When Rhiannon Giddens won the Steve Martin Banjo Prize in 2016, it was a validation of the North Carolina musician’s contributions to old-time, string band and bluegrass music. But her MacArthur Fellowship, announced last week, propels Giddens into a creative and intellectual future that promises to shape society itself.
The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation has granted the award annually to around 20 or 30 individuals across diverse fields of arts, service and scholarship every year since 1981. Today the so-called “Genius Grant” is a $650,000 gift with no strings attached, which grantees typically invest in new pursuits.
Giddens told the Huffington Post that she’s writing and producing a long-planned musical. The subject is known as the Wilmington Insurrection or the Wilmington massacre, an 1898 tragedy in which an unknown number of African Americans were killed by a white paramilitary group seeking to upend a biracial city government during the height of Reconstruction. The little-known massacre is said to have been a turning point toward institutionalized segregation across the South.
Giddens was in the news just two weeks ago for her keynote address at the International Bluegrass Music Association business conference in Raleigh, a first for an African-American musician. She described a history of bluegrass music that was far more racially mixed and affirming of black contributions than most of the standard versions.
“So there’s this incredible cultural swirl going on here," she told the audience about the turn of the 20th century. "Minstrel music becoming a huge commercial success. Blacks and whites in places like Appalachia and the Piedmont and other racially diverse areas are beginning to pass the music back and forth. And a wide flung net of black dance musicians are providing the music for communities all over the country the country and are becoming some of the first to call square dances, a uniquely American phenomenon.”
Giddens co-founded the Grammy winning and perception altering Carolina Chocolate Drops in 2005, but she’s also pursued numerous collaborations and a solo career that incluedes this year’s widely acclaimed Freedom’s Highway.
Past roots musicians named as MacArthur fellows include mandolinist and Prairie Home Companion host Chris Thile, bassist and composer Edgar Meyer and blues man Corey Harris.