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Banjo Maestro Rhiannon Giddens Has Broken Many Musical Barriers. Now She Is Working with Beyoncé.

Web ExclusiveMarch 14, 2024
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It’s been a busy period for the pioneering musical artist Rhiannon Giddens. She won a Pulitzer Prize for her opera Omar, about Omar ibn Said, a Muslim scholar in Africa who was sold into slavery in the 1800s. She released a remarkable musical video for her song “Another Wasted Life” featuring 22 people who were wrongly incarcerated. And now her banjo playing can be heard on “Texas Hold ’Em,” the new hit single by Beyoncé, who recently become the first Black woman to top _Billboard_’s Hot Country Songs chart. In October, Rhiannon Giddens spoke to Democracy Now! about her remarkable life, from her work in The Carolina Chocolate Drops to her new album, You’re the One, which features a song inspired by Kalief Browder.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman.

“Another Wasted Life.” That’s the name of a remarkable new song by the Pulitzer Prize-winning, Grammy-winning artist Rhiannon Giddens. She released a video of the song on October 2nd to mark International Wrongful Conviction Day. The song was inspired by Kalief Browder, a Bronx resident who died by suicide in 2015 at the age of 22 after being detained at Rikers Island jail for nearly three years, after being falsely accused at the age of 16 of stealing a backpack. He is held in solitary confinement for two years and was repeatedly assaulted by guards and other prisoners.

In the video for “Another Wasted Life,” Rhiannon Giddens features 22 people who were wrongly incarcerated. Together, they collectively served more than 500 years in prison for crimes they didn’t commit. The video includes two men, David Bryant and Tyrone Jones, who each spent 40 years in prison. Another seven of the men each spent over 25 years locked up after wrongful convictions. Rhiannon Giddens made the video in partnership with the Pennsylvania Innocence Project. This is an excerpt.

RHIANNON GIDDENS: [singing] Another day, another youth
Another story-mangled truth
The commentary uncouth and full of cloudy grease

Does it matter what the crime
If indeed there was this time?
He’s given solitary time
An institutional caprice

It’s a torture of the soul
The narrow confines of control
Thrown down the stinking hole with no hope of release

It’s just another wasted life
It’s just another wasted life
It’s just another wasted life
It’s just another wasted life.

AMY GOODMAN: That was “Another Wasted Life” by Rhiannon Giddens.

Earlier this year, she won a Pulitzer Prize with Michael Abels for their opera Omar, about Omar ibn Said, a Muslim scholar in Africa who was sold into slavery in the 1800s. Rhiannon Giddens first rose to fame as a member of The Carolina Chocolate Drops, a Grammy-winning old-time string band. Since 2015, she’s released five solo albums. The most recent one is titled You’re the One, which includes that song, “Another Wasted Life.”

Rhiannon Giddens, welcome to Democracy Now! It’s such an honor to have you with us.

RHIANNON GIDDENS: It’s great to be here. Thank you.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I mean, you are about to head off to the Pulitzer Prize ceremony tonight, and we’re going to talk about that in a moment and what you won it for, which is just astounding, the opera Omar. But I want to begin with this song that you have just put out on your album. Talk about how you came to do You’re the One, and specifically “Another Wasted Life.”

RHIANNON GIDDENS: Well, it’s an interesting thing. You know, I’ve — a lot of my work, most of my work, you know, especially since going solo — I mean, obviously, The Carolina Chocolate Drops had a mission, you know, of sort of telling the world about Black string band music, of spreading our mentor Joe Thompson’s family music around and just trying to educate about the true history of the banjo. And then, when I went solo, I was able to really go to things that I had been wanting to do, you know, during the band years, but it wasn’t quite the right time, really focusing on women’s voices, focusing on stories from the time of slavery. And really, the common sort of denominator has always been sort of this sense of mission, whether it’s in the band or solo.

But the thing is, that mission is weighty, you know, and I just kind of had gotten to a point where I was like, I kind of feel like if I keep going with — you know, on this trajectory, I’m going to burn out, and then I’m not going to be of any good to anybody, so it’s time to kind of take a turn for a second and explore other parts of my artistry. And that’s what You’re the One really comes out of. It’s songs that I’ve written over the course of like 14 years, that were just, you know, fun songs, songs that were inspired by some of my idols, like Dolly Parton and Aretha Franklin, a lot of like, you know, love songs, a lot of, you know, “You, dog, get out of my house” songs, you know, kind of those sorts of things.

But I can’t — I really can’t leave the mission behind even for this record. So I also really wanted to include “Another Wasted Life,” which I had written, you know, after reading about Kalief Browder some years ago, and had sort of put into a book and kind of went, “OK, like, when it’s the right time, I’ll know what to do with the song.” And then, when this album was sort of coalescing and coming together, I was like, “This is it,” because, you know, it’s a different approach. Like, what I have done before, like, say, with something like Freedom Highway, which is my, I guess, civil rights record, every song there is really kind of infused with thinking about the history of the United States, thinking about, you know, the legacy of slavery, thinking about civil rights and all of that, and it’s a very kind of cohesive album, but it’s all very — every single song kind of has that thought behind it, whereas with this album, all the songs except for one are fun. You know, even the sad love songs are still fun songs. And this kind of sticks out as the mission song. And it’s a different approach, because this then gets all the focus, you know, in terms of the emotional weight and, you know, what it does. So, I’m really excited that I’ve had the opportunity to put it out there, surrounded by, you know, something different, so that it really kind of has an opportunity to jump out at the listener.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to go to Kalief Browder in his own words. This is Kalief speaking to the HuffPost Live’s Marc Lamont Hill back a decade ago, in 2013. Kalief had spent, as we said earlier, three years at Rikers in New York without charge. He was a 16-year-old high school sophomore when he was first detained on suspicion of stealing a backpack. He said while he was in solitary at Rikers, the guards often refused to give him his meals.

KALIEF BROWDER: If you say anything that could tick them off any type of way, some of them, which is a lot of them, what they do is they starve you. They won’t feed you. And it’s already hard in there, because if you get the three trays that you get every day, you’re still hungry, because I guess that’s part of the punishment. So, if they starve you one tray, that could really make an impact on you. And —

MARC LAMONT HILL: How much were you starved?

KALIEF BROWDER: I was starved a lot. I can’t even — I can’t even count.

AMY GOODMAN: Kalief Browder went on to say he was once starved four times in a row — no breakfast, lunch, dinner or breakfast again — after enduring nearly 800 days in solitary confinement and abuses. Browder was only released when the case was dismissed. He would go on to college, but he died by suicide on June 6, 2015, at his home in the Bronx. He was 22 years old. Rhiannon Giddens, can you talk about how you discovered Kalief’s story? And then talk about the other men who are included in this video. I mean, this is just a mind-blowing, paradigm-shattering video that will affect anyone who sees it.

RHIANNON GIDDENS: Well, I am not sure, to be honest with you. It must have been a news story, you know, a news item, or something like that, where I just read the whole thing. You know, it was obviously after he committed suicide, because that’s the thing that kind of got me. You know, it was not only how he was treated, you know, an innocent teenager put through the system in such a brutal way, but it’s the fact that he — you know, the transition back into the world. I mean, who knows what was going through his mind? But, obviously, like, it changed him, you know? And I just felt like his life was stolen from him, not only the hours that he had to spend inside enduring what he had to endure, but also the hours that he’s not going to — he never got to live, you know? And I feel like that that just kind of went all over me, and I just sat down and wrote it.

And what I do is I take in the thing, and then it’s like I can’t walk around with it anymore. You know, it’s like it goes — it goes all over me. It just kind of sits in my body. And now that I’ve started writing songs, that is the way that I can release that energy. And I don’t ever have any plans for it. I just — like, I release it, and then, you know, it is what it is. And so, those kind of songs are sort of, for me, my purest forms of creation, because I don’t even feel like — I mean, I do write them, but I feel like something’s going through me, you know, that then results in them. So they’re my purest songs, to me. You know, so, “Another Wasted Life” is the purest one on the record, because it just was a direct, intense response to that terrible story.

And I just — yeah, so, when the record came about — sorry, I’m still kind of like reacting to like hearing his voice, because I haven’t — I haven’t heard his voice, because I just — you know, it’s just really hard. When you’re doing — when you’re doing a piece of art or you’re doing a song that’s based on something, it’s like you have — you have to walk a line of, like, knowing what the story — and the story itself inspired me to write it, but it’s like if I get too far into who he was, then I won’t be able to perform the song. You know what I mean? And so, like, just hearing that, so it’s kind of like disordered my brain a little bit, but I’m going to pull it back together.

So, when the opportunity to do You’re the One and have it to be sort of a big album, you know, that Nonesuch was — you know, my label was putting a lot of resources behind the record, so I’d be able to put “Another Wasted Life” on there. I knew very early on that I wanted to do a video. You know, videos these days are really kind of — unless you’re like a huge, huge megastar, they’re almost not worth the money that you put into, because, like, how do you get them out, and people don’t even see them on social media half the time. And so it’s really hard to justify making a video a lot of times these days. But I knew that that’s what I wanted to make a video for, was “Another Wasted Life.” And I also knew, after we started working with the Pennsylvania Innocence Project, that I wanted to center the men who had been exonerated. I wanted to center these guys, you know, because we can’t center the people who are still in prison because we can’t reach them. So, I knew that I wanted to be decentered in this and just enough in to make the connection. I knew that right away. And so, when we reached out to the Pennsylvania Innocence Project and said this is kind of what we want to do, and they were just really great and sent that around to some of the guys that they have freed, because they’ve been working so hard to free innocent men who are in prison, and 22 guys reached back out and said, “Yes, we’d like to be a part of this.” And we took, you know, a day, and we filmed the video.

And it was just, like — it was such an experience to be there and talk to these guys. And like all of them were like, “We’re here for those who are still in. We are here for those guys who are still in cages, thinking that nobody cares about them.” And so many of them were like, “Man, we’re just so grateful that people care. We’re just so grateful that you’re doing this.” And I just kind of like — I was sitting there, going, Well, it’s like literally the least I can do. Like literally.” You know what I mean? It’s just like, that’s so — it’s such a skewed thing that there’s clearly not — they don’t feel like people care. Because I’m sure, in their experience, a lot of people don’t care, you know? And the fact that there are these Innocence Projects full of people who do care is wonderful, and that I’m doing my little tiny might, you know, to raise awareness. Bt it’s like that was the thing that hit me the most, is like just the sense of hopelessness, that they would talk about being in prison, thinking, like, “Nobody cares that I’m in here, and through no fault of my own,” you know?

So, they were just incredibly generous with their time, and I’m just very proud of that video and everybody who volunteered on it, from the directors and the people who donated money so that it could happen. It was a real — everybody just really came together to make that happen. And if nothing else happened with this record and that was it, I would be incredibly proud of that. And I am.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I mean, your song, I think, is also so powerful, as you say, because it was inspired by Kalief. And I hate to do this to you, but, much worse, I hate the idea that this happened. But I wanted to go to one more clip. Maybe it’s the world’s saddest clip. Again, this is that decade ago interview with Marc Lamont Hill. Kalief was talking about his suicide attempts at Rikers and his efforts to get psychiatric help.

KALIEF BROWDER: I would say I committed suicide about five to six — five or six times.

MARC LAMONT HILL: OK, you attempted suicide five to six times.


MARC LAMONT HILL: All while still in prison?



KALIEF BROWDER: And I tried to resort to telling the correction officers that I wanted to see a psychiatrist or counselor, something. I was telling them I needed mental help, because I wasn’t feeling right. All the stress from my case, everything was just getting to me, and I just — I just couldn’t take it, and I just needed somebody to talk to. I needed to just let — I just needed to be — I just needed to talk and be stress-free. But the correction officers, they didn’t want to hear me out. Nobody wanted to listen.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Kalief before he ultimately did take his own life. Of course, again, he was never convicted. And he was released, went to college, but couldn’t survive beyond that. Rhiannon, in a moment, I want to go to Omar, because I do see a trajectory, of course, the link from the plantation to the prison. But as you listen to Kalief and have your own two kids, as you try to give them hope in the world, your thoughts and how you transform these stories into music?

RHIANNON GIDDENS: Man, it’s tough, you know? I mean, to be — first off, you know, to be perfectly frank, my children are white presenting. So, I have a son. He’s 10. And I know that he’s not going to go through a lot of the things that Black men go through in America. So, I don’t even pretend to know — you know what I mean? — to even think — my sister, like, I’ve been through so much kind of watching my sister, you know, because her son is Black, and he’s my nephew. And he’s amazing. But, like, just seeing her go through the stress — and, you know, he’s been pulled over, and there’s been things that have happened. And, like, her utter terrifying just emotion of, like, you know, “What if something happens to him? What if” — you know, all of these things, during the protests after George Floyd’s murder. And I can live vicariously through her and feel that terror, but I know that I don’t have that same terror, because of the way he presents, you know? And it’s like other things may happen to him, and that’s a normal terror that parents have. But it’s hard. It’s, like, I can imagine it, because, you know, of being with my sister.

But it’s just — it’s such a — it’s such a horrible thing to think that the system that he was caught up in is so uncaring and is so, actually, actively against these young men, you know, that there is no — even when people are exonerated. This is what kills me, is that the system is so efficient, that even when people are exonerated — they have been proven innocent — like, there was one story about a guy who was literally in prison, he was in jail already, when he was — they said that he had murdered somebody else. Like, he was already in the system, and he still got bullied into a plea or something and ended up in prison. And it took like decades to get him out, you know? And you just kind of go, these prisons are not there for rehabilitation. They’re not there for correction, whatever that means. They’re there to make money. And they’re there to keep these young men inside or to keep them in the system, because, like, when they go inside and when they come out, they just — a lot of times they reoffend, because they have been affected so much by being in prison. And it’s like that’s obviously a system that has been — that is there, because that is — it works. You know? Like, people say, “Oh, the prison system is broken.” I’m just like, “Actually, no, it’s not broken. That’s like — that’s the way it’s meant to work.”

And so, like, you hear him talking about, like, “I was feeling these things, and I asked for help,” and he’s not getting help inside. And you’re just like, “Yeah, they don’t want to help him.” You know what I mean? And it’s just like, I’m sure that there are people, good people, in there somewhere. I don’t know where they are. I don’t even know if they can be. I don’t even know if the system allows caring or humanity. You know? I think it probably weeds it out. You know, I know everybody’s got their own story, but it’s just — it’s hard to hear that, because you just know that that’s being repeated at countless prisons and correctional facilities all over this country, you know, that there are people inside — and whether they did something or not, because at this point I’m like, you know, there’s a lot — it’s very complicated, because if you’re driven to crime, like, I want to look at what’s happening, you know, that is surrounding that action. You know, we tend to just punish people without looking at the situation that they come out of. And it’s like, well, how has the system contributed to that? How has our culture contributed to that?

But anyway, even if you take somebody who’s been proven innocent, and it’s just like to know that there are people being treated like that in our institutions, you know, this is why I wrote the song. It’s why I’ve put it out there. And the other thing is, before we move on about the story, is, you know, I wrote that as kind of an emotional response of like, you know, feeling like, yeah, that was another wasted life. Like, here’s — you know, whatever genius he had, whatever beautiful things he could have done, like, we’re all robbed of them, you know, because of what happened.

And when I’ve been performing this live, I brought that nephew, that same — my sister’s son, who’s a rapper. And I asked him, because I had brought him on tour, and I asked him to listen to the song and create some bars, you know, to rap in the middle of the song. And he came up with this beautiful thing, because I wanted — he’s, like, kind of staring down the barrel of a gun, you know, by being a young Black man in America, like, so I wanted his voice in this song. It’s important for me that it’s not just about, like, what am I saying, but I want to be either a catalyst or a framer, or, you know, a platform for somebody else, you know? And so I wanted him to be able to say whatever he wanted to say. And he ends his words with, you know, “As long as we say their names, it’s not a wasted life.” And so, when we perform it live, it goes back and forth. And I kind of feel like I’m like the mother, and he’s like — you know what I mean? It’s like we add some layers to the song, because it is like people are going through these things, and it’s — it just was an important perspective to kind of mix with mine. So, we were able to do that, perform — we were able to perform it like that on The Daily Show last night. So that performance is up online, and I think it’s a really powerful one because of the generations, too, you know? So, I’m the older generation; he’s the younger generation. And it really kind of complicates the narrative and adds layers to it. And that’s important to me, because, like, all narratives are complicated, you know? We tend to like to slim them down, but I like to add to that and to add to the voices that are coming out. So, I just wanted to mention that.

AMY GOODMAN: Rhiannon, I want to just play a clip from The Daily Show of you and your nephew.

RHIANNON GIDDENS: [singing] Oh, it’s just another wasted life

DEMEANOR: [rapping] As long as we say their name
Then that’s no wasted life
That is no wasted life

RHIANNON GIDDENS: [singing] It’s just another wasted life

DEMEANOR: [rapping] As long as we say their name
Then that’s no wasted life
That is no wasted life

RHIANNON GIDDENS: [singing] It’s just another wasted life

DEMEANOR: [rapping] As long as we say their name
The truth gets saved through time
Then that’s no wasted life

RHIANNON GIDDENS: [singing] It’s just another wasted life

DEMEANOR: [rapping] That’s not a wasted life
That’s not a wasted life
That’s not a wasted life
That’s not a wasted life
The truth gets saved through time
Then that’s not a wasted life
That’s not a wasted life
That’s not a wasted life
As long as we say their name
Then that’s not a wasted life
As long as we say their name
As long as we say their name
Then that’s not a wasted life
That’s not a wasted life
That’s not a wasted life
As long as we say their name
The truth gets saved through time
As long as we say their name
Then that’s no wasted life
That’s not a wasted life
That’s not a wasted life

AMY GOODMAN: So, that’s Rhiannon Giddens and her nephew Demeanor on The Daily Show. Rhiannon, you’re going tonight to receive the Pulitzer Prize for your opera, Omar, which explores the life of Omar ibn Said, a Black Muslim scholar who was enslaved in the 1800s. This is the song “Julie’s Aria.”

RHIANNON GIDDENS: [singing] My daddy wore a cap like yours

He got down on his knee and he faced the rising sun
And he did it again when the day was done
He wouldn’t need this and he wouldn’t need that
No matter the lee, no matter the fed

He drove my mama crazy, but she loved him anyway
They found each other in the darkness
The way they looked at the world wasn’t the same
But the way that they looked at each other, there was the flame

They sold my daddy down when I was ten
I’ve never grown as fast as I did then
The last look in his eye was for me and her
I’ll never forget the family we were

No matter what they say, our hearts beat red

AMY GOODMAN: That’s one of Rhiannon Giddens’ songs. It’s “Julie’s Aria” from her Pulitzer Prize-winning opera, Omar. Rhiannon, this is just astounding. Can you talk about the life of Omar ibn Said?

RHIANNON GIDDENS: I can, yeah. He was a 37-year-old Qur’anic scholar, who had been studying, you know, for all of his adult life, and even when he was a child. And he was 37 years old, and he was sold into slavery. His compound was overrun, and he was sold, and he had to go over the Middle Passage, and he ended up in Charleston, was his first port of call. And he was sold to a man there, that he, I think, used him pretty badly, like put him in the fields and treated him very badly. And, you know, he ran away from him, and he ended up in North Carolina. And they found him in a jail. They put him in jail, because you couldn’t just be a random Black person walking around. Somebody had to own you, or you were, you know, imprisoned. And so he was put into jail. And he was found there, and he had written on the walls, with the ashes, verses of the Qur’an. And so, he was sold to a family in North Carolina, where he lived out the rest of his life, another 50 years. He lived into his eighties and was never freed.

And the reason we know who he is is that he wrote an autobiography in Arabic. So, he was pressed upon to write the story of his life, even though he begins it with “I cannot write my life,” because this was 20 years after he had been brought to the United States. And it’s just a remarkable document. It’s the only — as best as the scholars who’ve told me know, it’s the only autobiography written by an enslaved person while they’re enslaved, that we have, you know, anywhere in the United States. And it’s definitely the only document written in Arabic by an enslaved person. So, it’s a really special thing that we have it.

And I was commissioned by the Spoleto Festivals, the first opera they commissioned, to write an opera, and I brought in Michael Abels, who’s an incredible composer and film scorer, and who knows the orchestra and knows how to write for orchestra. I know how to write for banjo and for voice. So, between the two of us, we created the score for Omar, and I wrote the libretto. And it was a really intense experience, you know.

But it’s just so amazing that Omar’s story has been — is being lifted by this opera, being lifted by the existence of this work, and more and more people are knowing about him, because the whole point for me was to complicate the — again, the complication — to complicate the American narrative, like who gets to say that they represent the American story, you know? Why is — why is the _Mayflower_’s — you know, somebody who came on the Mayflower, why is that held up as representational, when Omar’s is just as representational? It’s just not as — you know, it’s not as pleasant. It’s very challenging, and also that there were so many Muslims that were brought over to the United States, and they have, you know, a massive impact on the culture and, in some places, the language. You know, if you go to the Georgia Sea Islands, where you can trace some of the words in Guale to Arabic.

So, it’s just — it’s just an opportunity to really just kind of blow things wide open and go, “Well, this is another huge part of the story that hasn’t been told.” And going through the life of Omar, you can really represent that in a way that’s just really remarkable, because he was remarkable. You know, he was remarkable, that he was able to hold onto his faith. He quoted the Qur’an 'til he died, you know, and he was by himself. He wasn't like, you know, surrounded by people that — you know, like he was when he was back home, and he has to carry the whole thing on his own. You know, he has to remember the verses. He has to remember the language. He has to do it all, you know, in isolation. And that’s just — you know, it’s a thing. And he did it. And now that — he left something so that we can, you know, look at his words and go, “Wow, what a remarkable life.”

AMY GOODMAN: And how did you feel when you heard that you’d won the Pulitzer Prize for this opera, Rhiannon?

RHIANNON GIDDENS: I mean, it was kind of crazy. I had forgotten that they had even, you know, put it in for consideration. I was just not even thinking about it. And I was like — I put my son to bed, and I just went for a walk around my neighborhood and got a tweet. It was like Twitter. It was like a tweet from the Pulitzer Prize people, like, you know, “Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Music.” I didn’t even — you know, I just saw the tweet like everybody else. It was crazy.

What I love about winning is not really for myself, but I love that it makes another platform for Omar’s story to be heard, another opportunity to tell his story — right? — and also that it was the first Pulitzer Prize for Music that was awarded to a team. It was awarded to two people. And I feel really good about that, because I love collaboration. And I feel like there’s so many different ways to be a composer. Like, I don’t compose with dots, you know, with sheet music. I compose orally. I compose with my voice. I compose with my banjo. And, you know, I worked with someone else, you know? I sent him things, and then he sort of deepened — you know, he deepened them into the orchestra. And so we kind of made this really incredible team. Like, I did things that Michael can’t do, and Michael did things that I couldn’t do it. And so, together, we made something that neither one of us could have made on our own. And I think there’s room for that in composition. You know, we have this idea that the composer sits in an ivory tower, kind of, you know, with his hair — always a “him,” right? His hair sort of over his forehead, and he’s sort of scribbling furiously like on lined paper, and he’s doing it all himself. And, you know, I’m not interested in that. I’m interested in how we can come together and do something bigger than either one of us. And Michael and I certainly did that, in service to Omar’s story.

AMY GOODMAN: Rhiannon, you talk about Omar living out his years in North Carolina. You were born in North Carolina, in Greensboro. Can you — 


AMY GOODMAN: — talk about your own Indigenous and African American roots and how you first picked up the banjo, how you got involved with music, the trajectory of your life and all of the musical forms that you have now excelled in and express yourself in?

RHIANNON GIDDENS: Wow! OK. How much — how long do you have? OK, I’ll give you the capsule version. Yeah, I’m from North Carolina, from a mixed family, mixed Black and white and, I know, Indigenous, you know, back there. It’s kind of a typical Southern story of Black, white and red mixed in sort of indiscriminate ways. And I don’t claim a tribal affiliation. I like to say I’m like Native adjacent, you know? I know I’ve got cousins who identify as Native, but I, myself, use that story to try to raise awareness and to highlight and to ally myself with the Native story, the Indigenous story, because so many Indigenous people feel invisible, because, you know, a lot of mainstream culture just assumes that that was passed and there’s not even — “There’s no Indians around.” And I use the word “Indian,” because a lot of people, especially in North Carolina, consider themselves as Indian, Indian Country, Indian culture. So, you know, it’s complicated, not any group is monolithic, including Indigenous people. And then, you know, obviously, there’s Black and white, and that’s been the main — my main sort of affiliation. And I didn’t know anything about Omar’s story, which made me so mad, because I was born and raised in North Carolina. But anyway, you know, that’s another thing.

So, I just grew up, you know, as a Southerner, and I grew up with my grandparents first and living out in the country and listening to Hee Haw and listening to blues and jazz records and just whatever they were listening to. And, you know, over the years, I’ve got a lot of different music from different people — my dad, my sister, my mom, my grandparents — and just sort of took it all in, and went to Oberlin, you know, graduated with a bachelor’s in music. You know, I always loved opera. I loved it. I love it. I still love it. You know, I was soprano. I did a bunch of operas. I was Juliet. I was all of these things. And then I came back home, and I was like, “What am I doing? You know, like, what am I doing in opera that like a million other sopranos can’t do as good or better than me? Like, what am I bringing?” I remember thinking this, you know?

And while I was trying to figure that out, I started contra dancing. Like, it’s like square dancing, but in long lines. It’s a community dance, you know? And that’s when I fell in love with the banjo, because there were always live bands and a lot of old-time bands. And then I found out the history of the banjo, and then I was — kind of record scratch time. You know, that was it. It wasn’t just because I love the banjo, but I felt the injustice of having been raised in North Carolina surrounded by banjo music, not knowing the true history of the banjo, like wanting to learn the banjo and feeling like I had to ask permission, you know, and then finding out that the banjo itself is a Black instrument and that the tradition itself is a Creole tradition that’s a cross-cultural collaborative tradition, and that I didn’t have to ask any permission to play this music, because it was my music, you know. And I just got really upset. You know, I just got mad. I was just like, “Why haven’t I been told this? You know, why don’t I know this?” And then, immediately falling on the heels of that question was: And in whose best interest is it that I don’t know this thing?

And so, that just kind of set me off on my path of, you know, trying to uncover, to discover, to shine a light, you know, and just I’ve just kind of gone where I’ve been led, really, because I just — I love — I loved all the stories, the stories that we don’t hear, you know, in our school system, the stories that aren’t deemed interesting enough or that deviate from the narrative of this is white and this is Black, and Brown doesn’t exist, and, you know, let’s keep everything separated so that they don’t realize that we’re snookering them all.

AMY GOODMAN: So, talk about being a part of The Carolina Chocolate Drops. And then I want to ask you about Our Native Daughters, Rhiannon.

RHIANNON GIDDENS: Of course, yeah. The Carolina Chocolate Drops is a, you know, Black string band that was formed around 2006. And kind of the center of it was learning from Joe Thompson, who was an 86-year-old African American fiddler from Mebane, North Carolina, that was one of the last, like, proponents of the old string band tradition, not the only Black fiddler, you know, left in the country, but one of the last of that kind of old-time, you know, Black string band tradition, rural tradition, where it had been passed down as an oral tradition from the time of slavery. And so, you know, we wanted to take that out into the world and educate about that.

So, it was myself, Dom Flemons and Justin Robinson, were the original members of the Chocolate Drops. Over the years, there would be different, really super talented Black instrumentalists and singers who have come into the group and gone on to do great things, like Leyla McCalla, Hubby Jenkins. The first trio was myself, Dom and Justin, and we were the ones who worked with Joe Thompson for some years.

For a while I wasn’t sure what our legacy was going to be. I still don’t know. Because, you know, we had a great run. We shook up the industry. We kind of reminded people about, you know, Black people used to play banjos and fiddles, and still do. You know, we made a mark. And then we split, and we went our separate ways. And it’s only like in the last few years that I have seen — it’s so — it’s so surreal, you know, when people of color who play these instruments, you know, who are young, you know, who are the age that we were when we started the band, come up, and they go, “Oh, I remember seeing you when I was young, when I was really small.” And I’m just like, “Oh my god, I’m old now.” But the magical thing is that, you know, they’re going on and doing things and forming bands and making a difference. And we’re in all of their bios, you know? It’s a really powerful, magical feeling to know that we’ve done some small thing to help perpetuate this tradition, and that Joe, somewhere, I hope, is smiling.

You know, I actually put his square dance into Omar, which makes me just so joyful. Every time I hear it, it’s, you know, the calls that he used to make and he passed on to us and the song that he used to do it to. And that’s on stage, you know, in an opera. And I always go — I always go teach the cast how to do the dance for real — for real, for real, not like a fake, like, “I learned this in middle school.” No, no, no, no, we’re doing a frolic. We’re doing the real stuff. We’re getting down to the ground. We’re doing this thing, you know, and I’m telling them the history of it. And the joy in their faces when I’m teaching them all the moves and we’re doing all this, you know, the circle dance and this and going left and right, and you just kind of go, “Wow! Like, what have we lost? Like, this used to be such a thing, and now it’s just like in sort of pockets.” But, you know, I see the joy in these people’s faces. And I’m like, “Man, there’s something here. We’ve got to like — we’ve got to bring this back.”

But, anyway, so that’s The Carolina Chocolate Drops. And I’m always going to be proud of the work that we did.

AMY GOODMAN: And then, Our Native Daughters, and Songs of Our Native Daughters, which highlight the struggle, the resistance, the hope of Black women, resonating back to the 17th, the 18th, the 19th century, talk about your work there.

RHIANNON GIDDENS: Yeah, I was in the Smithsonian, the Museum for African American Culture — History and Culture at Smithsonian in D.C. And I was just really struck with some of the historical exhibits. And I was just thinking that — how we need to be making music from these really hard things. And it started just kind of turned into this project. I, you know, was — they asked me to record something for them. And I said — I’m just thinking, “OK, here’s the project. I want to do something with these historical things in the Smithsonian.”

And then it just kind of like, as I was thinking about who to do it with, you know, women, the story of women, especially Black women, really is what has driven me a lot in my solo work. You know, my earliest songwriting dealt with women during the slavery times and coming from slave narratives, enslaved people’s narratives and different paraphernalia around slavery, but always centering women, because I felt like that’s not the stories we get. You know, even if we get enslaved stories, we don’t always get — other than Harriet Tubman. That’s kind of it. And so, the opportunity to bring three other Black women, you know, together with myself.

And then I wanted the banjo to be central, because it’s also been so maligned and so misunderstood. And it’s so central to American culture, you know, that I wanted it to be other banjo-playing Black women. So, I keep telling people, like, “There’s more than just me. There’s a lot of us, actually, at this point, you know.” But to work with Amythyst Kiah and Allison Russell and Leyla McCalla, all who play different kinds of banjos and different kinds of music. And it was just magic. It was just magic. They came together. And, you know, Allison Russell told me that it kind of kickstarted her songwriting again. And, you know, she’s like going gangbusters, like doing incredible work and writing these beautiful albums. And so is Amythyst and Leyla, doing all this work with Haitian music. And so, these two, I mean, they had careers before Our Native Daughters. But it was a moment where all of us coming together seemed to really light a spark in people, and they really responded to the record. And the songs that these ladies wrote, you know, were just really amazing. So, it was an incredible experience for all of us.

AMY GOODMAN: Rhiannon, can you tell us your favorite song from Our Native Daughters?

RHIANNON GIDDENS: Oh gosh, you know, I love them all. But, like, I think “Moon Meets Sun” was one of the first ones that we wrote, and it was one that three of us wrote together. Leyla wasn’t there that day. It was me and Alli and Amythyst. And it really has all three of us in it. And that’s just — that was just a magic moment. We just kind of went, “OK, this is a thing. Like, this is so cool.” We don’t have to explain ourselves to each other. We don’t have to, like — you know, we just, like — there was just so much that we didn’t have to do, because we all were like, “Yeah, yeah, yeah. We know — yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah.” You know? And it was just — it kind of made for a really wonderful communal energy that surrounded the song. So that’s definitely one of my favorites.

OUR NATIVE DAUGHTERS: [singing] When the day is done
The moon meets the sun
We’ll be dancing
When the day is done
The moon meets the sun
We’ll be dancing

You put the shackles on our feet
But we’re dancing
You steal our very tongue
But we’re dancing

Brown girl in the ring
Raise your voice and sing

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Rhiannon Giddens. And, Rhiannon, before you go, your latest album we’ve been talking about, You’re the One, your third solo studio album, your first of all original songs — we talked about “Another Wasted Life.” Share another one with us and the story behind it. And you talk so much about community music and community dance, but now you’re a soloist, and how that feels?

RHIANNON GIDDENS: Well, it’s so funny. My band, who I’ve been taking out on the road for this, you know, our first few records — or, sorry, first few concerts, you know, we did like 10 to 11 songs from the record, and it was just all me singing. And I just — I was kind of going, “Ugh, this is not really my thing.” I’m a real band person, even though I’m a soloist, so it’s always been a little bit of friction, because I want to be in a band, but, like, I have a solo career. And it was — like, I had vocal issues, and I had to — it was terrible. You know, I had to cancel a couple shows. You know, my voice was gone. I had to go on complete vocal rest. And so we had to rejigger the whole show. And so, everybody took a piece of the show, and we had more instrumentals. And all of a sudden, I was back in a band again, and I was so much happier, you know? I was so much happier.

And so, it’s just like also kind of how do you exist in — how do you — how do you kind of, like, make the life that you want to make in an industry that is very regimented and is very much like it has to be this way, it has to be this way, and it’s very money-based, and it’s very, you know, rigid, and so just always trying to figure out how to do that. So, how do I — how do I have a band as a soloist? So, I have an incredible band, and I do consider them as important as me.

The song I would love to highlight at the end here is probably “Yet to Be.” It’s the only feature on the record. It features Jason Isbell, and it’s a duet. And it’s about, you know, two young people from different parts of the world. You don’t have to know where they’re from. But in my brain, it’s a young Black woman from the South going North and a young Irish boy crossing the ocean to meet her in the North. And they meet each other, and, you know, as often happens in America, some of the best things come when cultures meet, you know, when cultures rub up against each other, and that edge kind of creates this friction, which then makes this new thing, which then everybody wants a piece of. And the other thing that happens is that the people who make that, you know, the music or the dance or whatever that came out of that friction, also often have babies together. And those babies go on to, you know, to meet other folks and have even more mixed babies. So, I’m a mixed baby. And so, this is a story about that, you know?

And it was in a rare burst of optimism that I wrote this song, just thinking about, yeah, there’s a lot that’s wrong with America, there’s a lot from the foundation that is rotten, you know, to things that are happening right now, but there’s also been a lot of strides. There’s also been a lot of good people fighting to make things better. And I just had a moment of going, you know, if we don’t stand here for a second and think about what we’ve gained — like, my parents, when they were married, it was three years after it was federally legal, you know, because they got married in 1970. And it’s like, when you think about that, when you think about today, I don’t even have to — I didn’t even have to think about getting married to my husband, you know, who’s Irish, when we got married. So, just thinking about, like, “OK, if we don’t take stock of what we have gained, if we don’t take stock of the good things that we have, that are slowly being eroded, they will go.” You know, we have to know what we have so that we cherish it, so that we fight for it, so that we can keep it. Anyway, that was kind of the thought behind it. Nothing is simple in my world, sorry. It’s just like everything is like laaah. But that’s kind of what I was thinking when I wrote “Yet to Be” with Marcus Hummon in Nashville one day a few years ago, so…

AMY GOODMAN: This is “Yet to Be.”

RHIANNON GIDDENS: [singing] She was born on a farm, working the clay
She ran off when she was 16
Down a long country road with nowhere to go
She knew that she had to leave

She hopped a one-way train with a ticket to ride
In the third class back with the others
She watched the farm fade away, just hoping and praying
She’d have a better life than her mother’s

RHIANNON GIDDENS and JASON ISBELL: [singing] It’s a long, long way from where we’ve been
The here and now is better than it was back then
Today may break your heart, but tomorrow holds the key
We’ve come so far, but the best is yet to be

AMY GOODMAN: There that’s an excerpt of “Yet to Be,” Rhiannon Giddens singing about her own life, falling in love with an Irishman and then moving to Ireland. You have two kids. How has being in Ireland changed your life, Rhiannon?

RHIANNON GIDDENS: It’s been really interesting to be outside of the States. It’s not something that I — it wasn’t about running away, or, you know, I’m going to leave if so-and-so gets elected, because I always believe that you should stay and fight, you know, because there’s people who can’t leave, who can’t afford to move, who don’t have connections anywhere else, you know? So, I think we have to — we have to make a quorum.

For us, it was really just the decision to give the children an Irish experience, you know, because if you don’t live in a country, you don’t actually really know that country. You’re always a visitor. So, now they’ll feel like they’re full at home wherever they go, because they — America is the one culture that’s exported to everywhere, so it’s easier to get.

But, for me, it was — it’s been really an interesting — I get a little bit of a break. I understood why there was a lot of Black intellectuals and activists, you know, who moved to France, who moved to Denmark or whatever, like, back in the day. And I kind of understand that, because if you’re fighting for — you know, if you’re being an activist, you’re fighting for things to be better in your home country, which is something that I do with my art, it can be — you carry it with you all the time. And when you’re on the soil that the story is from, it’s kind of like — it’s a little extra, you know? And having the opportunity to go step on somebody else’s soil, which has their own complex history and their own sorrow and their own joy and their own, you know, colonial history with England, it’s still removed from me, so it gives me a minute to kind of breathe and to just consider how connected we all are, but also just be able to kind of be at a remove for a second, knowing that I’ll be going back. You know, I’m always coming back to the States, so it’s not like I’m there for forever. But it does allow me a perspective, too, and just how people outside of the States look at the States. And yeah, it’s just — it’s been very enriching, I have to say. I mean, Ireland is a beautiful country, and I enjoy living there. But it’s been interesting. That shift in perspective, I think, is important.

AMY GOODMAN: Your music is sometimes described as freedom songs. Can you talk about that mission? And in this time of censorship, of increasing book bannings, can you talk about the relationship between your art and liberation?

RHIANNON GIDDENS: Oh my gosh. Freedom songs, well, that’s the compliment that I wouldn’t have looked for, but I love that that was ever said. I mean, I think — oh gosh, I mean, I don’t know. I just try to do what I can. The only reason I’m still in the music industry is that I feel like this is what I was here to do, is to make connections by reading all of the scholarship that’s out there with the history and all these geniuses putting out these books for me to read, and then I, you know, synthesize that into a piece of music, into a song, into an opera, into a ballet, into whatever, and then that lands where it lands. And sometimes there’s teachers teaching it in their classes. And sometimes there’s just people going, “Oh wow, I hadn’t really thought of that until I heard your song.” And I go, “Well, that’s my job.” I feel like I’m the performing arts arm of the scholar wing, you know, of society.

And my thing is, with the songs that I write — I think “Another Wasted Life” probably is the the exception — is that I always leave it at the end with — it’s always about how we overcome these things. You know, “At the Purchaser’s Option,” you know, about an enslaved woman and whether or not she will lose her baby, and she has no idea, she has no control over if somebody is going to buy her baby off of her, and all the horror that that comes with, but the chorus is “You can take my body / You can take my bones / You can take my blood / But not my soul.” It’s like the whole point is that even under these incredibly hard situations, and in this, you know, unending brutality of being Black in America, we still persevere, and the goal is still to overcome, to thrive, to find joy, you know, as much as we can.

So, that’s all I can do, is do that as much as I can and to take all the opportunities that I’m given to do that as much as I can, while I can. And just it’ll hit as it hits, and it hits who it hits. And I’m always trying to reach as many people as I can with it. So, that was part of You’re the One, was, you know, just try to widen the circle a little bit and kind of pull some people in who may not have heard of me, and go, “Now why don’t you listen to these things?” You know, I do what I can, because I think that’s what we all should be doing, is what we can, in a way that we uniquely can do it, because we were all given — we were all given talents in order to do this. It’s just finding them and putting them to use.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Rhiannon Giddens, we thank you so much for being with us, Grammy- and Pulitzer Prize-winning artist, just won the 2023 Pulitzer Prize for Music for her opera Omar with Michael Abels. Her new album is titled You’re the One. This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman. Thanks for joining us.

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