Running to the Noise, Episode 9

More than Music with Rhiannon Giddens

Cover art of Running to the Noise featuring Rhiannon Giddens

In an industry that loves to put artists into neatly defined boxes, Rhiannon Giddens refuses to be pigeonholed. Trained as an operatic soprano at Oberlin College and Conservatory, the 2000 graduate moved back home to North Carolina, picked up the fiddle and fell in love with old-time banjo.

Her eclectic folk music has taken her into every imaginable space. She has won two Grammy Awards, a MacArthur Genius Grant, and the 2023 Pulitzer Prize for the opera Omar based on the autobiography of an enslaved Muslim man. A proud, mission-driven artist, Giddens is committed to shining a light on people whose contributions to America’s musical history have been overlooked or erased. And she uses her spotlight to highlight the banjo's roots in Black culture.

William Quillen, the dean of Oberlin Conservatory, calls her one of the most important creative and artistic voices of our time. A founding member of the all-female banjo supergroup, Our Native Daughters, Giddens has also published children’s books, has written and performed music for the soundtrack of Red Dead Redemption 2, one of the best-selling video games of all time.

She appeared on the ABC hit drama, Nashville, and throughout Ken Burns’s country music series on PBS. And most recently, she received a Grammy nomination for her 2023 album, You're the One, and played banjo and viola on Beyonce's TEXAS HOLD ’EM, a global number one hit and the first song from a Black woman to top Billboard's Hot 100 country songs chart.

Before delivering Oberlin College and Conservatory’s 2024 commencement address, Giddens sat down with Running to the Noise host and Oberlin president Carmen Twillie Ambar to discuss her genre-defying career, navigating the music industry, and smashing musical barriers.  

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[00:00:00] Carmen: I'm Carmen Twillie Ambar, president of Oberlin College and Conservatory. And welcome to Running to the Noise, where I speak with all sorts of folks who are taking on some of our toughest problems and working to spark positive change around the world and on our campus. Because here at Oberlin, we don't shy away from the challenging situations that threaten to divide us. We run towards them.

(Music: Giddens’ At the Purchaser’s Option)

In an industry that loves to put artists into neatly defined boxes, Rhiannon Giddens refuses to be pigeonholed. Just Google her name and you'll encounter a dizzying array of genres — blues, jazz, Cajun, country, gospel, rock, and the list goes on. Trained as an operatic soprano at Oberlin College and Conservatory, the 2000 graduate moved back home to North Carolina. And that's where Giddens picked up the fiddle and, as she said, fell in love with old time banjo.

Her eclectic folk music has taken her into every imaginable space. A composer for opera, ballet, and film, she has won two Grammy Awards, a MacArthur Genius Grant, and the Pulitzer Prize. A proud, mission-driven artist, Giddens is committed to shining a light on people whose contributions to America’s musical history have been overlooked or erased. And she uses her spotlight to highlight the banjo's roots in Black culture.

William Quillen, the dean of our conservatory, calls her one of the most important creative and artistic voices of our time. You know, it's mighty hard to argue with that. A founding member of the all-female banjo supergroup, Our Native Daughters, Giddens has also published children's books, has written and performed music for the soundtrack of Red Dead Redemption 2, one of the best selling video games of all time.

She appeared on the ABC hit drama, Nashville, and throughout Ken Burns's country music series on PBS. Giddens won the 2023 Pulitzer Prize for the opera, Omar, based on the autobiography of an enslaved Muslim man. And most recently, she received a Grammy nomination for her 2023 album, You're the One, and played banjo and viola on Beyoncé TEXAS HOLD 'EM, a global number one hit and the first song from a Black woman to top Billboard's Hot 100 country songs chart.

Here's what Giddens wrote on Instagram when the song was released. “I used to say many times, as soon as Beyoncé puts the banjo on a track, my job is done. Well, I didn't expect the banjo to be mine, and I know darn well my job isn't done. But today, it's a pretty good day.”

Well folks, it's a pretty good day here at Oberlin, too. The consummate musician and tireless scholar has traveled from her home in Ireland to deliver the keynote address for Oberlin College and Conservatory's commencement ceremony, honoring the class of 2024. And we are so very happy to have her back here with us on campus here in the conservatory annex, overlooking a beautifully green Tappan Square, for this month's episode of Running to the Noise.

Welcome, Rhiannon:. I'm so happy that you're here. Welcome back to Oberlin. So, let me tell you the last time I saw you, and I will tell you a little story about it. So, you were here for our artist recital series. And my mom had just moved in with me. My dad passed away, and my mom had just moved in with me. And she came to the concert.

So, she's 83 years old. And she walked away saying that was one of the best performances she'd ever seen. And she can be a tough critic because she's dance and theater and that was her background. You went through a dizzying array of types of music, and you end it with your aria that you sang as a student. The last time you had performed it was on a stage here, and it was for your final recital here. And that's what you sang. I don't know if you remember that.

[00:05:25] Rhiannon: Oh, my gosh, yeah. Oh, my gosh.

[00:05:28] Carmen: And I'll tell you why that was so powerful to me, because your willingness to end with that piece, to me, was saying to our students, “I am you and you are me.”

[00:05:41] Rhiannon: Mm-hmm. Oh, gosh. I mean, the thing that I really always want students to take away, you know, is that, no matter all the different things that I've done, that who I was when I left is still, kind of, underneath all of it, you know, and that I came back to Oberlin as a performer not in the way that I was anticipating.

[00:06:01] Carmen: Yes.

[00:06:02] Rhiannon: But that none of that was wasted, and actually, all of it has come into play, you know, in the who I am now. So, just kind of, you know, whatever you do, just do it. You know what I mean?

[00:06:16] Carmen: Yes. Yes.

[00:06:17] Rhiannon: You just got to do it. And that will lead you to where you need to go, whether it's where you thought you were going to go or not. But you know, you have to commit to doing something.

[00:06:25] Carmen: You are so diverse in all the things that you can do. And I guess I'm wondering how you became this, I think you've described it, evangelist for the banjo, like from that aria to an evangelist for the banjo. Maybe, you can just help our audience understand a little bit about how you came to that, to this instrument and its importance to you.

[00:06:48] Rhiannon: Well, it actually does start at Oberlin, because I was here and I was, you know, doing the classical music thing and really loving it. Like, I, I do want to stress how much I love opera and I love Western classical art music. And I was 100%, and people have made up memories about me playing banjo here. I never played banjo here. You know, I didn't listen to folk music. I wasn't involved in the folk community—nothing. I was like all classical all the time. 

[00:07:11] Carmen: Okay. 

[00:07:12] Rhiannon: And then I saw a flier for what I thought was English country dance, okay? So, follow me. We'll get there, eventually. And I'm a Jane Austen nut. And so, that's what they do in the Jane Austen time period, English country dance. And I went, and it was for contra dance. Now, contra dance is the American descendant of English country dance, right? And I was like, “Well, I'll stick around.” And I was like, “This is really fun.” So, I started contra dancing at Oberlin. And I freaking loved it. And that's when I first, kind of, got into the whole idea of folk dance and has always gone to live music. 

[00:07:42] Carmen: Yes. 

[00:07:43] Rhiannon: So, then, I started getting the leads in operas and I, kind of, had to let that go because all my evenings were taken up. And so, when I went down in North Carolina, I've got my degree, was kind of like, “I don't know what I want to do. And I'm not sure it's opera because the world of opera is kind of, you know, well, it just didn't fit who I was as a person. Like, you know, I don't like wearing heels. I don't like wearing makeup. I don't like doing any of that stuff.” And it felt like to me that there was more of that in my future, you know.

But actually, the bottom line for me was, you know, what can I do in opera? I'm one of, like, 20 million sopranos, what can I do that actually is meaningful?

[00:08:18] Carmen: Okay, make it different, distinctive, yes.

[00:08:19] Rhiannon: Yeah. And I was, kind of, like, having a hard time answering that question. So, I came back home to North Carolina and I started contra dancing. I found the community. There was a very rich community of contra dance where I'm from in Piedmont, North Carolina. And that is where I first heard the old time banjo.

[00:08:34] Carmen: Oh, wow.

[00:08:35] Rhiannon: So, I tell you, if I hadn't found that here at Oberlin, you know what I'm saying? Like, I may not have searched it out, because it was one of those things that if you don't know that it's there, you have no clue, right?

[00:08:45] Carmen: Right.

[00:08:46] Rhiannon: So, it was, kind of, amazing. And I started hearing the old time banjo. I'd heard the bluegrass banjo. So, a lot of people, if they know anything about the banjo, they know the bluegrass style, which was like the Beverly Hillbillies, which is like bluegrass, which is even Béla Fleck, that's, his style is based on bluegrass. And that's what I'd heard. My uncle's in a bluegrass band, all that kind of stuff.

And when I heard the old time version, which is a funkier, it's a totally different technique, it's more syncopated, it's more dance rhythms, I was like, “What is that?” And so, I started to, like, just hear it all the time when I went to the dances and I started wanting to learn how to play it. I was working as an administrative assistant at a corporation at this time, you know. I was working 40 hours a week and saving my money. And so, I bought a really cheap banjo. And then I also wanted to learn fiddle, so I bought a really cheap fiddle.

[00:09:35] Carmen:  Any hesitation there, just sort of picking up an instrument? Was that part of your natural, I mean, you use your voice as an instrument, but this ability to pick up other instruments and just kind of take them on?

[00:09:45] Rhiannon: You know, it's kind of interesting. I obviously have this thing of just throwing myself, you know… I'm going to refer to this in my speech, like shrieking into the deep end of whatever I do. 

[00:09:55] Carmen: The way that you approach things. 

[00:09:57] Rhiannon: Yeah, because I went to a math, science, technology boarding school before I came to Oberlin, right?

[00:10:02] Carmen: This totally explains why, when they talk about all those genres, it's like you're undefinable. 

[00:10:06] Rhiannon: Yeah. I mean, because I'm always looking for, I don't really care what it looks like. You know, I'm looking for the essence of it. So, like, you know, I, I learned I wanted to be a singer. Okay. I don't know anything about opera, but they sing all the time. That sounds great. Let me do that. I don't know what I was doing. I got here and had to really just release any kind of expectation of knowing what I was doing, release the ego and just like, you know, accept the instruction that I was being given.

[00:10:30] Carmen: Right. Such a lesson, I hope the audience was hearing that — release the ego and just step into it.

[00:10:35] Rhiannon: Right, you know, because like I, I was here to learn. And so, I've kind of done that over and over and over again, and it seems to be my superpower. Like, so, I also, I started, you know, I didn't, I knew some chords on the guitar. That was it. I didn't know any kind of string, you know, especially not fretless. So, like the fiddle, the violin has no frets. And the bow is really hard. I didn't know how hard it was before I picked it up. And then, of course, I was hooked, but man, it was difficult. It was really difficult.

[00:11:01] Carmen: Yeah. You know, I've… when I've read some things about you and watched you, I know that you have, when you, sort of, have been diving into these instruments, kind of sitting at the feet of masters and listening and learning. And I guess I'm hoping you can help us know what that experience was like. Like, how do you pick up things from these people who are respected and are historically, sort of, important? You just go sit there and listen, take lessons. How did you glean from those folks that helped you master these instruments?

[00:11:31] Rhiannon: Well, when I first picked up the banjo, I was just, kind of, you know, learning here and there. I would take a workshop. I would, you know, saved up my money and I would go for a week in the summer and I would go to these, sort of, like roots music camps, where you could, like, take classes all week, you know? 

[00:11:44] Carmen: And you're still working 40 hours a week and doing this?

[00:11:46] Rhiannon: Absolutely. Well, to get my fiddle and banjo, I took on a second job as a singing hostess for the Macaroni Grill in the evening.

[00:11:52] Carmen: I've seen those hostesses at Macaroni Grill. That was you!

[00:11:56] Rhiannon: Yeah, and I, you know, somebody would ask for a song and I'd sing (singing). And they'd give me a tip or whatever. 

[00:12:03] Carmen: I love it. I love it!

[00:12:04] Rhiannon: And I worked until I had enough money to buy my instruments, and then I quit, you know, because I was still working 40 hours a week at the day job, right? So, I mean, I just, I know how to work. That's for sure. So, I got, I… you know, I was trying to teach myself and find the instruction where I could. And then I learned about the banjo as an African American instrument. And that's what I didn't know, you know?

[00:12:23] Carmen: Well, let me just stop you right there for a moment, because I do think that that, your commitment to, sort of, the history of the instrument and its roots and, kind of, being an evangelist, not just in your ability to play, but to talk about its history, that feels Oberlin to me, this kind of mission-driven approach to the, sort of, history. So, you started doing that research. And what did you discover that just captured you?

[00:12:47] Rhiannon: Well, I mean, even just the fact that, you know, the African diaspora created the banjo in the Caribbean. Like, that was huge. Like, I had no idea Black people played the banjo. I was, kind of, like walking into the tradition, like, “Hey, can I do this?” you know.

[00:13:00] Carmen: Will people accept me here?

[00:13:03] Rhiannon: You know, kind of like, eeh, and not realizing that it was actually a shared tradition that belongs to everybody. And so, that really, it activated me in a couple of different ways. I was like, “Oh, wow. That's amazing. I didn't know this.” And then, I was like, “And why don't I know this?” And then that rapidly led to, “In whose best interest is it that I do not know this?”

And that's pretty much what put me on the track. So, I was obsessed from then on. And then I learned that there was still a living Black string band member in North Carolina, in my family's hometown, still playing. And I was like, you know, because the Black string band was like this once mighty, vast, and, like, ubiquitous thing that used to underpin so much of American musical culture and had disappeared. You know, by the time I came along, Joe Thompson, who was this 86-year-old African American fiddler, you know, was the last of his family to be playing, of a musical lineage that reached back to the time of slavery. And it was just an opportunity that I couldn't pass up. So, it, it was my second training. I like to say I had two trainings. I had, you know, I had the Western-

[00:14:08] Carmen: Right. Oberlin, traditional sort of training.

[00:14:10] Rhiannon:  Paper, you know, dots, all those things.

[00:14:13] Carmen: That's right. And we talk a lot here about the fact that there's this whole generation of musicians that are coming up that are not trained by reading music and by… I mean, that's a whole different tradition.

[00:14:24] Rhiannon: Yeah. And I didn't know how to read music when I got here. My ear got me in. And even, you know, I got… that's the only C I ever got, was in theory.

[00:14:32] Carmen: So, for the audience, music theory is one of the key, sort of, requirements through your time at the conservatory. And it really is focused on your knowledge of music reading.

[00:14:42] Rhiannon: I mean, it's your paper knowledge of music, basically. You know, because I recognize everything by ear, but I just couldn't tell you what it was, or, you know. And so, I mean, I squeaked through, but my ear is what really got me through. So, I still am an ear musician. You know, I can follow, I can read music, you know, which has actually come in handy when I'm looking at, like, old pieces of music and things like that and trying to rescue things. So, I'm grateful to have that training.

But then, with Joe, see, he belonged to an older style and it, like I'm talking about, like generations older style of apprenticeship. So, you go and you play—that's it. So, we would go play with him. It was me and the other original members of a band that I had called the Carolina Chocolate Drops, which was, like, really, a kind of a big deal, like just in terms of being the first Black string band in a long time.

There was one in New York, but in terms of being really rooted to the Southern tradition and, you know, we were young and we were out there gigging and, you know, the first Black string band to be on the Opry, the Grand Ole Opry, and all this kind of stuff. We were, kind of, making a mark. But before we did that, we all like came down to Joe Thompson's house on Thursday evenings, and we would sit there, around him with our instruments. I played banjo. Justin played fiddle. And Dom played other things.

And we would just play. He would just start playing. He'd go, “Boys,” always “Boys.” That's fine. “Boys, what do you want to start with today? We’re going to start with, how about Steel Drivin’ Man?” He always picked it. And he always asked us, you know. It was always Steel Drivin’ Man, which is John Henry, the American myth. And then we would just play the tunes, and there was no like, “Here's the how it goes or this note or that note.” It was like, if we got it, he kept playing.

[00:16:23] Carmen: Was there any correction or anything? 

[00:16:27] Rhiannon: If we got it, he kept playing. It would be like he'd stop playing, and the only thing he would say was, “Boys, I believe that was a little slow.”

[00:16:34] Carmen: [Laughs]

[00:16:35] Rhiannon: Or, “Boys, I believe that was a little fast.” That was it. 

[00:16:39] Carmen: That was it.

[00:16:40] Rhiannon: And then on to the next song. 

[00:16:42] Carmen: Wow.

[00:16:42] Rhiannon: So, it was really over weeks and months and years of just sitting and playing. There were times we didn't want to go. There were times we were tired. There were times it was hot, because, you know, he was 86-years-old, so it'd be like 95 degrees in there. And we were all like passing out, like playing like this, you know. But we kept going because we knew it was important. I don't even think we knew how important it was when we were there. Like, I know now, I'm like, “Oh, my gosh.”

[00:17:05] Carmen: But what an education, right? As a Southerner, some people know that I grew up in the South, this kind of playing by ear and just sitting and playing with people is really part of the tradition. I mean, that's what a lot of Black musicians did, just sit around and play and listen and play by ear. And if you got it, you got it. And if you didn't, you didn’t. . .

[00:17:25] Rhiannon: You better go work on it

[00:17:25] Carmen: You better go work on it. And come back down.

[00:17:28] Rhiannon: You know, you go work on it on your own time, you know.

[00:17:30] Carmen: That’s right, and you come back again.

[00:17:31] Rhiannon: And you figure out how to do it. And the thing is, the other thing was, is that my training here at Oberlin was art music, right? It was art music. His music was function music and it was community music. So, he belonged. He was the Thompson Family Band. It was his brother and then he and his cousin. And they played for the dances in the community. They were function musicians. And that used to be a much larger portion of music making than it is now. Everybody making music now to be famous, to be rich, to whatever, rich, haha, to, you know, keep the lights on, maybe, but, like, for a lot of human existence, musicians had a function in the community that was very important.

I mean, he didn't charge us, right? It was like, of course, you come play and I pass this on. That's what you do. And so, now, me and Justin, the fiddler, we have started doing jams where we just go and play, and people can show up and they can play. And that's it. This is not supposed to be in a classroom.

What I learned in a classroom was fabulous, and I love that, too. And so, with those two trainings, I do what I do. But I value them both equally.

[00:18:34] Carmen: So, you've mentioned the Chocolate Drops. You talked about being the first Black string band to, to perform at the Grand Ole Opry. And I guess, you know, we've had a lot of discussions now about the reception of Black folks in the country music and all that. Can you just tell us what the reaction was at that time? Like, do you recall anything other than a welcoming environment?

[00:18:57] Rhiannon:  I mean, they were… I'm going to get myself banned. They were very proud of themselves. I'll just say that, you know. This is a healing moment. I was like, healing for who? You know, we were so happy to be there. Of course, Grand Ole Opry is such a big deal, but this can't be an end. This can't be, you know, “Oh, we did that. So, therefore, everything's great.”

So, it's like it always feels weird to be in those kinds of positions because you, as a musician, as a young musician who loves country music, you're like, “I'm at the Opry,” but you're also like, “But I'm also at the Opry as the first Black string band to play at the Grand Ole Opry.” You know what I mean? It's like this weird kind of expectation and this weird, I don't know, it just, it… and you know, then we get up on stage and the audience like totally, you know, ask us for another song, which is like, you know rare. It just… so, there was… there's parallel things going on. When you have, when you are representative, it means that there's always two things happening.

[00:19:53] Carmen: So, it's funny you say that because I've had several conversations around this very topic over the course of this Running to the Noise podcast about being the first. And I happen to be the first Black president of Oberlin. And there is this duality in it, this kind of joy about it, but also a concern about it, too. And I think that's, kind of, what you're expressing, like, what do you quite do with it? Because you're proud of it and you're happy about it, and yet being the first says something about, why did it take us so long to get there?

[00:20:22] Rhiannon: Yeah. And then there's also just like, “Hey, we're musicians doing a gig.” You know what I mean? Like, sometimes, I, I like the mission that I have, I'm super proud of having it. I'm super honored to carry it. Like, I feel the ancestors clutching my neck sometimes. And until I do the thing that they want me to do, it's like I'm ridden. 

[00:20:41] Carmen:  Oh, that's interesting. Feeling that pressure. Is it pressure? Is it, what is it? 

[00:20:46] Rhiannon: It's like a hand on my neck. That's all I can tell you. It is intense. And it's like, as soon as I do it, I feel it relax. 

[00:20:52] Carmen:  Mm-hmm.

[00:20:52] Rhiannon: And it’s just like, sometimes it's a thing that I didn't know what it was until I did it. And then, you know, it's just weird. I'm not, I'm not going to get too much into the freaky-deaky metaphysical, but like, sometimes, I just want to like, “Oh, I wrote a song about sunflowers.”

[00:21:08] Carmen: Yes, this is just about sunflowers—nothing more than that. So, let's talk about, you have a new album out, You're the One. It's your first kind of original work all-in-one album. Why was this the right time to do that?

[00:21:23] Rhiannon: It's so funny. It's like I'm already tired of the record. It's like, it's so not me it's so like it was important to do.

[00:21:32] Carmen: Okay.

[00:21:32] Rhiannon:  And I'm glad that I did it because I need it. I had all these songs that needed to be aired. I think they're really good songs. I needed to, kind of, try this on for size. It was an opportunity to work with somebody like Jack Splash, the producer, has worked with like, you know, all these R&B and hip-hop people, you know, somebody that's going to bring in a sound world that I've not really worked in. And as an artist, it is really important to not keep doing the same thing. 

[00:21:57] Carmen: Right. 

[00:21:57] Rhiannon: You know, you got to keep moving. And it was a wonderful collaboration, but I have learned a lot of really good things, which is I hate talking about myself.  

[00:22:07] Carmen: The promotion of it, you’ve been frustrated by?

[00:22:09] Rhiannon:  I hated it. You know, like trying to talk about, okay, what this song blah, blah, blah is to who is the Louisiana man? Let's talk about your relationship. And I'm like, “Oh, my God.”

[00:22:20] Carmen: I saw you on, was it Jimmy Kimmel doing, doing Louisiana Man?

[00:22:23] Rhiannon:  Yeah. 

[00:22:23] Carmen: And so, you having to talk about who is it and what?

[00:22:26] Rhiannon: And I'm like, why does anybody care? You know, it's like, I've spent most of my career walking a fine line, talking to people about slavery. 

[00:22:35] Carmen: Right.

[00:22:36] Rhiannon: Minstrelsy. 

[00:22:36] Carmen: Right. 

[00:22:36] Rhiannon: The banjo. And I’m sitting here going, you want to know about my relationships? Like, this is, you know what I mean? It just was not a transition that I took to very well.

[00:22:44] Carmen: That’s interesting

[00:22:45] Rhiannon: And I'm already thinking about the future. So, it's like I'm super proud of the record. I'm a good songwriter. But I started writing songs to tell stories of enslaved people. That's why I started writing songs. I was not a songwriter. I was an opera singer, which you sing other people's work, right? 

[00:23:02] Carmen: That's right. 

[00:23:03] Rhiannon: And then I was a folk singer, which you sing everybody's work, like the pluralistic idea of folk. But it really, for me, my best songs are in service of other people's stories.

[00:23:13] Carmen: Interesting. And that's what you learned? You thought it was the right thing to do this? You're glad you did it. But you learned that about yourself. 

[00:23:19] Rhiannon: I did it. And it's done. You know what I'm saying?

[00:23:24] Carmen: Well, I have to say, I've been following you on Instagram. It seems like the crowds have been crazy for it. And following you everywhere and enjoying the album.

[00:23:32] Rhiannon: Well, they're enjoying the show. The thing is, like, I have built my fan base over the years. Every show they have come to is different. Every single time I go out on tour, it's a different show. There might be a few things like maybe I'll end on this song a lot or whatever, but the show is going to be different because I want people to follow me because of what I do, not the hit that I had or one album, because I'm never going to just sit and do the album, ever. I did it for a few shows and I was like, “I can't!”

And actually, I had major vocal problems last year. So, it led me to having to scrap what I was going to do and do more of a band situation, which actually I was like, “Oh, yes, this is, this is me.” I'm a band person. I'm a part of a band. I'm a part of a collective. I'm not really comfortable being like the front person. 

[00:24:23] Carmen: That is so interesting. I don't know what I expected you to say, but I didn't expect you to say that. But I think that this learning that we do through our careers, about the things that are of value to us, and how we see ourselves, and I've heard you talk a little bit about the music industry and what it requires and what it needs, and so, as I think about that part of what I know about you, it does make sense that you have learned about how you want to do this work. And it's about doing other people's work in the service of a story in a different way.

[00:24:52] Rhiannon: Yeah, and if I can use my platform and my, you know, sure, put on the makeup. Sure, man, I'm pretty, whatever. I'll use all the tools available, right? But they're tools, and I don't get confused that they are me. You know what I'm saying? So, it's like, that has kept me sane in this industry. Also, like my first solo record was at 37.

[00:25:12] Carmen: You had some grounding. You knew yourself a bit more.

[00:25:13] Rhiannon: Yeah, I had been in the Chocolate Drops and then T Bone Burnett was basically like, “Yeah, it's time. You need to,” you know, and he like threw me off the cliff, you know. And even that record was like these are the songs from women in the industry that I admire. It's still like, I'm like, who do I highlight? I'm descended from an ancestor and I want to be a good ancestor.

So, there's always the throughline in everything that I do. I always have to feel like I'm part of the story and that I'm here in service. Like, I can't stress how important that is and how away from it we've gotten in the music industry, which is why it's eating itself.

[00:25:46] Carmen: That it's not in service of the stories and… it's, it's in service of something else.

[00:25:51] Rhiannon: It's in service of money, money, fame. You know, my mom always told me never do anything for money, property, prestige, power, because when you have those things, that's all you have. You know, you got to go for the core of something that means something, that's going to make the world a better place for people, because then when you have that, you have that.

[00:26:11] Carmen: Yeah. Well, I mean, speaking of money, fame, prestige, power, all of those things, I know I owe the audience a conversation about TEXAS HOLD 'EM and Beyoncé and… because if I don't do that, they'll come and get me.

She talks about wanting to do this album because she was not welcome in a place where she felt that she should have been welcome. And the audience is presuming that that's when she was in the Country Music Awards with the then Dixie Chicks singing. And so, when I heard you on this song, she chose you because of your evangelistic approach to the banjo. She was trying to say something not just about the choice of music, but the choice of you. Can you talk at all about how that collaboration came to be?

[00:27:01] Rhiannon: I can't tell you anything about how all of that happened because, you know, I am under a, you know, legal stuff. 

[00:27:09] Carmen: Yes, that's right. 

[00:27:10] Rhiannon: I will say that I am super grateful that [pause] . . .my work hasn't previously really had much of an outing for the Black community, right? I've always had Black community at my shows, but small amounts. Largest audience of Black people I ever had was at Sing Sing Prison, which has…

[00:27:27] Carmen: Okay. That’s lots of things to talk about.

[00:27:31] Rhiannon: That's a lot. 

[00:27:31] Carmen: Yeah, that's a lot. 

[00:27:32] Rhiannon: That's a lot. So, and that's the hurts, you know, it hurts on so many different levels, but I've just, you know, I'm like, “Well, I'm, I'm telling the story to who I can get the story to.”

[00:27:41] Carmen: Mm-Hmm. 

[00:27:41] Rhiannon: So, when an opportunity comes to play banjo for… you know, I've always said in previous interviews, if anybody can get the banjo to Black people, it’s Beyoncé. 

[00:27:50] Carmen: Absolutely. And we've heard you say that, and basically you, you sort of jokingly say, you know, “My job will be done,” so to speak, when, when that happens, right?

[00:27:57] Rhiannon: If only… I wish, yeah.

[00:27:59] Carmen: But once it happens, you know, “Well, maybe, I got a little bit more to do.”

[00:28:01] Rhiannon: Yeah.

[00:28:02] Carmen: But certainly, it's powerful to hear it on that song.

[00:28:06] Rhiannon: And it's not just the banjo. It is my banjo, which nobody else plays, you know, which is a replica of a banjo from 1858. So, this is the banjo at the crossroads. Everybody was playing banjo at this point, but it has started to become a commercial instrument for blackface minstrelsy, which is problematic, to say the very least, and one of the reasons why we don't talk about this era of banjo-making. But all of that music is coming from this cross-cultural collaborative, you know, world that is happening and loads of Black people playing the banjo. And the banjo that I play would have been a gut string instrument skinhead wooden hoop, and it is really, like I was saying, the crossroads between Africa and Europe. It is, it is not fretted, yet. It's fretless, you know. And it really still recalls the sounds of the African ancestors of the banjo, those lute type instruments that are all over West and, and Central and South Africa.

And yet, there's been already technological advancements to it that mean that it can be replicated. It can be produced in a factory, all these kinds of things. So, it's looking forward to where it's going to go, but it's not there, yet.

So, that deep sound, it's much deeper. People don't even know it's a banjo, sometimes. You know, they kind of feel it, you know, it feels so… it's so old, it's new. So, for me, the triumph was not just getting the banjo on that song. It was my banjo, you know, the banjo that, really, when that banjo was around, banjo itself was still a very active part of Black culture.

The thing I like to stress about the whole record is that it's a wonderful highlight. It's a wonderful spotlight to work that's been going on for, like, generations, but like, specifically, decades to highlight the role of Black people in the creation of country music. And that is a beautiful thing. And it's like you need that, as well as the ongoing work.

[00:29:52] Carmen: I think that's right. I mean, that's how I took it. I thought, sometimes, it takes a certain artist because of their fame and power to elevate this work that's been happening for years and years and years. And I took it that way. I thought, “This work that Rhiannon’s been doing all this time and all of these audiences now get a chance to hear it and see it. And I have to say, and I think I've heard you talk about this a little bit, too, you know, all over Instagram, all these Black folks doing line dances and all sorts of things to this song.

[00:30:21] Rhiannon: What a joy! What a joy! Like, for me, that's been the best part of everything, is to see, to, to witness the Black community engaging with my sounds, you know, in a way that's joyous and just beautiful. And like, I never thought I'd see that.

So, I'm super grateful, super grateful to be a part of it. I'm super grateful that it happened. For me, it's like, now, what? That is always my question. I'm like, “That's great. Now, what? Where's the systemic change?”

I also think we have to rethink about, you know, the whole industry because this whole competitive one person at the top, getting most of the stuff, that's the whole Spotify model, that's the way that the, the labels have been going. And what it does is it scoops out the middle-class musician, which is what has happened to every other industry. But people don't realize it's happening to music, too. 

Of course, there's people like me, people like Alice Randall, people like Jake Blount, people like Rissi Palmer, people like Holly G, people who have been talking about this stuff for a long time. But also, I'm excited to see people like Allison Russell, people like Amythyst Kiah, like folks who are out there doing really beautiful things in the Americana, whatever you want to call it, realm. But this idea of, of collaboration, Yola and Leyla McCalla, and all these people, a lot of Black women, a lot of women of color, doing this work of going, “You know what? You can't pit me against her.” This is like the establishment says there can be only one like The Highlander, and it's like, “Mm-hmm, we're not, we're not playing that game.” And that's what we have. We have to disrupt by saying no. We have to disrupt by saying, “We're not playing this game,” and we have to have enough consensus to do it. 

When I first entered into the field and I lived in Nashville, I felt very alone, you know. So, I left, you know. And that's what happens. You come in. You've run up against the walls. Like, people are like, “Yeah, yeah, yeah. Come on.” And then they're like, like, really, they're like, “Eeh.” And you kind of go, “Well, actually, what am I doing here? Why am I even doing this?” you know, and then you leave. But when you have multiple people, you have community.

[00:32:18] Carmen: I think the other thing that you all are doing that's so powerful is just trying to break down this, you know, this, this type of music is Black people music, and this type of music is, you know, and who would have thought if you could, sort of, rewind that human beings would come up with, kind of, racialized music genres? I mean, that is crazy when you take a moment to think about it.

[00:32:42] Rhiannon: It's all in service of money, all of it, because like when you look at pre- 1920s, people played everything. People listened to everything, you know. You still see some remnants of that, like ’70s AM radio, right? They had everything next to each other. People loved it, right? But it doesn't sell records in the same way as creating genres and then you can just really push, you know, a certain thing to a certain demographic or whatever. And that's what happened when the recording industry came into being. And the racialized genres, it just are an outgrowth of the racialization of the United States, which is basically race used as a tool to enforce class and to create a permanent underclass, right? So, it's all about money—always. It happens again in the ’50s and ’60s, as you start having the separate, the R&B versus country. All those are outgrowths of the hillbilly versus the race, race records. Anytime it starts coming together again, the folks who are in charge, who are making the money, come back down and go, “Eeh,” right? And it just happens over and over again. And they're just really open about it.

And that's the thing that kills me. I'm like, nobody's pretending like this isn't happening. So, why don't we know this? Like, we have to educate ourselves because the more that that is happening, you know, from a monetarist point of view, it goes then into the cultural point of view. And then you have people going, “Oh, she can't make a country record,” because they're ignorant.

[00:34:08] Carmen: That's right. 

[00:34:08] Rhiannon: Because they believe what they've been told, which we all do. 

[00:34:11] Carmen:  That's right. And that's why I thought it was, I don't know how it came to be that you were on that record, but to me, that's what I took from it. It's like, “No, this, this music is for everyone. We're not going to be in that space anymore.” And partly, I think it was because, as I said at the beginning of the show, I was sitting watching your performance here at Oberlin, and we went everywhere. We went to every piece of music. We weren't denied any genre. We went to jazz, and to R&B, and to country, and to classical. We went everywhere in that one show. And that's the way it should be.

[00:34:45] Rhiannon: Because that's the way it was. And that's the way it is, you know.

[00:34:47] Carmen: That's the way it is. That’s the way it is. That’s the way it is.

[00:34:49] Rhiannon: There's like people doing this and making the music and enjoying the music, and it's just like the music industry. We can't forget it is in-dus-try, right? When you have an empire, empire's always bad. I'm sorry, I don't care if it's a music empire or if it's a colonial empire, it means that the people at the top have most of it at the expense of everybody else. And it's just like, that is antithetical to, to what music has served the human condition for millennia, which was bringing us together, to grieve together, to celebrate together, to court.

[00:35:24] Carmen: To understand each other.

[00:35:25] Rhiannon: To understand each other, right? So, that is why I do these things. That is why I did, I don't know how many interviews when Cowboy Carter came out. I was like, it's almost a free emotional labor. All right, let's go.

[00:35:39] Carmen: How many more times can I talk about this? But it’s important, so important, so important. So, let's talk about Omar, your opera that's going to have its academic premiere here at Oberlin in December and I think the Midwest premiere.

[00:35:50] Rhiannon: I think so, yeah. It's a concert version.

[00:35:52] Carmen:  Concert version, yes, that’s right.

[00:35:54] Rhiannon: Very exciting.

[00:35:55] Carmen: What drove you to, to write this opera? What was in your heart and spirit that drove you to do this?

[00:36:02] Rhiannon: Well, I was, I was asked to do it, you know. And that's kind of how my life has gone—the opportunity presents itself, and I go, “Is this, does this serve the mission?” And I don't ask myself, can I write an opera, right? There's a difference. 

[00:36:15] Carmen: That's something that you would do. The rest of us would ask ourselves. I just want you to know. So, the audience knows. She's talking about driving, jumping into the fierce without any concern. I think a lot of us would ask ourselves that question, but you didn't. So, that's good!

[00:36:27] Rhiannon: But the thing is, it's like, you know, every single time I've done this, the universe has provided, right? The universe has provided the people that I need to help me. 

[00:36:37] Carmen: Yes! 

[00:36:37] Rhiannon: Because if you go into something knowing that you don't know how to do it and also knowing that you're never going to know everything about how to do it, you know, you are open to your collaborators. So, when it was the folks at Spoleto who, you know, Spoleto, USA, which is a… it's a big festival, music festival in Charleston, South Carolina. Somebody else had brought them the story of Omar, and then they got the idea to write an opera about it.

And so, when they approached me about this, I was like, “Why don't I know about this man who spent over 50 years of his life in my home state? Again, like the banjo just makes me mad. When I get, and when I get mad, I get motivated, you know. And then you want to write an opera about it. I just said, yes. You know, I did. It felt, I was just, I just said yes. And of course, I had second thoughts. Of course, I like… was like, “What am I doing?” And you know, I ended up writing the libretto because I had an instinct. They wanted me to work with the librettist, and I had an instinct that was like, let me write the libretto, because I write poetry. I write songs. Let me write the libretto. And then let me work with the composer, with another composer who knows the orchestra. Because I was like, I know tunes and I know words and I know vocals, but I don't know the orchestra, you know.

And I literally like had heard, I went to see Get Out, the Jordan Peele movie, and I loved the soundtrack so much. And there was a Swahili chorus in there. And I said, “Who was that who did that?” It was Michael Ables. And so, long story short, I get his email, and I write his email, and I'm like, “You don't know me, but… you want to write an opera together?” This is how I work.

And he wrote back, and he was like, “I've always wanted to write an opera.” So, we met in LA, just to see, you know, you want to meet somebody. We met. We were both just like, “Let's do it.” We just got the vibe, you know. And I just trusted him. I just trusted him, you know. That's how I work. I'm like, I have, at this point, I have an instinct now, you know. I've, I've trusted the wrong people enough to know.

[00:38:35] Carmen: But I think it's something you said earlier on, too, about just doing your own album. Like, you've gotten to the point in your life where you, you know yourself and you know what you do and you can trust yourself. I mean, so many gems you dropped about the universe being open to what the universe tells you to do and believing that the universe will send the collaborators and people that you need to make it happen. 

[00:38:52] Rhiannon: This is it. But you have to have your eyes open and ready for it. You have to be ready for it. And I would write, because I was writing the part of, of the master for my friend, you know, Daniel Okulitch, who I went to school with. And I would text him. We'd be like, “What am I doing? What am I doing? This is crazy.” And he would just be like, “Calm down. If they wanted, you know, John Adams, they would've hired him. They hired you. So, do it the way you do it.” And I was just like, “You're right, you're right, you're right.” I also had to create the, the story, you know, because the autobiography is like this long, you know.

[00:39:21] Carmen: You had to create the whole narrative. 

[00:39:23] Rhiannon: I had to read the Quran. I had to, like, do all this research on, you know, Islam in Africa, you know, and trying to just let it all in. And whenever I got stuck, I went back to Omar. I went back to his words. I went back to the surahs that he quoted, the bits of the Quran that he chose to put in his letters, the things that he was communicating, while also knowing that people were watching him. I mean, this man's life. So, I kept trying, I kept going back to his words. And there was a lot of spiritual… there's definitely ancestral involvement and sometimes stuff would just like, bleh, would come out. So, I just… it did make sense, actually, you know. Like, on paper, it was like, that's crazy. But then when I started doing it, I was like, “Actually, I am uniquely positioned to do this in a way that will,” I don't know. Like, it's just the whole experience was really transcendent.

[00:40:13] Carmen: I wanted to read for the audience what The New York Times said about Omar, because I think that it's emblematic in my mind of who you are as an artist. “Only a musician like Giddens could have created Omar, for which she composed and recorded drafts and sang and accompanied herself, with an ear for the subtle connections and propulsive dramas. It's nimbly handled. It's a melting pot inspired by bluegrass, hymns, spirituals, and more, with nods to the traditions from Africa and Islam. And it's an unforced ideal of American sound, expansive and ever-changing.

[00:40:56] Rhiannon: That's really lovely. I'll forgive him bluegrass, because everything else is amazing. That's such a nice quote. 

[00:41:01] Carmen: You wouldn't say bluegrass?

[00:41:02] Rhiannon: I'd say string band music, because bluegrass is the commercial music that comes about in the 1940s and ’50s. Like, it really doesn't exist.

[00:41:09] Carmen: They didn't have the right words for that aspect of it. 

[00:41:10] Rhiannon: People use bluegrass for everything, you know. And that's… I've, you know, you just have to relax about it. But, yeah, no, I, you know, I felt gotten, you know. I felt gotten. I felt seen. I didn't know people were going to see it, because like, that's what people don't understand. It's not like whether something is good or bad. It's whether it's seen, you know. So, a good review means the reviewer saw what you were doing. That's it. Because it's all subjective. And if you do something, so, for me, Omar, I feel good about Omar, not because of the Pultizer. Although, I love that. Come on.

[00:41:40] Carmen: Yes, of course! We should love that, Pulitzer prize!

[00:41:43] Rhiannon: And speaking of first, that's the first Pulitzer to a pair of composers, right? Because composition is not often something done in pairs. And so, I felt really good about that. It's a strike for, you know, community, for collaborative creation. But, you know, and the reviews were amazing cause it means that we'll get more productions, hopefully. But the thing that makes me the happiest is the audience's response. Look, it's not perfect, but overall, people really appreciated my approach, which, and they felt the respect that I had, which is amazing to me.

And the singers. The singers who I've seen cry, the singers who I've seen connect, singers who I've seen say, “I didn't know anything about this and I went and researched everything and, oh, my gosh.” Like, for me, that's success, you know. And whether it's successful 50 years from now or 100 years, anybody knows about it, 10 years from now, it has reached the people and has been seen by the folks that it needed to be seen by and, hopefully, will continue to be.

[00:42:41] Carmen: Well, we're excited about doing it here at Oberlin, because I think it's so reflective of who you are as an artist. It’s just an important addition to this field. And it's so you.

[00:42:55] Rhiannon: Yeah, I mean the idea of coming back to Oberlin, like, it's just crazy, especially this year where I'm the commencement speaker. And it just feels like a big, like, you know, homecoming year for me. And so, to bring, not only to be able to come back and sing in it, because I'm going to sing the role of Julie, but also, it's like, I wrote it. It's just like, I never would have dreamed in a million years when I was here that I would be bringing an opera that I wrote back here to be in with my buddies that I went to school with, you know. I went to school with Limmie Pulliam, who's going to be Omar. And he's had his own, like, story of redemption.

[00:43:31] Carmen: Yes, he has his own interesting story. Yes, we did Nathaniel Dett at Carnegie Hall with Limmie.

[00:43:36] Rhiannon: I was there. I was there.

[00:43:37] Carmen: It was awesome. And his own story of coming back to this work out of being out of the industry for a while. 

[00:43:45] Rhiannon: With everybody going, “Why isn't Limmie singing? What’s going on?”

[00:43:47] Carmen: That's right. He has an incredible voice. If you don't know that story, you should Google him and read about his story. 

[00:43:51] Rhiannon: And he was a part of Omar from the very beginning, because when we did workshops, Jamez McCorkle, who had been cast by, by Spoleto, couldn't do any of the workshops. So, Limmie came in and did the workshops.

[00:44:01] Carmen: I didn't realize that. 

[00:44:01] Rhiannon: So, he's actually in, kind of, the DNA of Omar. He's the first voice I heard sing some of that stuff. So, it's really exciting to get him, to bring him back into it and to have him do the full role, you know, from beginning to end.

[00:44:14] Carmen: That is amazing. I mean, I'm thinking about how our students must be feeling when they hear you say that, you know, you're an Oberlin student in opera. Could you imagine coming back and performing an opera that you wrote with your friends?

[00:44:29] Rhiannon: I mean, what more do you want? 

[00:44:33] Carmen: That's all there is to say. 

[00:44:34] Rhiannon: It's like, if you could write it down, like, “This is what I want in my life.” And the thing is, if I had done that, If I had chased that, we wouldn't be here talking about it. 

[00:44:43] Carmen: No! 

[00:44:43] Rhiannon: Because like, this is one of the big tenets of, of what I always tell young people, is, like, don't chase the form, chase the essence. Because then you will get to the place you, you couldn't even, I couldn't have imagined this because I'm not, I'm not big enough. I'm a small, fragile vessel that was given a thing and like the world, God, The spirit, the ancestors, whatever your personal belief system is, is like letting them do their thing is amazing, because like, I'm not imaginative enough to imagine that. So, why, why shut that off, right?

[00:45:18] Carmen: That's right. I've heard people talk about that image of letting the universe do its thing. It's like, if you were to imagine that you would plant a tree, but the universe plants an orchard. 

[00:45:27] Rhiannon: Yeah, exactly.

[00:45:29] Carmen: So, let, let it all happen, as opposed to you chasing, because you just chased the tree, and the universe has such bigger plans. 

[00:45:36] Rhiannon: 100%. And everytime, I’m reminded of it when it happens, I’m just like, “Mama was right. Mama’s always right.”

[00:45:51] Carmen: Thanks for listening to Running to the Noise, a podcast produced by Oberlin College and Conservatory and University FM, with music composed by Oberlin professor of Jazz Guitar, Bobby Ferrazza, and performed by the Oberlin Sonny Rollins Jazz Ensemble, a student group created to the support of the legendary jazz musician.

If you enjoyed the show, be sure to hit that Subscribe button, leave us a review, and share this episode online so Obies and other folks around the world can find this. I'm Carmen Twillie Ambar, and I'll be back soon with more innovative thinking for members of the Oberlin community on and off our campus.

Running to the Noise is a production of Oberlin College and Conservatory and is produced by University FM.