The Current

Rhiannon Giddens on making art during a pandemic, and how music bridges divides

Grammy Award-winning musician Rhiannon Giddens says the pandemic is forcing artists to re-examine why they make art in the first place.

‘I just kind of firmly remain grateful and thinking about what I can do with what I have,’ says Grammy winner

Rhiannon Giddens performs during rehearsal for the Boston Pops Fireworks Spectacular in Boston on July 3, 2018. Like many artists, Giddens has had to find new ways of making music because of the pandemic. (Michael Dwyer/The Associated Press)

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Grammy Award-winning musician Rhiannon Giddens says the pandemic is forcing artists to re-examine why they make art in the first place.

"I do think that art and commerce are uneasy bedfellows," the singer-songwriter and founding member of old-time string band Carolina Chocolate Drops told The Current's Matt Galloway.

"So I think this is the moment, since nobody's making money … to go, OK, so what is the role of art in society and how can we decouple this?"

Giddens is well-known for making music across genres; she also co-founded the group Our Native Daughters, an Americana-folk band. And like many performers, Giddens has had to adapt her approach to making music during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

She's kept busy in recent months by taking part in virtual concerts and collaborating with other artists from their respective locations around the world.

"At a moment where I really needed to make some music and to be in that space, it was a kind of a godsend," Giddens said about the experience.

Watch Rhiannon Giddens and Yo-Yo Ma's virtual collaboration

But, she added, she misses the interaction and feedback she normally gets from performing for live audiences.

"Nothing's being fed back to me because I'm not performing. So I have to figure out how to keep the well stocked, you know?"

Part of that comes from these creative moments, even if they're from a distance, she said.

She's also trying to find the positives in every moment, and the purpose of difficult situations like the pandemic.

"For me, it was stopping," said Giddens, who realized how burnt out she was once her gigs and tours were cancelled because of the pandemic.

While that has been a challenge, she said she doesn't get worked up about it.

"I just kind of firmly remain grateful and thinking about what I can do with what I have, the advantages that I have, in terms of making art that hopefully will speak to someone and … make a small difference."

Music as a bridge

Giddens told Galloway she has always been intrigued by how music reveals the commonalities among people.

She hopes to explore that idea further in her new role as artistic director of Silkroad. Started by cellist Yo-Yo Ma in 1998, the Boston-based non-profit organization seeks to create music that sparks "radical cultural collaboration."

There are things that bind us. And I've always been interested in how that is reflected in our culture and our arts and our music.- Rhiannon Giddens

"When you look at history, when you look at different cultures, we actually are very similar," she said. "There are things that bind us. And I've always been interested in how that is reflected in our culture and our arts and our music."

Giddens was born and raised in North Carolina to a white father and Black and Native American mother. Although she now lives in Ireland with her two children, she remains vocal about the political and social issues currently gripping the United States, including the Black Lives Matter movement and the upcoming presidential election.

A MacArthur 'Genius Grant' recipient who plays several instruments, Giddens is best known for her work on the banjo. She said the instrument parallels the history of America because it was created by African descendants before being adopted as a white ethnic cultural instrument.

Watch Giddens's song Cry No More, recreated in the wake of Breonna Taylor's death.

While many Americans are unaware of this history, she added, it's important to understand it.

"So much of the heart of what American culture is, a lot of it comes from the struggles and the story of Black America," she said. "And the conversation that is being had between cultures like that is America. That is American music. And the banjo very nicely represents that."

She said her own personal experience informs her belief that music can serve as a powerful bridge.

"I think it comes from being a neither nor," she said. "That's what I am. I was neither Black nor white. I was neither city nor country. I'm neither classical nor folk. 

"I've spent a lot of time in each world … and I think [I] have a deep understanding of each world. But I've come to accept pretty early on that my job is as a bridge between those worlds."


Written and produced by Idella Sturino.

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