October 12, 2017
By Erich Burnett
Portrait of Rhiannon Giddens
Photo credit: Tanya Rosen-Jones '97

Heralded singer and instrumentalist studied opera at Oberlin, founded Carolina Chocolate Drops.

Versatile musician Rhiannon Giddens, a 2000 graduate of Oberlin Conservatory, has been named a MacArthur Fellow for 2017 by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

The so-called “Genius Grant” recognizes the creative contributions and potential of 24 individuals of wildly varying backgrounds, from theater artists to computer scientists. Each recipient is awarded a prize of $625,000, paid over five years, with no stipulations governing its use.

Giddens was praised by the foundation for “reclaiming African American contributions to folk and country music and bringing to light new connections between music from the past and the present.” She is cofounder of the Grammy Award-winning country-blues ensemble Carolina Chocolate Drops, for which she is the lead singer, violinist, and banjo player. A native of North Carolina, she has also released a pair of acclaimed solo albums, Tomorrow Is My Turn and Freedom Highway, and has collaborated on well-received projects including Lost on the River: The New Basement Tapes, a 2014 recording of previously unreleased music by Bob Dylan she made with Elvis Costello, Marcus Mumford, and others.

A standout soprano in Oberlin’s Opera Theater program, Giddens studied with Professor of Singing Marlene Rosen.

"Rhiannon is among the best students I have ever had," says Rosen. "She is gifted with a voice of rare beauty that deeply touches those who hear her, and she has the imagination to create musical ideas that are fresh and unerringly honest. She is a highly intelligent woman, but more than that, a person of substance and integrity, respected and loved by her peers."

Giddens returned to her alma mater in February 2016 for the musical Convocation “Swimming in Dark Waters: Other Voices of the American Experience.” She was joined by fellow musicians Leyla McCalla and Bhi Bhiman.

Giddens joins a long and ever-growing list of Oberlin College and Conservatory of Music graduates who have been honored with MacArthur fellowships. Conservatory recipients include pianist Jeremy Denk ’90; radio producer Jad Abumrad '95, who cohosts the NPR-distributed program Radiolab with fellow Oberlin graduate Robert Krulwich ’69; and flutist/entrepreneur Claire Chase ’01, founder of the International Contemporary Ensemble.

Most recently, cartoonist and author Alison Bechdel ’81 was honored by MacArthur in 2014.

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