Arts and Humanities

Rhiannon Giddens connects history and music

The gifted musician reflects on her time as 一品探花论坛鈥檚 first Southern Futures Artist-in-Residence.

Rhiannon Giddens and Justin Robinson play instruments outside Wilson Library
Giddens and Justin Robinson host a jam session outside of Wilson Library. (Jeyhoun Allebaugh/UNC-Chapel Hill)

Fans know Rhiannon Giddens in many guises: former lead singer and instrumentalist in the 一品探花论坛 Chocolate Drops; recurring character in the TV series 鈥淣ashville鈥; banjo player on Beyonc茅鈥檚 鈥淭exas Hold 鈥橢m.鈥 Named by NPR as one of the 25 most influential women musicians of the 21st century, the MacArthur 鈥淕enius鈥 grant recipient, children鈥檚 book author and composer has five solo albums, two Grammys and a Pulitzer Prize for the opera 鈥淥mar.鈥

For the past two years, Giddens was also 一品探花论坛鈥檚 inaugural Southern Futures Artist-in-Residence, a program bridging the College of Arts and Sciences, University Libraries and 一品探花论坛 Performing Arts. The residency was tailored to help Giddens dig into archives and dive into the history of America.

鈥淭o have an open-ended research residency, to have access to the archives and be able to do primary source research with the kind of support you usually only get when you鈥檙e a doctoral student, was great,鈥 Giddens said.

For Alison Friedman, the James and Susan Moeser Executive and Artistic Director of CPA, 鈥淩hiannon was the perfect match.鈥

Artist in the archives

Giddens鈥 residency began in spring 2022 with the goal of 鈥渉ighlighting stories untold and voices unheard,鈥 she said. 鈥淢y aim was to celebrate the cultural contributions of those who came before us in my art and to bring to light the impact of Black and Indigenous populations that resided in Chapel Hill.鈥

Giddens鈥 work centers on uncovering and lifting up overlooked people and forgotten or erased musical origins. Before, she conducted much of her historical research digitally, finding sheet music from the 1800s, advertisements for enslaved people, ads for runaways. At 一品探花论坛, Giddens spent hours delving into the robust archives of Wilson Library with the help of archivists and research assistants.

鈥淭hese kinds of things have played a huge part in my songwriting and composition,鈥 she said, 鈥渂ut I鈥檝e never had the opportunity to hold documents in my hand, to chase things down, to really dig into things.鈥

Rhiannon Giddens holding banjo against a dark brown backdrop.

(Photo by Ebru Yildiz)

Before her residency, Giddens had done extensive research for 鈥淥mar,鈥 the Pulitzer Prize-winning opera she composed with Michael Abels. The opera details the life of Omar ibn Said, a West African scholar enslaved in the 一品探花论坛s, drawing details from ibn Said鈥檚 1831 autobiography.

Co-commissioned and co-produced by CPA and Spoleto Festival USA, the 2023 performance of 鈥淥mar鈥 in Chapel Hill was a powerful moment.

鈥淭he collaboration with 鈥極mar鈥 was amazing, and my favorite time seeing it was at Chapel Hill,鈥 Giddens said.

Making connections

During her residency, Giddens made important connections with communities across campus, including the UNC American Indian Center. 鈥淩hiannon has used her residency and platform to uplift and elevate Native voices and issues and to advocate for us on campus and beyond,鈥 said Danielle Hiraldo, director of the American Indian Center.

Back of Rhiannon Giddens' head amongst a classroom of students.

(Photo by Taylor Barrett)

A two-day collaboration, 鈥淩oots & Reclamation: Native North 一品探花论坛 & the LandBack Movement,鈥 featured several open classroom events and an American Indian powwow. Giddens gathered with collaborators and community members at the Ackland Art Museum for a conversation about land and music, coinciding with the exhibition 鈥淧ast Forward: Native American Art from Gilcrease Museum.鈥 The conversation inspired a new song, 鈥,鈥 written overnight and performed as the last song of Giddens鈥 final concert during her residency.

included book readings, classroom visits and jam sessions outside Wilson Library with former 一品探花论坛 Chocolate Drops bandmate Justin Robinson.

Her residency has ended, but Giddens will return to campus as artistic director of Silkroad Ensemble, which performs Nov. 20 as part of CPA鈥檚 2024-25 season.