Rhiannon Giddens Gives Voice to the Unheard

Rhiannon Giddens sings about the voices in the United States that aren't always heard.
Rhiannon Giddens sings about the voices in the United States that aren't always heard. Rhiannon Giddens's Facebook page

Rhiannon Giddens sings the kind of music that people in the United States need to hear.

Last weekend, violent white supremacists and neo-Nazis rallied in Charlottesville and across the country, partly in defenseof  Confederate memorials. Giddens celebrates wholly different histories. With a haunted plucking on her banjo, she conjures the past and present lives of black people in the U.S. You can hear love and anguish in her simultaneously tender and powerful voice. These are stories that matter.

As a child in Greensboro, North Carolina, Giddens didn’t always know that she wanted to play music professionally.

“I didn’t grow up playing music, but I grew up singing,” says Giddens. “It was kind of a part of my life, but it wasn’t something that I ever thought I would do for a living.”

That all changed one summer when she attended a music-oriented summer camp. She quickly “fell in love with the idea of being a musician.” That didn’t mean she would immediately start creating the folk-steeped music she does today; she went to Oberlin Conservatory to study opera.

Giddens will play the Rocky Mountain Folks Festival on Friday, August 18. - JOHN PEETS
Giddens will play the Rocky Mountain Folks Festival on Friday, August 18.
John Peets
“It’s great to be trained in anything,” says Giddens. “It teaches you a lot of discipline, and now I definitely use that on the banjo.”

With this discipline, Giddens embarked on a highly successful career. She was a founder of the Carolina Chocolate Drops, the Grammy-winning string band. Recently, she released two solo albums, Tomorrow Is My Turn in 2015, and Freedom Highway in 2017.

Her current music is best described as roots, and bears characteristics of bluegrass, country, gospel, blues and jazz. Don’t try to pinhole Giddens into any one genre; it's not possible.

“I hate genres,” says Giddens. “I think they’re just marketing labels. American music is always best when it comes from a mixture of things. I don’t have a genre because I play lots of different music that people would say are different genres.”

Giddens has too many influences to name. She focuses on making the music that she needs to make for herself, regardless of outside factors.

Her newest album, Freedom Highway, includes a few relevant covers but is mostly made up of original compositions. In “Better Get It Right the First Time,” she sings about police brutality toward black people in modern America. In “At the Purchaser’s Option,” she ponders the dilemma of a slave mother who may lose her child if she’s sold. The other songs on the record are just as profound.

“It’s a historical album,” says Giddens. "People can call it political if they want, but I don’t mention any politicians. I don’t talk about laws. I just talk about people, like I always do. That was the inspiration for me — talking about American voices that don’t always get heard.”

Unfortunately, the reality of performing this music at events like the Folks Fest means playing for majority-white crowds. Giddens isn’t fazed.

“It is what it is. I would love to see more black people at the shows,” says Giddens. “But I like having whoever is there – the people that want to be there. Everybody needs to know these stories. Eventually, I hope the black audience will come, but until then, I’m happy to play for whoever is there.”

Giddens responded to the overt racism in Charlottesville, and the killing of anti-racist protestor Heather Heyer, on Twitter, saying, “The breathtaking hypocrisy shouldn’t surprise me, but it’s times like this I am reminded I am an optimist...”

Asked to elaborate on her optimism, specifically with regard to the power of her music to effect social change, Giddens says she doesn’t have much of a choice.

“I wouldn’t be out here touring constantly if I didn’t hope that my music was going to do something to somebody. Why else would I be doing this? All you can do is make your art, put it out there and hope that it reaches whoever it needs to reach.”

Rhiannon Giddens, 7:15 p.m. Friday, August 18, Rocky Mountain Folks Festival, Planet Bluegrass Ranch, 500 West Main Street, Lyons, 303-823-0848.
KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Sage Marshall is a freelance writer and editor covering outdoor recreation, environmental issues, Denver's music scene, the arts, and other Colorado stories. You can check out more of his work and connect with him here.
Contact: Sage Marshall