[ While much has changed in the 40 years that Rhiannon Giddens has
been alive, her latest album, Freedom Highway, is a powerful testament
to the inequality and injustice that remain. Other songs span various
aspects of African American history.] [https://portside.org/] 

 INTERVIEW: 'WHITE PEOPLE ARE SO FRAGILE, BLESS 'EM' … MEET RHIANNON
GIDDENS, BANJO WARRIOR   [https://portside.org/node/17768] 

 

 Emma John 
 July 23, 2018
The Guardian
[https://www.theguardian.com/music/2018/jul/23/white-people-are-so-fragile-bless-em-rhiannon-giddens-banjo-warrior-cambridge-folk-festival]


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 _ While much has changed in the 40 years that Rhiannon Giddens has
been alive, her latest album, Freedom Highway, is a powerful testament
to the inequality and injustice that remain. Other songs span various
aspects of African American history. _ 

 ‘I’m not here to be famous’ … Rhiannon Giddens, who is
curating the Cambridge folk festival. , Photograph: Tanya Rosen-Jones
// The Guardian 

 

_She pours fire and fury into powerful songs that target everything
from police shootings to slavery. The musician reveals all about her
mission to put the black back into bluegrass – and Shakespeare._

We’re all racist to some degree,” says Rhiannon Giddens. “Just
like we’re all privileged to some degree. I have privilege in my
system because I’m light-skinned. I hear people say, ‘I didn’t
have it easy growing up either.’ But when did it become a
competition?”

As someone on a mission to bridge such divides, Giddens thinks about
this stuff a lot. The Grammy-winning singer and songwriter was born to
a white father and a black mother in Greensboro, North Carolina, in
the late 1970s. Her parents married only three years after the
landmark Loving v Virginia decision, which reversed the
anti-miscegenation laws that had made interracial marriage illegal.
Their union was still shocking enough that her father was
disinherited.

While much has changed in the 40 years that Giddens has been alive,
her latest album, Freedom Highway, is a powerful testament to the
inequality and injustice that remain. It opens with At the
Purchaser’s Option, a devastating track inspired by an 1830s advert
for a female slave whose nine-month-old baby could also be included in
the sale. “It was kind of a statement to put that one first,” says
Giddens. “If you can get past that, you’ll probably survive the
rest.”

 [https://youtu.be/6vy9xTS0QxM]

Listen here [https://youtu.be/6vy9xTS0QxM].

Other songs span various aspects of African American history, from the
civil rights era to Black Lives Matter
[https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/black-lives-matter-movement],
while revealing the breadth of her musical influences. Soul, blues,
gospel, jazz, zydeco – her versatile voice wraps itself around them
all. It also proves a wonderful counterpoint to her nephew Justin
Harrington’s rap on the funky_ _Better Get it Right the First Time,
a song she wrote in response to police violence (“Did you stand your
ground / is that why they took you down?”). The lyrics came
tragically close to home when she performed it in Dallas just a few
days after the shooting of 15-year-old Texan Jordan Edwards
[https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2017/may/05/jordan-edwards-shooting-officer-charged-murder-roy-oliver],
who, like the song’s protagonist, was a bright young student shot
dead as he left a party with friends.

“People say, ‘I’m tired of thinking about race, it’s a
drag.’ Yeah, well, welcome to my life! I don’t care who you are.
We have the time and the headspace for this stuff. The least you can
do is take a moment.”

Giddens has become known for her brave and articulate works and words.
Her group the Carolina Chocolate Drops
[https://www.theguardian.com/music/2012/feb/19/carolina-chocolate-drops-playing-bones],
in which she plays banjo and fiddle, won a Grammy for their inspired
revival of black string-band music, while her combination of
musicianship and musical activism has earned her multiple prizes,
including comedian Steve Martin’s Award for Excellence in Banjo.

In 2015, Giddens’ solo album Tomorrow Is My Turn
[https://www.theguardian.com/music/2015/feb/01/rhiannon-giddens-tomorrow-is-my-turn-review] introduced
her powerful voice – she trained as an opera singer – to a
mainstream audience. That album included only one original song, Angel
City, but its compilation of covers showcased her virtuosity. Intimate
renditions of folk ballads sat alongside brassy, Broadway belts; and
there too, Giddens made a point of recognising forgotten female
artists such as Geeshie Wiley and Elizabeth Cotten. It earned her
the BBC Folk award
[https://www.theguardian.com/music/2016/apr/28/rhiannon-giddens-unthanks-younguns-bbc-folk-awards-winners] for
singer of the year.

 

Counter culture … Giddens at the Freedom for All gala, New York, in
2016.
Photograph: Timpone/BFA/Rex/Shutterstock // The Guardian
Her fame grew even wider thanks to a recurring role in the TV series
Nashville. Now her status is underlined by the fact that she is
curating next month’s Cambridge folk festival
[https://www.cambridgelivetrust.co.uk/folk-festival], which will
showcase a number of female artists of colour, including Britain’s
Yola Carter, Canada’s Kaia Kater
[https://www.theguardian.com/music/2016/aug/28/kaia-kater-nine-pin-review] and
Tennessee’s Amythyst Kiah. Also on the bill is her great hero Peggy
Seeger
[https://www.theguardian.com/music/2014/aug/24/peggy-seeger-voice-of-experience].
“She’s an amazing example of an uncompromising individual, with
unbelievable amounts of compassion.”

Giddens’ own Cambridge set will be her last live date for some time.
Last October, she was awarded a prestigious MacArthur fellowship,
which gives “individuals who show exceptional creativity” a
no-strings-attached $625,000. This will allow her to spend more time
with her five-year-old son and eight-year-old daughter in Limerick,
Ireland, where they attend a Gaelic school. She is separated from
their Irish father. “My stuff lives in Nashville,” says Giddens,
“but I live wherever my children are.”

We meet less than 24 hours after she has landed at Shannon airport.
“That is why it’s such a mess,” she says, waving at the
firetruck and other toys on the living room floor.

The belief in music as a space where people can set aside their
differences is sacred to Giddens. The MacArthur grant has allowed her
to continue to tell the stories that inspire her – in particular, to
reclaim narratives and restore voices to the ignored or silenced. She
particularly enjoys collaborations. One recent project came about when
choreographer Paul Vasterling, the CEO of Nashville Ballet, introduced
her to the poems of Caroline Randall Williams, whose works explore the
theory that Shakespeare’s dark lady sonnets
[https://www.theguardian.com/books/2013/aug/10/search-shakespeares-dark-lady-florio] were
written about a black madam in London.

 

Rhiannon Giddens, and banjo, performing at the Boston Pops Fireworks
Spectacular this month.
Photograph: Michael Dwyer/AP // The Guardian
The poetry inspired Vasterling to write a ballet, Lucy Negro Redux,
for which Giddens is writing the music. “The ballet includes both
the black Lucy character and Shakespeare’s fair youth,” says
Giddens. “So you have a man and a black woman inspiring some of the
most beautiful poetry in the English language.”

She’s also researching minstrelsy, hoping to reclaim a genre that
has become associated, in both the US and the UK, with blackface
performance. “When you look into the minstrel band in the US and you
see banjo, fiddle and tambourine, you might think they’re all
‘white’ instruments. But the banjo is from Africa, there are
one-string fiddles all over the world, and the tambourine comes from
frame drums that were brought up from north Africa through the Middle
East and Italy. That’s world music right there. Musical and cultural
ideas have been crossing over for ever. My projects are all going
towards the theme, ‘We’re more alike than we’re different.’”

Perhaps the most exciting prospect, though, is a musical that will
tell the story of the 1898 Wilmington Massacre, when white
supremacists in North Carolina murdered the town’s black elected
leaders in what Giddens describes as “the only successful coup
d’etat on American soil”. It’s a project she is passionate
about, and she has enlisted the help of Dirk Powell, her songwriting
partner on Freedom Highway. Finding financial backing for the project,
which won’t be finished before 2020, will be half the struggle, she
admits.

 

Funny turn … Giddens with Steve Martin, after winning his Award for
Excellence in Banjo.
Photograph: Gary West. Courtesy: Compass Records // The Guardian
One curious issue for the singer-songwriter is her audience: it’s
largely white. “Trying to penetrate the black community has been
really difficult,” she says. “It’s not enough to produce the
work – you then have to connect it to the audience. Like the ballet:
the lead ballerina is black. Here’s an opportunity for black girls
to connect with someone on stage who looks like themselves. So what
can be done to get them among this audience?”

To this end, she hopes to get more involved with the production side
of the industry, just as curating the Cambridge folk festival gave her
a way to exert some influence. She has often felt that Britain
appreciates the breadth of American roots music more than the US. “I
love the UK folk scene. In the States, nobody knows what to do with
me. There’s still a very narrow definition of Americana
[https://www.theguardian.com/music/americana].” 

The term, says Giddens, often simply means “the singer-songwriters
who got pushed out of commercial country”. Unlike many country
stars, Giddens has no intention of plundering her personal life for
songs (“Although you can call me out on that in 10 years’
time”). Nor does she seem particularly interested in
self-glorification. “I don’t even wear makeup any more,” she
says. “When I did the Letterman show, I looked like a barbie doll.
The older I get, the more I realise I’m not here to be famous. I’m
here because of the mission and the voices.”

In a provocative speech at the bluegrass industry’s annual awards
last September, she asked: “Are we going to acknowledge that the
question is not how do we get diversity into bluegrass, but how do we
get diversity _back _into bluegrass?” Giddens believes the true
African American experience still isn’t taught in schools. “I made
it through an entire year of North Carolina history and never heard
about the Wilmington Massacre. It’s not a story people want to tell,
because nobody wants to face the facts of how horrible it was.”

She pauses. “White people are so fragile, God bless ’em. ‘Well,
I_ _didn’t own slaves.’ No you didn’t. Nobody is asking you to
take personal responsibility for this. But you’re a beneficiary of a
system that did. Just own that and move on.”

Rhiannon Giddens is the guest curator of the Cambridge folk festival,
2-5 August
[https://www.cambridgelivetrust.co.uk/folk-festival/news/rhiannon-giddens-announced-guest-curator-2018-festival]. 

_[Emma John is a former deputy editor of the Observer Magazine.
Twitter @em_john [http://@em_john]]_

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