One word that Rhiannon Giddens returns to again and again as she discusses her creative endeavors is “reckoning.” In a conversation over Skype from her quarantine home of Limerick, in rural midwestern Ireland, she uses it first to describe her hope that the coronavirus era will change how artists think about their worth and their role in the world.

“Artists are important and deserve to have a life,” she explains. “We deserve to be able to go to the doctor, you know? I hope there’s some reckoning there within the artistic community. That’s the only way that will lead to change.”

Even with performances on hold, Giddens says, the value of art has never been clearer. “What is the world doing to get through this pandemic? They are consuming art. That’s it. They’re watching Netflix, they’re listening to music, they’re reading books.”

Giddens herself has barely had time to catch up on Netflix since the COVID-19 lockdowns began. (She’s so far only managed to finish one series: Ricky Gervais’ After Life). As one of the most in-demand and multifarious talents in the traditional music world—and, increasingly, in the classical and pop spheres, as well—the Grammy-award-winning banjo player, classically trained singer, and composer has managed to keep as busy as many essential workers since March. She’s mounted streaming performances, recorded a new album with multi-instrumentalist Francesco Turrisi—her partner, who lives across the island in Dublin—released collaborations with pop musicians like Ben Harper and Amanda Palmer, and completed most of her first opera.

Perhaps her biggest new challenge, however, is her newfound position as artistic director of Silkroad—the esteemed classical and world music crossover collective and social impact organization founded and led for nearly two decades by cellist Yo-Yo Ma. This makes Giddens the first person to assume the AD title since Ma’s departure in 2017. (In the intervening years, duties were shared between three members.) 

It’s easy for any professional musician to focus on everything that the coronavirus has taken away: the lost opportunities, performances, income. But, at least with Silkroad, Giddens seems fully focused on the productive space the “new normal” has opened up for the group.

“It gives me an opportunity to be a part of a new way of being and not have to first adjust to a whole old way and say, ‘how can we evolve this for where we are now?’” she explains. “It’s almost like everything’s been leveled. Now we’re building this all together.”

Named for the ancient system of trade routes that connected East Asia with South Asia, Europe, and Africa, the ensemble at the center of the Silkroad organization is composed of musicians who practice disparate folk and classical traditions from around the world. Silkroad members work collaboratively both in small and large formations on a wide variety of musical projects, from full-scale tours to outreach initiatives. Since their inception in 2000, they’ve toured the world, scored huge commissions, recorded seven albums—one of which, Sing Me Home, won a Grammy in 2016—and expanded into increasingly ambitious education and social justice programming.

When its leadership split following the legendary cellist’s departure, Silkroad experienced what Giddens summarizes as a “difficult few years.” At the time Giddens arrived last fall, there were some growing pains still being worked out.

The Silkroad Ensemble in one of its many formations.

“After you’ve been around for 20 years, it’s like a marriage,” Giddens says. “Two spouses always get to a point where it’s like, ‘we’ve got to choose to be together. We had that initial love and euphoria and that got us this far. Now we have to decide are we going to stay together consciously and really build this relationship, or are we going to go look for that again?”

Like Silkroad, Giddens has been exploring connections between undersung traditions within the international musical ecosystem for roughly two decades. The rural North Carolina-raised artist rose to fame with her trio the Carolina Chocolate Drops, who modeled themselves after turn-of-the-century Black-led string bands in the South and reclaimed minstrel show music as the Black art it originally was. In Giddens’ soulful but controlled vocal performances with the group, her bel canto training—courtesy of Oberlin Conservatory—was often apparent but never overwhelmed the material. Along with her adept clawhammer-style banjo playing, it gave the group’s sound a singular elegance and power.

Mazz Swift—a current Silkroad Ensemble member, composer, violinist and improviser who has also played in folk bands—recalls first meeting Giddens around this time, while their groups were sharing a bill at the International Folk Festival.

“I was fascinated by [the Drops],” she recalls. “I’d been thinking about Black American music as American music. We often separate country music and Black folks, and I remember just feeling like ‘yo, they went back to where it came from.’ Just by doing something like that, it’s an educational thing.”

The group cemented their preeminence in modern folk music with their 2010 album Genuine Negro Jig, which won a Grammy for Best Traditional Folk album. That genre tag hardly accounts for its whole stylistic purview, with a tracklist that pits centuries-old ballads against Delta blues, country pop hits, Tom Waits tunes and a bluegrass-ified takes on Blu Cantrell’s 2001 R&B single “Hit ’em Up Style (Oops!)”

Malcolm Parson

After a couple more albums with the group, Giddens began her solo career in earnest with the T-Bone-Burnett-produced Tomorrow Is My Turn in 2015—another ambitious, genre-bending record featuring a laundry list of traditional tunes, Nashville favorites, and anomalies like the elegiac folk standard “Black is the Color” set to a beatboxed backbeat and punctuated by DJ scratching. During the next couple of years, the opportunities quickly stacked up: a slot on David Letterman’s Late Show, an invitation to perform at the Obama White House, a recurring role on the country-music TV soap Nashville, and more. The Chocolate Drops persisted, but with a rotating lineup centered around Giddens. 

When describing the experience of joining the Chocolate Drops in the mid ‘10s as a student fresh out of Berklee, cellist and composer Malcolm Parson recalls that, for Giddens, reading up on the group’s repertoire was nearly as important as learning the parts.

“She really took me under her wing for a second, and gave me books to read and stuff to check out,” Parson explains, asking that I keep the titles to myself because he still owes them back to Giddens. “It was a mentor situation for a while. Coming out of college, we didn’t even touch that period of [folk] music at all—maybe a page and a half. Playing with her was like getting your masters.”

In many ways, Giddens’ entire career has revolved around this kind of transfer of knowledge. Her projects pay tribute to forgotten artists and traditions and star disenfranchised heroes and heroines. Their patchy biographies are filled out in Giddens’ compositions, and used as tools to reframe received cultural and historical wisdom.

"Over time, Giddens’ interest in finding more grand-scale, explicitly dramatic ways of exploring these marginalized perspectives has steered her back toward the art music world she left behind after graduating Oberlin in 2000."

“After I got out of school, my main thing was like, ‘this [music] is so amazing, but there are so many barriers between the average person and an opera,’” she says. “Why is this not more accessible? Why are people not concerned about everybody else? Why does it seem like everybody’s kind of playing for each other?”

After a successful collaboration with the North Carolina Symphony in 2014, Giddens began to find occasion to perform classical/contemporary music again, and even try her hand at writing in the genre. But due to the relatively nontraditional nature of her training, she remained uncomfortable for a time donning the label of “composer.”

“I realized ‘composition’ is just making up stuff,” Giddens says. “I almost flunked theory class. I don’t know a Spanish chord from an Italian chord. I can barely see parallel fifths. I can hear all this stuff, but I can’t see any of it. But I realized that’s what people in the classical world want. They don’t need me to sound like a bad third-grade Mozart. They need me to sound like myself.”

In 2016, Giddens made a breakthrough as a “classical” composer by collaborating with the Kronos Quartet on an instrumental piece adapted from her song “At the Purchaser’s Option,” inspired by the text of a 19th century slave advertisement. The following year, she would receive a MacArthur Grant and write music for Lucy Negro Redux, a ballet based on poems about a possible Black madam in London who is rumored to have inspired Shakespeare’s “Dark Lady” sonnets. Now, she is hard at work on an opera commissioned for the Spoleto Festival: a collaboration with co-composer Michael Abels (of recent Get Out and Us scoring fame) called Omar, based on the autobiography of Omar Ibn Said, an enslaved Muslim-African man brought to South Carolina in the early 19th century. 

Reflecting on her long journey back to the concert hall and music stand, the word “reckoning” crops up again. “I think there’s so much reckoning that has to be done in the classical world,” Giddens says. “The way that the schools are, I didn’t get any education on how to be a musician in the world. . . . And there’s no sense of being a human being. Why are you even playing this music? Because you’ve been doing it since you were three?”

“The experience of having stepped out of the [classical] world for ten years—and then having apprenticed with a fiddle player from my culture, having been in that world—was really interesting,” she continues. “We need these other kinds of knowledge and learning, so that when I come back and sing “Ain’t It a Pretty Night” from [Carlisle Floyd’s opera] Susannah or something like that, I’m bringing a whole other kind of feel to it.”

As Giddens’ career has progressed, her interest in exploring “world music” as it relates to American traditional and popular music has only expanded. On her sprawling 2019 collaborative album with Turrisi, there is no Other, the duo goes down different historical rabbit holes on nearly every song, trying on different instruments, languages, and modes to excavate American traditional music’s centuries-old roots in Africa and the Middle East. In so many ways—and perhaps more than anything in her catalogue—the album exemplifies how perfectly Giddens’ artistic ambitions map onto Silkroad’s legacy. 

“I’m fascinated about the disconnect between [American] history, which is full of immigrants, and the way we talk about American music, which is ‘well, it’s not world music,’” Giddens says. “So, it was kind of an irresistible opportunity to connect with a group that was formed around the concept of the Silk Road—from East to West, these different cultural combinations and historical aspects.”

Giddens with her partner and frequent collaborator Francesco Turrisi.

Giddens recognized her philosophical affinity with the ensemble after contributing vocals to their 2016 version of the funereal jazz-blues standard “St. James Infirmary.” In typical Silkroad fashion, their rendition is infused with Chinese yangqin, accordion, and other performance forces that would be unlikely to show up in a New Orleans jazz combo. For current Silkroad Executive Director Kathy Fletcher, it was this recording that initially attracted her to Giddens as someone who “could help bring the concept of Silkroad home” to America. Fletcher also recalls a pre-pandemic appearance Giddens made at a welcome dinner for children from the Standing Rock and Lane Deer reservations prior to a Yo-Yo Ma concert with the ensemble.

“Rhiannon and tabla master Sandeep Das played for these students—they had never met before—and it was so profoundly moving and amazing and joyful,” Fletcher recalls. “We’d been looking for a unicorn—somebody who was steeped in global musical traditions but also really knowledgeable about American traditions. It’s something that’s really hard to find in one person. Watching this concert in our office for these kids, I thought ‘oh, here’s our unicorn.’ She really understands how difference can make us closer.”

Like Fletcher, Mazz Swift is also excited about having a folk musician—and woman of color—at the helm of Silkroad. She sees Giddens as someone who can relate the group’s central musical preoccupations back to American culture more directly.

“Within American folk music—our American classical music, like jazz—there are things that are somewhat unexplored in Silkroad,” Swift says. “The sound makes its way in without trying, because so much comes from Black American music. But to have somebody put a face to it, and make it a really deliberate thing, I’m really excited about.”

This is exemplified by the first large-scale project that the ensemble and organization are setting the groundwork for under Giddens’ leadership. Entitled The American Silkroad, it is a collaborative (and possibly multimedia) work, set to debut sometime in 2023. The work will explore the construction of the Transcontinental Railroad in the 19th century as an American analog to the Silk Road. The ensemble hopes to rope in a wide variety of stories from the Black, Chinese, and European immigrant populations who built it, and explore how their traditions intermingled.

For Silkroad projects big and small, Giddens emphasizes the importance of moving slowly and deliberately.

“I want to find and dig into folk traditions that really meld with the classical cast of the ensemble,” she explains. “And it takes time to really do it well."

I want the musicians to really have time with each other. The way that it happens in the performing arts world can be like, ‘Here’s the arrangement. We have three hours to put it together and the show’s tomorrow.’ I don’t really think that model works for these kinds of projects.”

Though Silkroad’s performance and rehearsal possibilities are obviously limited during the pandemic, there’s still plenty of work to do. The organization’s legacy and mission lean heavily on social justice work, and the appointment, in late 2019, of Fletcher—a co-founder of Michelle Obama’s Turnaround Arts program and former director of Creative Leadership Initiatives at the Kennedy Center—only underscored its ongoing commitment to community engagement. 

Like Fletcher, Giddens has a history of social justice work. In 2017, as a part of Carnegie Hall’s Musical Connections program, Giddens traveled to the maximum-security prison Sing Sing in upstate New York to perform her own work and collaborate with prisoners on their own original music. (With Turrisi, she has also visited Wormwood Scrubs prison in London.)

Silkroad, too, has partnered with Sing Sing. The organization is currently working on virtual programs for inmates, featuring Giddens and other Silkroad artists. “Hopefully when things settle down with the virus, then, we can do in-person stuff,” Giddens says. “It’s such an important piece of this—reaching those people who really need it. It’s humanity.”

Giddens and Fletcher acknowledge that the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement in 2020 changed the tenor of conversations within virtually every artistic organization. For the Silkroad leadership, though, recent events have mostly served to reaffirm the organization’s commitment to its creative priorities, which were always focused on sociopolitical issues. 

“When all the stuff started coming down this summer, I started getting phone calls,” Giddens says. “And I was like, ‘this is what I’ve been talking about for literally ten years.’ So there’s no difference for me, no ramp-up. I’d be stupid not to recognize that people want to put money into things that are dealing with this stuff now, so I’m more than happy to reach out, but I’m just doing what I always do.”

For Giddens, the lingering questions about Silkroad’s future have little to do with the art itself—of that, she seems very clear. If there’s a lack of resolution, it’s usually about who will be watching or listening, and where, and how best to get through to them. It’s crucial to Giddens that, in working to connect new audiences with classical music, she never condescends to them, dumbs things down, or resorts to hacky gimmicks.

“In the attempt to bring the classical world to ‘the average person’—when you think of it that way—you get a lot of well-meaning things that aren’t great, from an artistic point of view,” Giddens explains. “But we don’t have the Bell Telephone Hour anymore; we don’t have Bernstein’s [Young People’s] Concerts; we don’t have a lot of the pop culture things that surround [classical] music anymore. We have to think about creating the story and the art in a way that is accessible, but in a way that is still true to the framework we want to use.”

When describing what she’d like to see more of at classical performances, Giddens recalls her experience performing Lucy Negro Redux, in front of a diverse Nashville audience with whom she was able to interact directly after the show.

“The Black women who came up to me in the Q&A said, ‘I’ve never been to a ballet and this was amazing,” Gidden says. “I never thought I’d see somebody who looked like me up there.’ There were lots of people who had never been to a ballet before—not just Black women, anybody.’”

Giddens and her colleagues speak with hope and assurance about future plans to reach different kinds of audiences, in different kinds of venues. But for now, big changes are still many months or a vaccine away, and the “reckoning” that goes on will be mostly confined to digital conversations and brainstorming documents. In this context, Silkroad will continue to search for self-definition, with the hardest work still yet to come. 

To Swift, it’s clear Giddens is the right person to lead the charge. The timeline and other details are anyone’s guess.

“She’s a light,” Swift says of Giddens. “She has this way you can tell she’s super improvisational. She’s just really organic about her approach to music making and planning. It’s very non-classical which is really, really nice. It’s gonna be interesting and challenging for everyone in some way or another, in a really good way.”

“People in the classical world know that there’s change coming and they know that it needs to happen,” Giddens says. “What they see in me, I think, is someone who could bridge different worlds.”

About the Author
Winston Cook-Wilson is a writer and musician living in Brooklyn. His writing has appeared in Pitchfork, Spin, The Guardian, The Village Voice, Symphony Magazine, and elsewhere.