Rhiannon Giddens defends the Black roots of country music: ‘We keep having to tell the story’

On theGrio’s "Writing Black’" podcast, award-winning musician and Beyoncé collaborator Rhiannon Giddens explains why country music was co-founded by Black creativity.

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(Photo credit: Screenshot/Rhiannon Giddens/YouTube; Image: theGrio

“You brought me here to build your house; to build your house, to build your house” is the phrase that opens Rhiannon Giddens’ first children’s book, “Build a House,” as well as the song that inspired it. Co-written by Giddens and famed cellist Yo-Yo Ma, the song also features Giddens on banjo, an instrument she has long sought to reclaim as an inherently African instrument foundational to American music. As she explained during an episode of theGrio’s “Writing Black” podcast, the banjo’s story parallels the creation of African-American identity and our continued experience in the United States.

“I was just really frustrated with the continuing ignorance about where American history comes from and just how we keep having to tell the story,” said Giddens, a Pulitzer Prize and Grammy award-winner, MacArthur Genius, singer, songwriter, instrumentalist, and author who has written in multiple genres. “So I wrote the song ‘Build a House’ because I was just sort of like “[white settlers] freakin’ brought us over here to build this whole freaking thing, and now you don’t want us to have a fair share of it. That doesn’t make any sense.” 

In light of the recent controversy surrounding no less than Beyoncé now reclaiming a genre of music not only central to her native Houston but to her African-American heritage, the words of Giddens, a musical contributor on “Renaissance, Pt. 2,” hold new relevance.

“I mean, it’s kind of my life’s work; I can’t get away from it,” she explained. “And what I feel like I can’t leave is that idea of the cultural history of the United States. Just as so many buildings were built by enslaved people, not only the buildings but the bricks … people, when they see the edifice, they see the building, they don’t see that.” 

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“And I feel like that’s the case with American music — there’s a lot of places where it has not been allowed to see our fingerprints in the brick, you know?” Giddens continued, adding, “It’s like the discovery of our actual engagement in the creation of these types of music, and then, there is how we are erased from it.”

Hear more from Rhiannon Giddens on the foundations of country music and more on a re-air of her episode of “Writing Black” on theGrio Black Podcast Network.

Maiysha Kai is theGrio’s lifestyle editor, covering all things Black and beautiful. Her work is informed by two decades of experience in fashion and entertainment, great books, and the brilliance of Black culture. She is also the editor-author of Body: Words of Change series and the host of ‘Writing Blackon theGrio Black Podcast Network.

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