Born February 21, 1977 in Greensboro, North Carolina, Rhiannon Giddens has used her relationship with the South as well as her mixed race identity as a focal point for her music. Giddens attended the Oberlin College Conservatory of Music in Ohio before returning back home to North Carolina. There Giddens immersed herself in the traditional and folk musical styles of North Carolina. In 2005, Giddens met Dom Flemons and Justin Robinson at the Black Banjo Gathering in Boone, North Carolina. Shortly thereafter the trio began exploring African American musical traditions and styles through the blues and hot string jazz. This resulted in the formation of their first musical project together: Sankofa Strings. After experimenting with their sound the group changed their name to the Carolina Chocolate Drops. The group released four albums independently before signing with Nonesuch Records in 2010 to release their breakthrough album entitled Genuine Negro Jig. The album won the 2010 Grammy for “Best Traditional Folk Album.”
In 2014 Giddens began working with legendary producer T-Bone Burnett on The New Basement Tapes: a collaborative project which featured Elvis Costello, Marcus Mumford, Jim James and Taylor Goldsmith. The group formed in order to create songs out of newly discovered Bob Dylan lyrics. In 2015 Giddens released a solo album produced by Burnett, Tomorrow Is My Day, as well as an EP entitledFactory Girl. In February of 2017 Giddens released her second solo album, Freedom Highway. This album hinges upon the African American experience as told through a historical lens by implementing slave narrative inspired lyrics as well as some lyrics centered more on the Civil Rights Movement. Giddens describes her new album as deeply rooted in the Civil War Era with an emphasis on the banjo as a key instrument.
Giddens’s performance on September 29, 2017 at the Germantown Performing Center was powerful and stirring. The first half of her performance was focused on playing songs from Freedom Highway, which are based on emotional, historical accounts of African Americans during and before the Civil War as well as the Civil Rights Movement. The tension in the room was palpable as she was performing these songs. Hearing the awful stories about actions taken in the United States’ past is always hard to hear, but the reminder of our history, how far we’ve come, and how much we still need to improve is something we cannot afford to silence, as Giddens’s album speaks to.
After a small intermission in the performance, Giddens and her band came back to perform songs from her older records and some standard spirituals and folk tunes. The mood was considerably lighter, and Giddens herself addressed the change in tone during the performance. She said that although it is important to tell the sad, grief-stricken stories of the past and present, it is always important to remember the hope and the goodness of what we as humans are capable of. The audience fed off of her positivity, whooping and clapping, joining Giddens in her hope for the future.
Text by Savannah Seagall '19 and Sarah Johnson '18