Rhiannon Giddens just wants to talk about the banjo. Beyoncé was listening.


There’s a joke Rhiannon Giddens often tells audiences during her shows — though maybe it’s more of a disclaimer. It goes like this: You’re at a party on a Friday night enjoying a glass of wine after a long day at work. A girl is walking toward you, and your immediate reaction is, “Oh, Jesus, somebody hide me because she’s going to talk about the banjo or slavery or both!”

Giddens is unapologetically that girl.

The acclaimed folk singer and multi-instrumentalist knows she can be intense, a little obsessive and sometimes philosophical — and she’s okay with that. Because when she sits down with her 1858 replica banjo, her fingers “just go there,” she says. It’s a spiritual practice — connecting her to a rich history and culture of Black string bands that reach back to the 17th century. “It’s what I eat, sleep and drink,” Giddens says.

Maybe the ears of whomever she’s talking to will perk up. Or maybe they’ll tune out. Either way, Giddens, 47, feels it’s her calling. “I’m not here to be famous, and I’m not here to be a celebrity,” she said in a recent phone interview with The Washington Post. “I’m just here to bore you to tears about the banjo.”

Though on this Thursday afternoon in late February, she has set the plucked string instrument aside to enjoy a few days at her home in Ireland — sorting through her Tupperware, crocheting little creatures, preparing Southern meals for her two kids and snuggling with her cats.

It is a brief interlude for the musician who has suddenly attracted a stream of new fans for her involvement in “Texas Hold ’Em,” Beyoncé’s current chart-topping country single. The song, along with the soaring guitar ballad “16 Carriages,” was released as a teaser to Beyoncé’s March 29 album “Cowboy Carter.” And it became the first song by a Black woman to debut at No. 1 on Billboard’s 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 shared on Instagram following 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.”

This is what else Giddens will say about her collaboration with Beyoncé: “I can’t talk about it.”

But she does allow her kids to weigh in. Walking into another room of her home, Giddens poses a question to her 14-year-old daughter: “Hey, Aoife, do you think I’m cool now that I’m on a certain chart-topping song that I can’t talk about?”

Aoife takes the phone and chuckles for a moment before replying, “It doesn’t really change anything.”

The teenager has a point. Even as Beyoncé’s spotlight is inviting more attention, Giddens, who has won a Pulitzer Prize, Grammys and a MacArthur “genius” award for her work, plans to stay the course — talking and plucking and hoping to capture the interest of new listeners.

On Monday, she will take the stage at Strathmore in North Bethesda to perform music from her recent Grammy-nominated album “You’re the One.” The project, which is her first to feature all original songs, is a medley of American music — blues, jazz, soul, country, rock and gospel. And her banjo, naturally, weaves throughout it.

“With every little scrap I’m given … I try to turn it into something that educates about the banjo,” Giddens says. Over the past 15 years, that effort has included a three-part series for BBC Radio and a 10-part series on the continuing-education platform Wondrium. A guest acting role on the former CMT show “Nashville,” where she advocated for the banjo’s inclusion in her character’s storyline. Haunting songs for the western adventure video game “Red Dead Redemption 2.” An op-ed for the Guardian about the Black roots of country music. Her daily “Black Banjo Renaissance” social media posts. Speeches. Lectures. Albums. Even children’s books.

“For me, the banjo represents the best of what America is,” Giddens says, but “the reason we don’t know the history of the banjo represents some of the worst of what America is — the false narrative that’s been laid over the actual history.”

First created by enslaved Africans and their descendants in the Caribbean in the 17th century, the instrument is deeply rooted in the African American experience, serving as a symbol of resistance and resilience. “Those early banjos were about us finding community together, finding spiritual connections to the motherland, finding a way to talk to each other.”

During the 19th century, the banjo became popularized in American culture through minstrelsy — a performance practice in which White musicians donned blackface makeup and mocked African American musical traditions for a White audience. Over the years, various configurations of the banjo emerged. As Giddens explains in her docuseries for Wondrium, the instrument traveled from Black culture to White culture, from handmade instrument to commercial instrument, from jazz and bluegrass to old-time and country music. Everyone, Giddens says, holds a piece of its history. “That’s actually incredible,” she says. “It’s beautiful. It should bring us together.”

But somewhere in the course of the 20th century, the roots of string band music became almost exclusively linked to the White South. Though there were musicians still strumming in Giddens’s own backyard to keep the tradition of Black roots music alive.

Growing up in a mixed-race household in Greensboro, N.C., Giddens was surrounded by the music of the South. In other words, she heard a little bit of everything. “My White uncle was a bluegrass musician, so I would have heard a lot of bluegrass,” she says. “My Black mom was obsessed with country music. My Black grandmother watched ‘Hee Haw’ every weekend.”

She also heard jazz and folk revival music. And for three hours every Sunday morning, Black gospel music blared through their home, introducing Giddens to amazing mass choirs and artists like Kirk Franklin.

She left all that as a teenager to study opera at Oberlin College in Ohio. But by her mid-20s, Giddens was back in the South, where she soon met a man who would change her life.

Joe Thompson, then 86, was an old-time fiddler and a proponent of Black string band music. He was the last known musician playing that kind of music in the South, Giddens says, and it was practically from her own backyard in Mebane, just east of Greensboro. And he agreed to teach her, along with two fellow musicians: Dom Flemons and Justin Robinson.

Together, the trio soaked up his lessons and formed the Carolina Chocolate Drops to preserve his musical legacy.

Those early years of the Chocolate Drops were about survival. Folk music isn’t exactly lucrative, and Giddens was a new mom, having just given birth to Aoife, her first child with Irish musician Michael Laffan. The band was making just enough money to get by, hardly sleeping, and driving from gig to gig as Giddens sat in the back seat, fastening CDs or holding her newborn.

In 2011, they were still on the grind when their third studio album, “Genuine Negro Jig,” won the award for best traditional folk album at the Grammys, a triumphant feat for working-class musicians, and especially for a band that resisted the pressures of the recording industry.

She felt then the way she still feels now: “If I have to put on makeup and go stand on a red carpet, if that means that my career continues so that I can continue to talk about the banjo, I’ll do it,” Giddens says. “My mission has kept me in the industry.”

By 2014, the Chocolate Drops went their separate ways. Giddens held steadfast to her mission, though her avenues to pursue it started to vary.

She recorded several solo albums. In 2017, when she was granted a MacArthur “genius” award, the organization noted not just the beauty of her music, but that her “drive to understand and convey the nuances, complexities, and interrelationships between musical traditions is enhancing our musical present with a wealth of sounds and textures from the past.”

In 2020, Giddens was named artistic director of the global music collective Silkroad, a position previously held by Yo-Yo Ma. Two years later, her solo album “They’re Calling Me Home” nabbed the Grammy for best folk album. And last year, Giddens won the Pulitzer Prize for music for “Omar,” an opera about an enslaved Muslim man in America, which she co-wrote with composer Michael Abels.

Despite her accolades, Giddens has often felt like her work existed in the fringes — and she made peace with it. Accepting that her form of art would never reconcile with mainstream Black culture.

But the collaboration with Beyoncé is an opportunity to move the conversation Giddens has spent her whole life trying to have into the mainstream.

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Ahead of the release of “Cowboy Carter,” music critics and fans have been buzzing about how it could spur a long-overdue revolution within the country music industry. Billboard magazine reported that the instant success of “Texas Hold ’Em” has also given other Black women in country music a boost — including Tanner Adell, Reyna Roberts and, of course, Giddens.

“In recent days … I have seen more Black people respond to some of my music,” Giddens says on the phone. “And that’s been really amazing. … It’s been really, really beautiful because it’s all I ever wanted.”

But Giddens has also been around long enough, seen enough racism, to temper her optimism. “A number one hit by a Black woman … can really jolt things,” Giddens says. “But then to sustain it, we need systemic change.”

For her part, Giddens plans to use her moment in the cultural limelight to tell the kinds of stories that would otherwise be tuned out.

Her recent cover of pioneering songwriter Alice Randall’s “The Ballad of Sally Anne,” for instance, is a stirring rendition that illuminates the harrowing reality of lynching in America. The cover is featured in “My Black Country: The Songs of Alice Randall,” an upcoming tribute album.

“Rhiannon’s interpretation does the work of getting people who never want to think about lynching thinking about lynching,” Randall said in an email to The Post. “And it gives people who will never stop thinking about lynching a place to hear [that] their pain is sacred.”

The album will accompany Randall’s memoir of the same name, which chronicles Black artistry in country music’s past, present and future. Giddens’s inclusion in the project was essential, said Randall, who views Giddens as the most authoritative voice in the movement to illuminate the cultural roots of country music.

“Rhiannon, like the sun, shines so bright, you don’t even realize she is a star,” Randall said. “She doesn’t compete, she collaborates. She comes armed with her own genius and amplifies the genius in others.”

At the end of the month, Giddens’s fans will get to see how much her genius amplified the genius of country music’s new biggest star, Beyoncé.

But for the moment, she’s focused on how to both portion and preserve her energy.

“I’m just thinking about how to take care of myself a little bit better because I used to give myself away all the time,” says Giddens, who had to undergo surgery last year after her voice gave out. “I would sign CDs for hours after the show and do all the interviews and do all the extra things, and I’m kind of realizing that, at a certain point, you’re actually diminishing yourself, and that doesn’t help anybody out.”

Life in Ireland has helped. To give their kids a sense of stability, Giddens and Laffan, who are now divorced, practice “nesting,” in which each parent alternates living in the home. It means the family can have cats. It means Laffan can have more support from extended family in the area while Giddens is touring. It means her kids can connect with their Irish heritage.

One day, Giddens says, she and her kids will talk about what all this means. For now, she has been proud of how they are taking it all in stride. Last year, for instance, she told her kids she had won a Pulitzer Prize. Her 11-year-old son, Caoimhin, quipped: “I’ve heard of that — it’s in a Calvin and Hobbes comic strip!”

“I was just like super proud of that moment because that’s his connection,” Giddens says.

“Our lives have always been us cooking and cleaning,” she says. “So for them, it’s just, ‘Mom goes away, Mom comes back,’ and sometimes they get to go to some cool, fancy things. It doesn’t really faze them. I still have to make the mac and cheese.”

That’s enough for Giddens. “As long as I can support my family, the rest of it is really [about] feeling like I’ve left the world a tiny bit better than I came into,” she says. “That’s what I’m trying to do.”

There have been moments, she admits, when she wonders whether it’s even working.

“In the past, I’ve felt like, ‘What am I doing? Obviously, nobody gives a s—,’” Giddens says. “But people do give a s—. And just when I start to feel like I want to quit, something will happen.”

A Pulitzer Prize, perhaps. Maybe a collab with a global pop icon. Or an encounter with a person at a party who desperately wants to talk about the banjo.

“And I’m like, ‘Okay, I’ll keep going.’”

March 18 at Strathmore Auditorium, 5301 Tuckerman Ln., North Bethesda, at 8 p.m. $39-$89. strathmore.org.


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