Enslaved explores the banjo's African roots

Grammy winner explains why bluegrass is actually Black music to Samuel L. Jackson

Grammy winner explains why bluegrass is actually Black music to Samuel L. Jackson

The banjo's African origins

2 years ago
Duration 1:43
Grammy award winner Rhiannon Giddens explains how what we know as the banjo came to be.

In Episode 4 of Enslaved, host Samuel L. Jackson goes to see Grammy-winning bluegrass musician Rhiannon Giddens perform at a club in the Africatown neighbourhood of Mobile. Ala., and asks her a pretty straightforward question.

"So, why are you the first Black person I've ever seen play a banjo?"

But it turns out the answer to that question is surprisingly complex. As Giddens explains, the banjo was initially a Black instrument. It's descended from various styles of West African lute, and the concept for the banjo would have been brought over by enslaved Africans. She says that for decades, "the emblem of being Black" was the banjo.

In the 1820s and '30s, she explains, white musicians started picking up the banjo, but we don't talk about this transition because those musicians were largely performing in blackface minstrel shows. 

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Over time, the banjo, and the music that would become known as bluegrass, became coded as white. 

In 2019, Giddens spoke with Tom Power on CBC radio's q about challenging assumptions of what folk music should be, who should be playing it and what stories it should tell. You can listen to the whole interview here.

Enslaved contains disturbing depictions of the inhumanity faced by enslaved people from African countries during the transatlantic slave trade, which may be traumatizing to some viewers. If you need support, there are resources available across the country, you can find links to a number of these resources in this post, curated by the Unison Benevolent Fund: https://www.unisonfund.ca/blog/post/mental-health-resources-black-canadians

For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.