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With a Bold New Opera, Folk Star Rhiannon Giddens Turns a New Page on American Music


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Rhiannon Giddens had a disorienting start to her year. In late January, the musician traveled to New Orleans, where she was scheduled to give one of the keynote speeches at the annual Folk Alliance International Conference. Giddens, who brings a historian’s eye and ear to her sprawling, geographically complex work, was a logical choice for the event—this year’s theme was “The Story of People and Place.” On the stage, Giddens introduced her speech with a haunting song, called “Ten Thousand Voices,” which was inspired by a book she’d read about Cuba and the trans-Saharan Arabic slave trade. Then she launched into her speech with a self-deprecating admission and a gesture of solidarity toward the kindred spirits in the crowd, the sort of people who’d rather debate the origins of an obscure instrument than make small talk and pop-culture references. “I am that girl at the party, the one that people see coming and go, ‘Oh, no. I just really want to drink my wine and think about the Kardashians, and here she comes,’ ” she told the crowd. “I suspect there are quite a few of us here, and so I feel in good company.”

Three days later, Giddens found herself in radically different company at the Staples Center in L.A. for the Grammy Awards. She’d been nominated in the category American Roots Performance—one of the dozens of niches that get relegated to the pre-telecast show. “They’ve crammed 80 categories into three hours. And you witness the amazing music that’s on display. All the people who’ve put their hearts and souls into this kind of stuff. And then you go to the telecast, and it’s like, ‘What world is this?’ I had about 20 minutes of being in a really bad mood.” To Giddens, an artist who layers as much specificity and historical context onto each project as she can, the watered-down Hollywood political sensibility of the Grammys was both boring and offensive. “There was so much, ‘Music is love, love is music!’ I’m like, Yo, that’s not enough! You have like two kajillion dollars wrapped up in this. What are you actually doing? The message they’re sending to all these millions of people watching is so, so bland. Take a chance!”

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I met her a few days after the ceremony, at a hotel restaurant in New York City, where she was planning her forthcoming concert series at Carnegie Hall, which begins this October. Giddens, who looks a decade younger than her 43 years, was sleep-deprived, after being awake at 2 a.m. reading articles about income inequality and tweeting. She splits her time between Ireland—where her children and her ex-husband live—her home in North Carolina, her place in Nashville, and her work priorities around the world, which leaves her circadian rhythms jumbled. She often finds herself awake in the middle of the night, scanning news articles about the ills of the world. And yet that morning she had the fervent conversational energy of someone incredibly well-rested.

Giddens, one of the most prominent folk stars of the last decade, is one of the rare artists who truly straddles musical universes. She’s trained in opera, but her musical self-education has taken her outside the confines of any particular genre. She will sing an aria at a rousing bluegrass show; she will use traditional banjo lines in a classical music arrangement. And her obsession with uncovering the shrouded narratives of music from all over the world has infused her work with an uncannily global sound. She weaves together lineages, instruments, and styles that don’t seem related—from Celtic ensemble music to Muslim slave melodies—locating their commonalities and bringing untold stories to light. This intensely nuanced musical crosspollination has earned her accolades from all corners of entertainment and academia—she’s won Grammys (with the Carolina Chocolate Drops, a folk project dedicated to illuminating the history of black Americans in folk music, particularly banjo players), a MacArthur “genius” grant, and many invitations to guest-lecture at prestigious universities, as well as a recurring role on CMT’s country-music drama Nashville. Last year, she was commissioned by Charleston’s Spoleto Festival to write an opera based on the story of the Muslim slave and scholar Omar Ibn Said. The show will mark a full-circle moment for Giddens, who has a momentous opportunity to combine her interests in opera, folk, and the transatlantic slave trade into one masterwork.

Despite Giddens’s ability to traverse the globe, literally, with her music, the one place she still feels like a foreigner is in the beating pulse of the pop-music mainstream. Even the work of someone like Beyoncé, an artist who has used her platform to elucidate the narratives of the black American experience, can feel alienating to Giddens. (“She’s obviously a brilliant performer and businesswoman, but I get tired of her because I’m constantly told that that’s the only way to be a black musician.”) At the Grammys, Giddens says, she was stewing in this feeling of alienation. But once she settled, she had a realization. She entered into the mode of the musical anthropologist. “I adjusted to being in that world, and going, 'This is not the world that I’m in and that’s okay. I’m a witness. And a visitor.'”

When Giddens was a child growing up in Greensboro, North Carolina, she and her sister participated in talent shows and auditioned locally for “star search” competitions. The two begged their mother to let them sing Whitney Houston songs, but she objected, insisting they perform karate routines instead. As a teacher with a feminist understanding of the world, she wanted to protect her kids from the hazards of showmanship. During our conversation, Giddens returned repeatedly to her childhood and the lessons she absorbed from her mother (who passed away when Giddens was in her early twenties). “My mom was always calling out patriarchal bullshit,” she told me. “It drove me nuts at the time. But all that stuff was in my brain, and so I started to see the cover-ups. It was like: Wait a minute! Why don’t we know this? This is vast! This is unknown!”

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In high school, Giddens began taking voice lessons. She chose Oberlin Conservatory for college almost by accident— she liked the brochure. She arrived at school not knowing how to read music, but picked opera as a major because, unlike musical theater, it involved no talking. (Which is funny, because Giddens is a first-rate talker, zipping passionately from subject to subject with an unusually sharp clarity and curiosity.) One of her teachers took kindly to her, taking the time to record pieces of music so Giddens could learn them by ear until she became more comfortable reading sheet music. Opera had been a risky decision, but when Giddens saw The Marriage of Figaro, she knew she’d made the right decision—she was in love. She poured herself into her education, collecting recital programs and avoiding parties.

When she graduated, though, she found that her love of opera was not enough to sustain a career. During this confused, fallow period she learned about Joe Thompson, a legendary local fiddle player who was one of the few musicians keeping the black string-band tradition alive. Thompson helped open Giddens up to that under-sung history. Around the same time she also fell in love with the banjo and its story—it had long been considered a white Appalachian instrument, but a librarian named Dena Epstein had painstakingly traced its African origins, which she explored in a revelatory book, Sinful Tunes and Spirituals.

Energized by her new understanding of folk and bluegrass, Giddens joined forces with a few other black acolytes of Joe Thompson and formed the Carolina Chocolate Drops. In 2013, she was invited to perform at a concert celebrating the music of the Coen Brothers film Inside Llewyn Davis. Her scene-stealing performance caught the attention of T Bone Burnett, who quickly reached out and offered to produce a solo record for Giddens, launching her into solo superstardom within a particular crowd of music fans.

Giddens describes herself as an armchair historian, a ruthless information seeker who follows her curiosity wherever it may lead. But when the Spoleto Festival came to her with the pitch for the opera, she was caught off guard. She hadn’t yet heard the story of Ibn Said, who was captured in Senegal and enslaved in Charleston and in North Carolina, and who wrote an autobiography in Arabic that became famous after his death. Ibn Said’s story is an extraordinary one that was introduced to Spoleto director Nigel Redden several years ago, during a conversation with someone from the Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art. When Redden got his hands on the enslaved scholar’s autobiography—a one-of-a-kind historical document—he became obsessed. “My wife said I’ve spoken about nothing else since,” Redden told me. Later, one of his Spoleto colleagues floated the idea of producing an opera based on his life, a natural fit for a festival held in Charleston.

When it came time to commission someone to write the opera, Giddens was not just the obvious choice—she was the only choice, Redden said. “We didn’t even have a backup,” he explained. It speaks to the rarefied position Giddens occupies: She may be the only classically trained opera singer with such a knack for weaving together the untold narratives of African Americans and their musical and cultural histories. “She’s an archaeologist of music. She has been fierce in looking at music that was often thought of as European with fresh eyes,” Redden explained. “She is also, for us, someone who can speak to an African American audience and a European American audience. She is reaching a very unusual cross section. And yet she’s not esoteric.”

When Spoleto approached Giddens, she did some preliminary research and agreed to write the opera—on the condition that she could recruit outside help for the adaptation, given the intensity of her schedule. She got in touch with Michael Abels, who composed the score for Jordan Peele’s Get Out. Whereas another opera composer or singer might have created a straightforward interpretation of Ibn Said’s extraordinary tale, Giddens, who will perform in the opera, folded in forward-looking layers to his story, introducing a fictional daughter of Ibn Said named Julie. “It’s the character that represents the next or the third generation of enslaved people,” Redden said. “It’s not only a song about what was lost when her father was sold, but a song about all the memories, the cultural heritage that somehow was maintained somewhat, but as if through a veil.”

Giddens never misses an opportunity to expose hidden stories in her work, and part of the mission of Omar is to illuminate the tradition of black people within the context of opera. “Black opera goes all the way back to the beginning of black people in this country,” she told me. “That’s what people don’t understand. There were quite a few famous black opera singers, and there were always these black opera companies.” Giddens reeled off some notable black virtuosos, like singer Sissieretta Jones and piano prodigy Blind Tom Wiggins. Through a project like Omar, she wants to take this historical deconstruction a step further, dismantling our lofty conceptions of opera itself.

“There’s also the idea of: What is composing? Who is a composer? It’s not just someone who can write a score. All oral tradition is just as important as written. I want to challenge that idea of what is considered high art,” she continued.

After an hour or so of conversation, it started to dawn on me that the subject Giddens is least interested in is herself. She will happily discuss her own work, but almost all of her work is wrapped up in history, not her own emotions or experiences. Love songs bore her, she says, and she seldom uses music as a vessel for self-expression. Which is not to say that Giddens’s own background is not worth exploring. The mixed-race child of an absent white father and a black single mother living in the South, there are probably plenty of experiential nuggets to be mined from her own biography. When I ask her if she’s ever explored her personal ancestry and genealogy, she shrugs. “There are definitely stories in my family,” she said. “I’ve done I do know that I represent this mishmash that has come into being after hundreds of years, but I’m very okay with it being vague.”

“I’ve never just been that kind of artist who is like, Let me write this song about my breakup,” she continued. “People have gotten a lot from introspective artistic output. But for me, the less ego I have in something, the better it is.” All musical stylings aside, this is probably what delineates her most strongly from the mainstream—an obsessive interest in a world outside her own.

“I’ve just been working on removing myself from things as much as possible,” Giddens said. “I’m not interested in that. I would get totally bored.”


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