“As artists, we are responsible to help push society toward a better place.”

Rhiannon Giddens, 41, Musician

She’s a multi-talented artist. A singer, banjo player, violinist, flat foot dancer, and actor who has used her talents to tell untold stories of the African American experience.

Now this Grammy-award winner, internationally renowned folk artist, and MacArthur Genius Fellow Rhiannon Giddens will return to Greensboro, her childhood home, as a guest curator for the NC Folk Festival, September 7-9 in downtown.

Rhiannon was born in Julian and moved to Greensboro when she was about seven years old. Growing up, music was always a part of her life. Her family was always singing.

“I was in the Greensboro Youth Chorus. It was a great beginning for me to organized music,” Rhiannon says of the local children’s choir. “It was a big influence on me and a big part of my upbringing.”

She studied music at the Governor’s School of North Carolina, an experience that prompted her to attend Oberlin Conservatory. She studied classical voice. After undergrad, she started a master’s at the UNC Greensboro School of Music.

“I had a full lyrical voice and was going to go out and conquer the operatic world. But I kind of realize it was not really jiving with who I was as a person. I kind of got burned out a bit and turned to other music.” she says. “What lead me away from opera was wondering, ‘What can I offer this art form that nobody else is offering?…I want to be somewhere I can make a difference. I found string band music and the history of black string band music. I thought, this is where I can absolutely offer up something different.”

She came into her own as a member of the Carolina Chocolate Drops, an African American string band playing Piedmont blues. The group’s 2010 album Genuine Negro Jig earned them a Grammy for Best Traditional Folk Album. The band has been lauded for reclaiming the African American contribution to American folk music.

She’s gone on to record solo albums and work with other recording artists, play a recurring role on the CMT television show Nashville, perform at folk festivals around the world, and earn the prestigious Steven Martin Prize for Excellence in Banjo and Bluegrass. And acknowledging and celebrating African American stories and history has remained an important part of Rhiannon’s work.

She performed on an album in support of the NC NAACP’s Moral Monday movement and on the single “Ballad of Lennon Lacy,” about a North Carolina teen who died by hanging in what some believe was a lynching.

“As artists, we are responsible to help push society toward a better place. That is what art can do is to create that emotional awareness for people,” she says. “That is what we can do that dry facts can’t do. I think every artist of every era has a hand to play in that. I think it is part of our job.”

Last year she was awarded a MacArther Fellowship, which grants her $625,000 over five years so she can dedicate herself to creative pursuits. She’s said she will work on a theatrical treatment of the Wilmington Insurrection of 1898, when a mob of white men overthrew the integrated government of the city. She’s working with a Wilmington journalist to unearth the history.

“Nobody knows about it, and yet it is such a huge deal. It has been suppressed so thoroughly,” Rhiannon says. “It just grabbed me. This is a story that needs to be told. It actually represents a larger story about the destruction of black prosperity and the destruction of a multi-cultural economic south….It’s a very important thing to talk about, especially nowadays.”

Rhiannon will be performing throughout the weekend at the inaugural NC Folk Festival. She’s worked with the festival to curate a series of events, including a presentation of jazz, spoken word and tap dance and a symposium of banjo scholars.

“I was so impressed with being in Greensboro for the National Folk Festival three years ago and seeing all the people and all the diversity. That’s what Greensboro is. I hope that it continues forever and becomes a cherished weekend every year to see the world come to Greensboro.”

To see her perform, check out the full festival schedule at ncfolkfestival.com.

Images provide by UNC Greensboro.
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