The hot streak for singer-actress Rhiannon Giddens continues. She is a 2017 MacArthur Fellow, a prestigious award that comes with a $625,000 prize.
Early Wednesday, the 40-year-old Greensboro native was announced as one of 24 MacArthur Foundation “Genius Grant” winners. The award is paid over five years, no strings attached, and there is no application process. Giddens first heard about it in a phone call several weeks ago when she learned the news of her selection.
“It’s gonna let me live a little bit,” Giddens said Tuesday, before the announcement was made public. “I’ll be able to pursue some things while not having to stay on the road so much to keep the lights on. I love my band and I’ll always tour, but this will let me tour a little less and work on larger projects I believe need to be done.”
MacArthur grants are given to recipients demonstrating exceptional creativity and the potential for “important future advances,” with the grant enabling recipients to do more creative work. In the foundation’s statement, Giddens’ work was cited for “reclaiming African-American contributions to folk and country genres and revealing affinities between a range of musical traditions.”
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This year’s winners span the country, operating in fields such as academia, statistics, anthropology, architecture and journalism as well as the arts.
Another 2017 winner with North Carolina ties is New York Times journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones, who earned a graduate degree at UNC-Chapel Hill and worked as a News & Observer reporter from 2003 to 2006. She has won numerous awards for her work writing about racial segregation in schools and in housing.
For Giddens, winning a MacArthur grant is the peak accolade in a career that has seen no shortage of awards and acclaim. Giddens won a Grammy Award with her group the Carolina Chocolate Drops, as well as the 2016 Steve Martin Prize for Excellence in Banjo and Bluegrass (which came with a $50,000 award). Earlier this year, she had a recurring role on the CMT drama “Nashville.”
And just last month, the singer, known for her social activism, delivered a heralded keynote speech on diversity at the International Bluegrass Music Association’s annual conference in Raleigh.
“I think Rhiannon is a North Carolina treasure who has gone on to be a treasure around the world,” said Joe Newberry, an award-winning local musician who has played with Giddens often over the years. “The music she loves and has learned and written is all part of the great fabric of the American songbook. She’s just a delight. That’s the truth.”
Musical roots grow
Giddens grew up around bluegrass, country and old-time folk music in North Carolina before attending the Oberlin Conservatory of Music in Ohio. She studied opera singing at Oberlin, but on-campus contra dances led her back toward folksier music.
After graduating in 2000, Giddens returned to North Carolina and began playing fiddle and banjo with other like-minded musicians. She formed Carolina Chocolate Drops as an old-time string band with Dom Flemons and Justin Robinson after meeting them at a 2005 conference at Appalachian State University called the Black Banjo Gathering.
Old-time fiddler Joe Thompson of Mebane – one of the last of the old African-American stringband musicians – was an important early collaborator for the Chocolate Drops. Before his death in 2012 at age 93, Thompson imparted valuable advice to the trio about music, repertoire and life in general.
“He’d never say, ‘You’re not playing that right,’ ” Giddens told The News & Observer in 2012 after Thompson’s death. “It was always, ‘That might be just a little too fast.’ Not saying it was good or bad, just nudging it along until we were where he wanted us to be.”
The Chocolate Drops made an impressive major-label debut with 2010’s “Genuine Negro Jig,” which won a Grammy Award for Best Traditional Folk Album and even cracked the pop charts. That up set things nicely for Giddens’ solo career, which has earned her multiple Grammy nominations since she debuted with 2015’s T Bone Burnett-produced “Tomorrow Is My Turn.”
Speaking out for diversity
Giddens’ latest album, this year’s “Freedom Highway,” was informed by her historical research into slave narratives and the civil-rights era. That served as backdrop to her recent IBMA keynote speech, which came days after she and her band knelt onstage at a concert in Nashville to show solidarity with NFL players kneeling during the national anthem. In a lively half-hour speech, she highlighted the forgotten contributions of African-Americans to bluegrass.
“The question is not, ‘How do we get diversity into bluegrass?’ but, ‘How do we get diversity back into bluegrass?,’” she said then, to cheers and a standing ovation. Two weeks later, Giddens reflected on the reaction to her speech.
“That felt good because I put myself out on a limb and did not pull any punches,” Giddens said. “Let’s dismantle this system that’s clearly not serving us and find points of commonality where we can come together. We have to know about the divisive history, but that’s not what we build on to move forward.”
As for what’s next, Giddens points to a piece of history she’d like to illuminate: the Wilmington insurrection of 1898. It’s an infamous event in which a white mob of nearly 2,000 attacked African-American people, businesses and neighborhoods, leaving scores dead.
“It’s been called a race riot, but it was a massacre and a political coup on American soil,” she said. “It’s full of things that resonate with what’s going on now about the idea of democracy. As an artist, I can see the art that can be made by connecting those events and characters to today. I’ve been obsessed with it over the last year.”
MacArthur Fellows Facts
▪ The award isn’t considered a lifetime achievement award, though nominees are evaluated on their achievements. The program emphasizes that the award is “an investment in a person’s originality, insight, and potential. Indeed, the purpose of the MacArthur Fellows Program is to enable recipients to exercise their own creative instincts for the benefit of human society.”
▪ The program doesn’t accept applications or unsolicited nominations.
▪ About 20 to 30 winners are named each year. Past winners include “Hamilton” creator Lin-Manuel Miranda, cartoonist Alison Bechdel and author Ta-Nehisi Coates.
▪ North Carolina has been connected to several winners, with the most recent one in 2015: Tap dancer and choreographer Michelle Dorrance, who grew up in Chapel Hill.
North Carolina winners
▪ A.R. Ammons, poet, June 1981
▪ Christopher Beard, paleontologist, 2000
▪ Jeremy Denk, pianist and writer, 2013
▪ Michelle Dorrance, tap dancer and choreographer, 2015
▪ Martin Daniel Eakes, economic development strategist, 1996
▪ John G. Fleagle, primatologist and paleontologist, 1988
▪ Craig Gentry, computer scientist, 2014
▪ Dr. Kevin Guskiewicz, sports medicine researcher, 2011
▪ Robert H. Hall, public interest journalist, 1992
▪ Shirley Brice Heath, anthropologist linguist, 1984
▪ Carolyn McKecuen, economic development leader, 1994
▪ Jane Richardson, biochemist, 1985
▪ Max Roach, percussionist and jazz composer, 1988
▪ Theodore Rosengarten, historian, 1989
▪ John W. Terborgh, conservation biologist, 1992
▪ Eleanor Wilner, poet, 1991
▪ Patricia C. Wright, primatologist and conservationist, 1989
▪ Daisy Youngblood, sculptor, 2003
John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation