2016 Prize Winner: Rhiannon Giddens
The 2016 recipient of the Steve Martin Banjo Prize is Rhiannon Giddens. Rhiannon Giddens occupies a unique position in the world of banjo music, bridging contemporary and traditional forms and the cultures of three continents. Few musicians have done more to revitalize old-time sounds in the last decade. Drawing from blues, jazz, folk, hiphop, traditional African, Celtic, and jug band music, she has brought tremendous vitality and artistry to her live and recorded performances. Her work as a solo artist and with the Carolina Chocolate Drops has highlighted the banjo’s history as an African and an African-American instrument, and resurrected black string band music for a new generation. In 2017, she was the recipient of a MacArthur Foundation “Genius Grant,” which is a five-year grant of $625,000 intended to allow the recipient to pursue his or her work without financial concern.
Her musical career began with opera training at Oberlin College, then segued into Scottish and Celtic music, with a sideline in calling contra dances. In 2005, Giddens attended the Black Banjo Gathering at Appalachian State University in Boone, NC, a conference dedicated to exploring the roots of banjo music. There, she met Dom Flemons and Justin Robinson, with whom she founded the Carolina Chocolate Drops. The three started making weekly trips to play and study with veteran fiddler Joe Thompson. Albums, touring, and widespread acclaim ensued, including a Grammy for Best Traditional Folk Album for Genuine Negro Jig in 2011. In recent years, she’s branched out into solo recording projects, including Tomorrow is My Turn, which was nominated for a Grammy for Best Folk Album in 2016. In addition to the contemporary five-string banjo, she has performed on gourd banjo, nineteenth-century minstrel banjo, and the three-stringed African akonting. She has emerged as a multi-instrumentalist who is passionate about bringing the sound and feel of old-time black string bands into the twenty-first century. Along the way, she has become a historian as well as a musician.
In an interview in the February 2016 issue of Banjo Newsletter, Giddens said “I was attracted to the banjo before I knew the history of it. I just loved it. In the beginning I felt like I was kind of an interloper, and then I realized actually it’s everybody’s music. When you look at the history of it, it’s everybody’s music. It doesn’t belong to anybody. And then getting into the African roots of it I was just flabbergasted. . . . It’s a huge history that nobody talks about. And that really drew me.” Giddens’s work recognizes how big and versatile and multicultural the banjo can be, and how deep its roots go. Her electrifying performances have made the banjo exciting to new audiences, while simultaneously reaching back to the instrument’s earliest origins.