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Rhiannon Giddens connects history and music

The gifted musician reflects on her time as Carolina’s first Southern Futures Artist-in-Residence.

Rhiannon Giddens and Justin Robinson play instruments outside Wilson Library
Giddens and Justin Robinson host a jam session outside of Wilson Library. (Jeyhoun Allebaugh/۰ͼ-Chapel Hill)

Fans know Rhiannon Giddens in many guises: former lead singer and instrumentalist in the Carolina Chocolate Drops; recurring character in the TV series “Nashville”; banjo player on Beyoncé’s “Texas Hold ’Em.” Named by NPR as one of the 25 most influential women musicians of the 21st century, the MacArthur “Genius” grant recipient, children’s book author and composer has five solo albums, two Grammys and a Pulitzer Prize for the opera “Omar.”

For the past two years, Giddens was also Carolina’s inaugural Southern Futures Artist-in-Residence, a program bridging the College of Arts and Sciences, University Libraries and Carolina Performing Arts. The residency was tailored to help Giddens dig into archives and dive into the history of America.

“To have an open-ended research residency, to have access to the archives and be able to do primary source research with the kind of support you usually only get when you’re a doctoral student, was great,” Giddens said.

For Alison Friedman, the James and Susan Moeser Executive and Artistic Director of CPA, “Rhiannon was the perfect match.”

Artist in the archives

Giddens’ residency began in spring 2022 with the goal of “highlighting stories untold and voices unheard,” she said. “My aim was to celebrate the cultural contributions of those who came before us in my art and to bring to light the impact of Black and Indigenous populations that resided in Chapel Hill.”

Giddens’ work centers on uncovering and lifting up overlooked people and forgotten or erased musical origins. Before, she conducted much of her historical research digitally, finding sheet music from the 1800s, advertisements for enslaved people, ads for runaways. At Carolina, Giddens spent hours delving into the robust archives of Wilson Library with the help of archivists and research assistants.

“These kinds of things have played a huge part in my songwriting and composition,” she said, “but I’ve never had the opportunity to hold documents in my hand, to chase things down, to really dig into things.”

Rhiannon Giddens holding banjo against a dark brown backdrop.

(Photo by Ebru Yildiz)

Before her residency, Giddens had done extensive research for “Omar,” the Pulitzer Prize-winning opera she composed with Michael Abels. The opera details the life of Omar ibn Said, a West African scholar enslaved in the Carolinas, drawing details from ibn Said’s 1831 autobiography.

Co-commissioned and co-produced by CPA and Spoleto Festival USA, the 2023 performance of “Omar” in Chapel Hill was a powerful moment.

“The collaboration with ‘Omar’ was amazing, and my favorite time seeing it was at Chapel Hill,” Giddens said.

Making connections

During her residency, Giddens made important connections with communities across campus, including the ۰ͼ American Indian Center. “Rhiannon has used her residency and platform to uplift and elevate Native voices and issues and to advocate for us on campus and beyond,” said Danielle Hiraldo, director of the American Indian Center.

Back of Rhiannon Giddens' head amongst a classroom of students.

(Photo by Taylor Barrett)

A two-day collaboration, “Roots & Reclamation: Native North Carolina & the LandBack Movement,” featured several open classroom events and an American Indian powwow. Giddens gathered with collaborators and community members at the Ackland Art Museum for a conversation about land and music, coinciding with the exhibition “Past Forward: Native American Art from Gilcrease Museum.” The conversation inspired a new song, “,” written overnight and performed as the last song of Giddens’ final concert during her residency.

included book readings, classroom visits and jam sessions outside Wilson Library with former Carolina Chocolate Drops bandmate Justin Robinson.

Her residency has ended, but Giddens will return to campus as artistic director of Silkroad Ensemble, which performs Nov. 20 as part of CPA’s 2024-25 season.