Rhiannon Giddens Writing Next "Hamilton"?
The headline in Katherine Brooks‘ the Huffington Post article read: “Banjo Player From North Carolina Is Writing The Next ‘Hamilton’: Newly dubbed MacArthur ‘Genius’ Rhiannon Giddens wants to bring one of the most overlooked moments in American history to the stage.”
Those in town who know and love (and live annually) Telluride Bluegrass should know the name well. In 2010 and again in 2015, Rhiannon wowed the crowds at the Festival. Also in 2015, The Wall Street Journal declared Rhiannon to be “2015’s Next Big Thing” along with legendary producer T Bone Burnett, who produced her Tomorrow Is My Turn. ( Check out our story and interview with Rhiannon here.)
And again, tomorrow is today.
Read Brooks’ story below.
Rhiannon Giddens is following in the footsteps of Lin-Manuel Miranda ― in more ways than one.
First, the North Carolina-born musician earned herself a spot on the 2017 roster of MacArthur Fellows, a career-defining prize commonly referred to as the “Genius Grant” that comes with a “no strings attached” award of $625,000. Miranda snagged the multi-disciplinary grant in 2015, as did icons like Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Colson Whitehead before him.
Second, and perhaps more surprising, is the fact that Giddens is writing a musical. The acclaimed banjoist, fiddler and founding member of the Grammy-winning Carolina Chocolate Drops was recognized by the MacArthur Foundation for her work “reclaiming African-American contributions to folk and country music and bringing to light new connections between music from the past and the present.” And she plans to continue doing just that on the stage, by bringing to life the story of the Wilmington insurrection of 1898.
She says the 19th-century event is often left out of textbooks or oversimplified by white Americans as a “race riot.” It was a massacre, she clarified, and a coup, that revolved around the 1898 North Carolina election, when a group of armed white supremacists marched on Wilmington’s City Hall and “overthrew the elected local government.” Some historians estimate that hundreds of African Americans may have died in the violence that ensued, between the biracial Republican Party and the Southern democrats who sought to disenfranchise black voters, though official records mark the death toll at 25.
Giddens, of course, wants to tell the harrowing story through music. Like much of her work before it ― her performances with the Carolina Chocolate Drops or her 2017 solo album “Freedom Highway ― the musical would not only introduce new audiences to a forgotten piece of history, it would introduce them to musical influences that have long been left out of popular folk and country narratives, too. The MacArthur Foundation recognized her specifically for her embrace of slave narratives and under-celebrated black banjoists and fiddlers of the past ― more recently, she’s incorporated contemporary history, like stories of police brutality, into her songs.
HuffPost spoke to Giddens ahead of the 2017 MacArthur announcement on Wednesday about the responsibilities of artists, her obsession with history and how she views diversity in genres like bluegrass and country music.
On how it feels to win a MacArthur Genius Grant:
Oh my God. It feels amazing. So, so validating. You know, I just had a few weeks to sort of ― I mean, it’s so mean. They tell you [you’ve won] and you can only tell one person for the next three weeks. But I’m just so excited.
On what she plans to do with her prize:
I have several things planned. There are a couple of things in the works with other organizations that I can’t really talk about until they’re finalized, but there are a couple of things that I’ve been working on [that I can talk about]. One is this website about history and trying to have a place where all of the historical background for all the songs on “Freedom Highway” and other things that I’ve written can all live. You know, a place that has a history of black string-band music. I’ve been wanting to do a website for a long time, and I’ve gotten a domain now and thought about how how to organize it.
The main thing for me is that history gets taught devoid of cultural connections, and I think that that’s not a good way to teach history. Because the music that’s published or that’s recorded or that’s being done [in a certain time period] is a really important part of what’s going on then ― they’re reflections of what’s going on culturally during historical moments. And you don’t understand those moments without that context, to me. So having a place that, kind of, could be a home for that sort of notion ― you know, that’s not a federal institution, it’s not the Smithsonian. It’s its own kind of thing, and can be a gateway for people.
On the musical she hopes to make:
The other thing [I want to do] is a piece about 1898, which is something that we never learn in school. This is something that happened in North Carolina in Wilmington ― and I’m from North Carolina and I only learned about it as an adult. It was a political coup that happened in Wilmington when a black and white Fusionist party started getting power and the white supremacists basically destroyed it and killed a lot of black people in the process. It’s been called a race riot; it was a massacre. The [supremacists] ran the [Fusionist] politicians out of town and replaced them with their own, and the federal government did not do a thing. Echoes of this happened in Colfax, Louisiana, 20 years before and set into motion this pattern of the destruction of black power through the political process that has been going on since Reconstruction. So it’s a huge part of American history that doesn’t get talked about. And, you know, given what’s going on today, I think it’s very relevant.
And also, musically-speaking, there a lot of amazing things that were going on then ― before genres, before the race records and hillbilly records and country and soul. Music was much more of a crossing-line kind of thing. What was going on before the turn of the century really feeds into all of the explosion that happened afterwards during the Harlem Renaissance, jazz. Music between Reconstruction and the turn of the century is extremely important and undervalued and under-reported on, because there was no recording industry back then. But there are other ways to recreate and to explore what’s going on during that time period. And I think this is an opportunity to combine those two things, or it’s actually just not segregate them ― the history and the culture that surrounds it.
Which is why a stage production or musical or something like that is kind of an irresistible way to do that. And it’s a huge undertaking, and it’s something that I need time and connections and, you know, money to do. But I think it’s very important to me, so that’s my obsession right now. People are like, “Tell me about what you’re working on.” And I’m like, “Let me tell you about 1898.” They try not to let their eyes glaze over. But I already have a narrative structure. All the characters involved were amazing people. The story itself is already there. And it’s a time period that I happen to know a lot about already…
Latest posts by Susan Viebrock (see all)
- Palm Arts/”The Bob”: Blues Singer Seth Walker, 1/27 - January 19, 2018
- Women’s March 2018: Telluride & Beyond, 1/20 - January 18, 2018
- Telluride Institute: Ute Leader at Host Indigenous Roundtable, 1/17 - January 17, 2018
Comments are closed.