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Yo-Yo Ma’s Silkroad names Rhiannon Giddens as new artistic director

The North Carolina musician has made a career exploring the Black origins of the banjo and roots music

Folk artist, banjo evangelist, Grammy winner and MacArthur genius grant recipient Rhiannon Giddens will be the new artistic director of Silkroad. Cellist Yo-Yo Ma founded the artistic organization in 1998 to foster multicultural connection and collaboration among music artists across the world, sort of like an ongoing United Nations jam session.

Silkroad announced the decision Tuesday morning. Giddens’ first official appearance as Silkroad’s new artistic director will be July 29 during Tanglewood’s virtual “Recitals from the World Stage.”

“Rhiannon is an extraordinary human being and musician,” Ma said in a statement provided by Silkroad. “She lives Silkroad’s values, at once rooted in history and its many musics, and is an advocate for the contemporary voices that can move us to work together for a better world.”

Giddens, 43, recorded a rendition of “St. James Infirmary Blues” with the Silkroad ensemble and got to know the group better when she did a TED Talk in 2016 about marrying history with music. “It was just really, really cool. I was like, ‘These people are awesome. I love what they’re doing,’ ” Giddens said when I reached her via video chat at her home in Limerick, Ireland. “And then years passed and … I was called up out of the blue — to me — by [executive director] Kathy Fletcher and I was like, ‘What? What? Say that again.’ I didn’t see it coming at all, and the more that I thought about it, the more I thought, ‘What a really cool idea.’ We’ve been talking about this since February, so far before the pandemic and the breakdown and the protests. It’s not a direct response to that — like, oh, let’s put a Black woman in charge!”

The Greensboro, North Carolina, native has made a career of educating the public through music, specifically about the Black origins of the banjo and roots music. She formed the Carolina Chocolate Drops in 2006, and their album, Genuine Negro Jig, won the Grammy for best traditional folk album in 2010. Last year, in collaboration with Amythyst Kiah, Leyla McCalla and Allison Russell, Giddens released the album Songs of Our Native Daughters, documenting Black women’s legacy of resistance to oppression. In the liner notes she wrote, “There is surely racism in this country — it’s baked into our oldest institutions — just as there is sexism, millennia old. At the intersection of the two stands the African American woman. Used, abused, ignored and scorned, she has in the face of these things been unbelievably brave, groundbreaking and insistent.”

Rhiannon Giddens formed the Carolina Chocolate Drops in 2006, and their album, Genuine Negro Jig, won the Grammy for best traditional folk album in 2010.

Ebru Yildiz

We spoke about her new job as artistic director of Silkroad, along with other projects she’s got in the hopper.

This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.

You’ve been a bandleader before, and now you’re shaping the vision of an entire arts organization. What are the challenges that come with that?

When somebody comes from the outside, that can be a really positive thing, especially when you’ve been an organization for a while. Often, someone from the outside can offer a perspective that’s not there already and can see things that even within, people might say, ‘We’ve been taking this for granted.’ Let’s amplify that! It’s hard to see some of those things sometimes when you’ve been in it for so long. And it’s going to be cool for me to approach something with a totally open mind, totally blank slate.

I feel more confident this year than if the same offer had been two years ago. My own work has led me to the context of African American and American music within the global context. My partner [Francesco Turrisi, with whom she recorded There is No Other] is an encyclopedia of music that’s not American. I’ve been exposed to a lot of the things that make up the music of the Silkroad in ways that I hadn’t before.

The movement for Black lives has gone global. You’ve spent your career preserving stories of enslaved Black people in your music, and excavating Black traditions in roots music. How does that work fold into your new role?

It’s weird to be an artist that’s been pushing the discovery of the actual narrative of American music rather than the forced, false narrative we’ve been fed. I’ve been doing that in one way or another since 2006 when the Chocolate Drops formed. It’s weird to have people sharing my music on Twitter and amplifying my whatever as they realize, ‘Oh, this is the stuff you’ve been singing about.’ I’m like, ‘Yeah! I’ve been doing this. Now you want to talk to me!?’

There are plenty of people who wanted to hear it before, who wanted to talk to me before, but now it’s like, all of a sudden everybody wants my Negro opinion! All my Black artist friends are like, ‘Oh my God, me too!’

People mean well, and they’re really trying and that’s great, and we have to start where the other person is, but we also have to — I was getting fatigued before this happened. Every day, every show … it’s super intense. Mostly white audiences, and they’re supportive, but there’s always some people of color and I’m like, ‘There you are! I see you!’

I believe everybody’s mission is the mission they are given and we don’t always have control over who that mission goes to. You’re given the tools and you do what you do and whoever needs to hear it, that’s where you go. But every day I’m talking about minstrelsy, slavery, coon songs and just laying it out and doing it in a way that’s hopefully going to bring the most people with me but not rolling over. It’s a very fine line to walk and it’s exhausting. I’m very proud of what I’ve done and very honored to carry this. I’m doing everything I can to add to the conversation in a positive way. The thing that excites me about Silkroad is the chance to amplify, further, what I’ve been doing for 14 years.

You’re also working on an opera about Omar ibn Said, originally scheduled to premiere at the Spoleto Festival this year. Where does that stand?

This opera, incorporating a whole ‘nother layer of Black Islam — I ain’t know nothin’ about Islam when I signed up for that so I had to learn. It’s like, a whole ‘nother set of people to piss off, you know what I mean?

It’s about Omar ibn Said, an Islamic scholar who was sold into slavery and he died enslaved [in the 1800s]. He was over 50 years an enslaved person in North Carolina. In Fayetteville. They commissioned me to write an opera, and I wrote the libretto. It was an amazing experience to do that. It was a very spiritual experience. I’m co-composing it with Michael Abels. He wrote the score for Get Out and Us and he’s a classical composer as well. He’s hittin’ it! He’s so great to work with. When we can come together and create that web that lifts the whole art, that’s what I love.

So we’re creating this folk classical opera and I’m writing the themes on the banjo and the fiddle. You hear it and you go, ‘That is an American opera. That’s a real American opera.’ It’s inspired by Senegalese Sufi music. It’s exciting. We’re finishing up bits and pieces since it doesn’t have to go up until next year.

Can we talk about the Songs of 1898 project? It’s about the Wilmington Race Massacre of 1898, right? I’m just thinking about how transformative Watchmen was in alerting the public to the Tulsa Race Massacre. I certainly didn’t learn about Wilmington in public school in North Carolina.

Me neither. It’s mind-boggling and it’s mind-blowing.

As horrible as Tulsa was — and Tulsa was horrible — Wilmington was impactful in a different way. Wilmington was horrible, too. But Wilmington became a blueprint that was then used, over and over again. It’s really the last death knell of any kind of Reconstruction, of any kind of Blacks and whites living in peaceful harmony [laughs] economically. It was the death blow to that. What happened there and how white supremacists weaponized the KKK, destroyed this political entity, how they saw the threat coming — you see that happen again and again and again. There was a coup and the federal government did nothing!

If people know about one [massacre], they know about Tulsa. And what happened politically in Wilmington is just as important as what happened financially in Tulsa. People are horrified when they watch Watchmen and they find out what happened. I’m like, ‘Yeah, I know. Welcome to American history.’ It sucks, but that’s the power of art. When you consider that they took this historical thing and worked it into this comic book reboot, they really opened a lot of people’s eyes with that choice. I think that’s important for people to remember — people who make things. It’s important to remember the power that it has. I think people have been frittering away that power for a long time if you look at the movies.

I saw that you posted a photo of a pan of gorgeous biscuits on Instagram. What flour are you using in Ireland to create them when you can’t get White Lily? What’s your secret?

I’m in Ireland, and ‘biscuits’ here are cookies. And the scones are not biscuits. People on my Insta — I wanted to shoot them all — were like, ‘That’s a scone.’ I’m like, ‘I’ve had scones. That ain’t no scone.’ So I will be posting scones vs. biscuits soon.

But I started making biscuits because I was getting very homesick and I’ve had to cancel all my trips. I won’t be back till Christmas, maybe. So I was like, ‘I need a frickin’ biscuit.’ I found a video. This woman got Carla Hall — Carla’s watching her over Skype — to guide her. So all the questions that you would have, she asks. I watched it twice before I did anything.

Now, the flour. The protein content of White Lily — obviously you cannot get that here — is 9%. It’s the protein content that counts, and the fineness. So I found some 00 Italian flour here that’s very finely ground, but it only has 9% protein. A lot of 00 flour is 11 or 12% ’cause you’re making pizza and pasta. I found this off-brand 00 flour that was 9%, and I was like, ‘I think that might work!’

Soraya Nadia McDonald is the culture critic for The Undefeated. She writes about pop culture, fashion, the arts, and literature. She is the 2020 winner of the George Jean Nathan prize for dramatic criticism, a 2020 finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in criticism, and the runner-up for the 2019 Vernon Jarrett Medal for outstanding reporting on black life.