Rhiannon Giddens and her MacArthur Fellowship: ‘Genius’? She’s not buying

Rhiannon Giddens, shown performing at the Stagecoach Country Music Festival earlier this year, has been chosen to receive a 2017 MacArthur Foundation Fellowship, the so-called genius grants.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

Technically speaking, she’s now entitled to bragging rights as the world’s first officially crowned “genius” banjo player.

The idea elicits a chuckle from Rhiannon Giddens. To be honest, she says, she isn’t a fan of the “genius grant” nickname that’s been widely used to describe the MacArthur Foundation Fellowship reward she has just collected from the nonprofit organization.

“I know they hate that term,” she said with a laugh, reached by phone last week in Cape Breton, Canada, the morning the foundation revealed the names of about two dozen recipients of the 2017 fellowships. The award includes a $625,000 grant that’s paid out over five years with no strings attached.


“I understand why they don’t like it,” said Giddens, who coincidentally will be making her Walt Disney Concert Hall debut on Oct. 25 on a bill with L.A. singer-songwriter M. Ward. “It’s a very reductive term. It is very evocative and sort of encapsulates this idea of what it is, so I understand why some people like it. But I wouldn’t use it myself.”

Giddens, 40, caught the attention of the foundation with her passionate exploration of under-recognized facets of African American music and culture.

Starting with her role as a founding member of the Carolina Chocolate Drops, an ensemble specializing in the forgotten role of African American musicians in the development of string band and country music, to her blossoming career as a solo artist, Giddens has been singularly devoted to highlighting connections among this nation’s social, political and cultural history.

The financial component of the recognition from the MacArthur Foundation will provide a tangible boost for projects she’s wanted to pursue.

“There’s so much I want to do, try to facilitate, to add to the conversation,” she said. “This will allow that in way I hadn’t previously dreamed.”


For starters, she cites a historical incident from her native North Carolina she’s long wanted to explore: the 1898 Wilmington Massacre, in which white supremacists carried out a political coup in the black-majority city and destroyed the community’s African American-owned newspaper, prompting thousands of black residents to flee their homes.

“There are a lot of parallels to what’s happening today,” she said. “I think the main point of bringing these pieces of history up is connecting them to now. If you can’t do that, it’s pointless.”

Being able to count on funding from the MacArthur fellowship, she said, will aid in her pursuit of the creative side of her career.

“In the commercial music world, the folk world, we sell records and concert tickets — this is the way I make a living,” she said. “You go out, you make your art and hopefully people will put their money down for it. But it’s getting hard. I have to be on the road so much to keep the lights on. I love being on the road and I love my band, but also need to be with my kids more and I need to be creating more.”

Consider the award a welcome confirmation of the path she’s been pursuing.

“Sometimes you wonder,” she said. “When you’re constantly pushing forward and trying to get something done and highlight the history, there are times when you think, ‘Is anybody out there hearing this?’ Then you get a call like this, and I guess they really are.”

It’s not as if she’s been working in a vacuum. The Chocolate Drops took home a Grammy Award in 2010 for its album “Genuine Negro Jig,” and were nominated again in 2012 in the folk album category for its follow-up, “Leaving Eden.” Giddens also has earned three additional Grammy nominations for her solo work.


She’s also been a regular presence among nominees and winners for the annual Americana Music Assn. Awards. And she’s earned the respect and support of Americana kingpins such as musician Bonnie Raitt and producer T Bone Burnett, who produced her 2015 debut album, “Tomorrow Is My Turn.”

“There is nothing about her that wouldn’t appeal to anyone, in any genre,” Raitt told The Times in 2015

Around the same time, Burnett ranked her in the pantheon of American artists whose music has spoken to the broadest swath of listeners.

“We have had performers who’ve been able to take the music of this country all the way around the world several times, from Louis Armstrong to Bob Dylan to Johnny Cash — you can name a long line of performers who’ve had that sort of power,” Burnett told The Times. “I believe she’s one of those people.”

Giddens had a remarkably diverse upbringing, raised in North Carolina and immersed in mountain music traditions of that region, and then studying opera at Oberlin Conservatory of Music in Ohio. She now divides her time among homes in North Carolina, Limerick, Ireland — her husband is Irish — and Nashville, where she’s had a recurring role in the country music-rooted prime-time series “Nashville.”

That’s all contributed to her impressively broad facility for traversing folk music, blues, gospel, French chanson, jazz, elegant pop and even traditional Celtic music authoritatively.


“As an artist, it’s my job to put [history] in a way that reaches people in a different way than a lecture,” she said. “Music affects people in a way that bare facts can’t.”

Her choice of Richard Fariña’s “Birmingham Sunday” for her latest album, “Freedom Highway,” released in February, drew the kind of then-now connection she often strives to make. The song was prompted by the 1963 bombing of a Baptist church in Alabama that killed four young churchgoers, but carries striking parallel to the 2015 mass shooting at the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, S.C., and other recent incidents of racially motivated violence.

That, she said, doesn’t require genius as much as another term she prefers.

“It’s not just ‘expertise,’” she said. “There’s also a fearlessness. Look at all the people who receive these grants: These folks are going after something regardless of whether they can make a living at it. They’re going after something — it’s not just being good at something. It’s putting that with wanting to make something of it, wanting to progress and not being afraid of where that’s going to go.”

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