Rhiannon Giddens

Rhiannon Giddens.

Rhiannon Giddens of the all-BIPOC bluegrass band Carolina Chocolate Drops recently became both the first woman and the first Black person to win the Steve Martin Prize for Excellence in Banjo and Bluegrass.

Giddens is the seventh winner of the prize, which also rewards musical excellence with $50,000 and a bronze statue.

“Rhiannon has made a rare contribution to American music,” Martin said in a statement. “She — along with the Carolina Chocolate Drops — has resurrected and revitalized an important part of banjo history.”

Giddens met fellow band members Dom Flemons and Justin Robinson back in 2005 at the Black Banjo Gathering in Boone, North Carolina. They spent years apprenticing with bluegrass elders and were rewarded for their patience, talent and general excellence by winning a Grammy for their debut album Genuine Negro Jig in 2010. Giddens has also excelled on her own with the T-Bone Burnett-produced solo Tomorrow Is My Turn, which earned its own Grammy nod.

Bluegrass music is a diverse genre with roots in African, Anglo, Scots-Irish and Welsh roots. Originally brought over from European settlers, the genre was heavily influenced by the jazz, blues and African instruments that influenced the sound of the banjo itself, as well as by the gospel of both Black and white Southerners. This hodgepodge is all distinctly Appalachian, but can now be heard across the world in revival music as well as in its far-reaching influence on seemingly unrelated genres.

According to Raleigh’s News & Observer, the Black influence on bluegrass has its origins between string musicians in Southern communities, particularly in Appalachia. This happened as adept and open-minded players took with them the most interesting music they heard, without regard to the race of the musician, said CeCe Conway, an English professor at Appalachian State University.

“It means that music can cross boundaries that other things don’t and that these musicians cared more about music than about those boundaries,” Conway said.

Music academics attribute the musical mashup and cultural cross-pollination to several centuries of exposure, resulting in Southern string music’s “blue” or flattened vocal tones and its use of syncopated, distinctly African polyrhythmic sounds. The banjo most likely started as a Western African instrument that came to Americas in the mid-1700s — along with stolen African people (who became slaves) across the Atlantic passage. The genre grew as Black musicians added African (mostly Western African) tones and white fiddle players imbued the genre with traditional sounds from England, Ireland, Scotland, and Wales.

By winning this award, as well as many others, Giddens continues to bring recognition to the distinct influences of African Americans that often go completely unrecognized by white-centric mainstream media.

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