Boston-based Silkroad has a new leader, Rhiannon Giddens, and for anyone lucky enough to encounter this gifted musician and singer’s talent for the first time, hang on—the world is about to get infinitely larger. Welcome to one of the most innovative (And wild) Rides of a lifetime.
Rhiannon Giddens doesn’t think of a world beset by boundaries. How could she? The MacArthur Genius Grant recipient and Grammy winner produces music that not only straddles the old and new but also finds a way to blend geographical markers. She sings with the lovely conviction of an old soul and plays the fiddle and banjo-like an Appalachian demigod who happens to understand the musical vernacular of most continents. She’s even writing an opera. And through it all—yes, even while performing for the Obamas at the White House—Giddens’ lifelong mission has been to ensure the American musical legacy of people of color is appreciated and never erased again. Pitchfork says there are “few artists so fearless and so ravenous in their exploration.”
And now she’s been selected as the new artistic director for Boston-based Silkroad (silkroad.org), the organization created by Yo-Yo Ma in 1998 to help bridge cultural collaboration and the exchange of ideas.
Ma’s initial gathering of artists had a simple, almost artistically cagey, premise: What happens when strangers meet? If they’re talented and open minded: magic. Silkroad’s touring ensemble has included exceptional musicians from all over the planet; it has also recorded seven albums, including the Grammy-winning SingMe Home, which was graced by Giddens. When it was announced that Giddens would serve as Silkroad’s creative director, many in the musical community agreed it was an artistic slam dunk. “Rhiannon is an extraordinary human being and musician,” says Ma. “She lives Silkroad’s values, at once rooted in history and its many musics, and is an advocate for the contemporary voices that can move us to work together for a better world.”
Lending talent to an organization is one thing; leading it as a creative director and fostering its continued success is quite another. The artist, as expected, is undaunted. “Silkroad is an amazing organization filled with incredibly talented people, and I would love to see it get the recognition and notice that it deserves,” says Giddens, who this month releases a new album, They’re Calling Me Home, a collaboration with Francesco Turrisi about isolation during COVID. “Yo-Yo Ma’s mission of radical cultural collaboration is being [further] defined and illuminated in Silkroad for 2021. There’s so much in American history that’s connected inextricably to the cultures of the world, and that’s what we aim to explore in the coming years.”
This year, Giddens says the organization is taking on a large-scale project about America’s cross-continental railroad. “It’s something that accelerated the massive economic and capitalistic revolution going on in the late 1800s and which, of course, was in large part built by Chinese, African and Irish Americans, in addition to other European immigrant populations—and also led to the seizure of yet more Indigenous land,” she says. “These connections—musically, historically and culturally—are there waiting to be explored.”
The idea of our sacred human connections and the mingling of history with music is Giddens’ North Star. So much so that writing the libretto and music for an opera about a slave didn’t seem like a stretch, but rather the natural progression of an artist who’s endlessly curious. “I was commissioned to write an opera about Omar Ibn Said, who was from the Futa Toro region of Senegal and was a Q’uranic scholar,” she says. “He lived into his 80s in North Carolina—was never freed—and left behind an autobiography in Arabic, the only document of its kind. He was an incredible personage, and it’s been the learning opportunity of a lifetime to try to render what we know of his story in music.” It’s scheduled to debut at the Spoleto USA Festival (spoletousa.org) in Charleston, S.C., later this year. Giddens also has written music for an original ballet, Lucy Negro, Redux, which is the first ballet written by a woman of color for a Black prima ballerina.
I mention to Giddens that she’s done the nearly impossible during her young career: make weathered songs feel as contemporary and as relevant now as when they were written. “Music does a thing—it creates an emotional pathway from me to you and makes it easier to be empathetic to what I’m trying to say,” she says. “One song can do the work of a dozen books, but those dozen books have to be read and condensed into the one song. So researchers, artists, writers—we are all a part of the same continuum.”
Giddens seems to understand the Henri Matisse maxim: Creativity takes courage. But unlike artists who strive to create a body of work to define an era—their era—she’s not afraid of our ghosts, musical or otherwise, whose stories stretch like so many whispers across the republic. I ask her what she’s trying to convey to the world. “That there are no genres, borders or walls that aren’t erected between people for the express purpose of enriching someone else. That we are more alike than we are different. And that when we come together—in music, in art, in culture—we become the best of our potential.”
Photography by: Ebru Yildiz