetime of travel, art, and building my own business.” 

At first, the band was just the two sisters. It originated from a recording they put together as a gift for their parents, who had kept music alive in their home throughout their childhood. But, unexpectedly, their project took off. 

“All of a sudden, they had a band,” Brandhorst said. “Suddenly, they were touring.” 

Currently, Rising Appalachia is a six piece band with members from all over the South. Band member Arouna Diarra, who is from Burkina Faso, plays ngoni and balafon. David Brown plays stand up bass and baritone guitar. Biko Casini is on percussion, and Duncan Wickel plays fiddle and cello. 

“Our sound in this current ensemble is really what we have been wanting to achieve sonically since the start … It just took 12 years to get there,” Chloe said. “The long haul is worth considering as you make art. You might make some of your best work far past the date that you start.”

When they started, Chloe said she had a “mountain” of stage fright, which took her years to overcome. 

“Insecurity is a beast, and we don’t always feel like we belong in the places where we stand,” Chloe said. “However, eventually, and most often piece by piece, we garner the fortitude to claim our paths and really belong where we stand.”

 Once she did, Chloe knew she was in the right place and found performing to be peaceful.

“We are in the music when we are on stage,” Chloe said. “So much of the chatter of life and the world dissipates and quiets so that the music can make its way.” 

The Smith sisters have given much of their time to serving their communities and communities all over the country. In addition to tree sitting, they joined the ranks of protesters in Columbus, GA at the School of Americas and performed and taught at prisons. Currently, they host Permaculture Days, which focus on regenerative and sustainable systems of agriculture. Permaculture Days are part of a movement they have coined the “Slow Music Movement”.  

The “Slow Music Movement” is about slowing down, specifically in the music industry and harnessing the troubadour energy. After starting to perform, the sisters realized that the culture of the music industry left very little time and space for connecting with people.

“The music industry is extremely fast paced and pretty taxing on the artists,” Chloe said. “We have always wanted to share our music in a more balanced way.” 

Their mission is much like permaculture: to create a regenerative and sustainable way of touring. Smith says this means staying in places for more than one night, organizing local initiatives and partnering with local non-profits. They also focus on carbon-offsetting on their tours and have toured via train and sail boat. 

Another project that’s sprouted from the success of Rising Appalachia is #IamResilient which encourages people to share moments where they were or experienced resilience and triumph. Smith says that their most resilient moment was when the Indigenous Youth Council invited them to perform at Standing Rock with three other female-led groups.

“We witnessed so much strength, culture, women’s rights, sovereignty and power at that gathering,” Chloe said. 

These moments were the “spark” for Rising Appalachia’s song “Resilient” which appears on their newest album, “Leylines”.

“Now, all sorts of folks have written to us explaining how ‘Resilient’ has helped them on their own journeys … from healing from surgeries, to birthing babies, to reuniting with lost family members,” Chloe said. “It’s a powerful word and a powerful song that is so much bigger than Rising Appalachia.” 

The sisters’ commitment to activism and social justice is reflected in their music.

“I love it [their music],” Brandhorst said. “It’s perfect. It’s timely. It’s very powerful… I think they were all about female power a long long time ago and were way ahead of the curve that way.” 

Chloe says that the band aims connects with their audience through their sound, and she hopes to help their audience connect with themselves. 

“[We hope our listeners take away] a call to action in their own communities,” Chloe said. “A folk-funk-crunk dance party full of beautiful souls from all sorts of walks of life. A calming invitation into yourself. An inspiration to make art. A lullaby to rest with. A reason to wake up and go after life with a good vibration.” 

“I think those two and their band are one of the most beautiful examples of kind of Bohemian creativity,” Brandhorst said. “It’s stunning to watch and one of the best parts of my job, to see people evolve into everything they wanted to be.” 

“What are we going to do with the wickeds of the world? Make magic.” Chloe says that the message of this song applies to today’s youth who are stepping into movements of art and politics and environmental justice. 

“Don’t think that you can’t be a part of a big thing.  Speak out. Stand up. Rally your friends,” Chloe said.  “And, on a side note, some radical expressive art has come out of Atlanta … so harness the dirty south eclectic energy and make it work for your life!”