Rhiannon Giddens to Deliver Commencement Address to Class of 2024

Grammy-winning musician and Oberlin alum will receive an honorary doctorate.

April 10, 2024

Office of Communications

Rhiannon Giddens.
Photo credit: Ebru Yildiz

Rhiannon Giddens, the genre-defying singer, songwriter, and multi-instrumentalist who trained as an operatic soprano at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music, will deliver the keynote address for Oberlin College and Conservatory’s Commencement ceremony honoring the Class of 2024 on Monday, May 27. She will also be awarded an Honorary Doctor of Music degree.

Giddens has stretched her singular brand of folk music, with its miles-deep historical roots and contemporary sensibilities, into just about every field imaginable. A composer for opera, ballet, and film, she has won two Grammy Awards, a MacArthur “Genius Grant,” and the Pulitzer Prize. Giddens centers her work around the mission of lifting up people whose contributions to American musical history have been overlooked or erased, advocating for a more accurate understanding of the country’s musical origins through art.

“A consummate musician, equally noteworthy for her accomplishments as a performer, composer, scholar, lyricist, and more, Rhiannon Giddens stands as one of the most important creative and artistic voices of our time,” says Dean of the Conservatory William Quillen.

Giddens has resisted categorization throughout her celebrated career. After graduating from Oberlin in 2000, she moved back home to North Carolina, where she picked up the fiddle and “fell in love with old-time banjo,” as she told the Oberlin Alumni Magazine (OAM) in the Winter 2023 issue. Eventually she formed the Grammy-winning string band the Carolina Chocolate Drops. 

“There’s been Black people singing opera and writing classical music forever,” she told the New Yorker. Giddens has also used her spotlight to reclaim the banjo as an instrument with roots in Black culture. “It’s not enough to say, Oh, let’s talk about the banjo being an African American instrument,” she said to OAM. “We also have to talk about Why don’t we know that?

As Quillen explains, Giddens’ passion to educate exemplifies the values at the core of Oberlin’s mission: using one’s art to change the world for good. “Throughout her work, Giddens has brought to light previously overlooked or suppressed voices and histories,” Quillen says. “In so doing, she has helped recast conventional narratives and defamiliarize the familiar, single-handedly transforming musical life not only in our country, but globally. It is a tremendous honor to welcome her back to her alma mater, award her an honorary doctorate, and have her address our community.”

Giddens and composer Michael Abels, known for his scores for the Jordan Peele films Get Out and Us, won the 2023 Pulitzer Prize for Music for their opera Omar, based on the autobiography of the West Africa-born Muslim scholar Omar Ibn Said, who was sold into slavery in 1807. As Giddens told the New York Times, it was “a return to opera, but on my own terms.”

Last fall, she partnered with the Pennsylvania Innocence Project and director Daniel Madoff to create a video for her song “Another Wasted Life,” inspired by the story of  Kalief Browder, who took his own life after spending three years on Rikers Island without being convicted of a crime. Released on October 2, 2023—the 10th annual #wrongfulconvictionday—the video features 22 wrongfully convicted men set free by what Giddens calls the “profound work” of the Pennsylvania Innocence Project.

A founding member of the all-female banjo supergroup Our Native Daughters, Giddens has also published children’s books and written and performed music for the soundtrack of Red Dead Redemption II, one of the best-selling video games of all time. She appeared on the ABC hit drama Nashville and throughout Ken Burns’ Country Music series on PBS. Giddens sang for the Obamas at the White House, is a three-time NPR Tiny Desk Concert alum, and hosts her own show—My Music with Rhiannon Giddens—on PBS as well as the Aria Code podcast, which is produced by New York City’s NPR affiliate station WQXR. 

Most recently, Giddens received a Grammy nomination for her 2023 album You’re the One and played banjo and viola on Beyoncé’s “Texas Hold ’Em,” a global No. 1 hit and the first song from a Black woman to ever top the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart.

“I used to say many times as soon as Beyoncé puts the banjo on a track my job is done,” Giddens wrote on Instagram after the song’s release. “Well, I didn’t expect the banjo to be mine, and I know darn well my job isn’t done, but today is a pretty good day.” 

Giddens’ address will be livestreamed as part of Commencement weekend festivities.

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