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Rhiannon Giddens is searching for a 'little bit of joy to bounce into'

Rhiannon Giddens performs at 'A New York Evening With Rhiannon Giddens' at National Sawdust on August 17, 2023 in New York City.
Rob Kim
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Getty Images for The Recording A
Rhiannon Giddens performs at 'A New York Evening With Rhiannon Giddens' at National Sawdust on August 17, 2023 in New York City.

Updated August 21, 2023 at 2:30 PM ET

Rhiannon Giddens' new album You're the One has been in the works for 14 years – an impressive achievement. But then again, it's hard to think of something she can't do.

The Grammy award-winning Americana singer-songwriter won a MacArthur Fellowship (also known as the Genius Grant) in 2017, composed a ballet, contributed songs to the hit video game Red Dead Redemption 2, and is a noted scholar on the history of the banjo. Rolling Stone just called her "one of Americana music's most vital voices."

In May, Giddens won a Pulitzer Prize for Music for Omar, an opera co-written with Michael Abels. It's based on the autobiography of Omar ibn Said, a Muslim scholar from West Africa who was enslaved in 1807 and taken to South Carolina.

"I had totally forgotten I submitted, so I wasn't even thinking about it," said Giddens in an interview with Morning Edition's Michel Martin.

After she found out about the Pulitzer win, she went upstairs to tell her two children, 10 and 14. At first they didn't know what it was.

"Then my son went oh, I've heard of that. It's in that Calvin and Hobbes strip. And he quoted the whole strip to me. And I was like, okay, that was a perfect ending to this day," Giddens said.

Giddens is known for her art that highlights historical and cultural items that have been neglected. One of her new songs – "Another Wasted Life" – is based on Kalief Browder, who was a teenager when he was imprisoned on Rikers Island, accused of stealing a backpack. He was held there for three years – and kept in solitary confinement for nearly two years. After being exonerated and released, he took his own life.

"Whatever you've done or haven't done, that's inhumane," said Giddens.

"I love all the songs. But that's the one that every time I hear it, I want to cry. I wanted to bring attention to it. And I wanted to say we're all missing out with these situations because we're all losing these these brilliant people who are being put in cages and forgotten about."

She considers "Another Wasted Life" to be a love song, albeit not a typical one. It's about the need to love each other as fellow human beings. And if we loved each other, situations like Browder's might not happen.

In interviews, Giddens jokes that some people might think she's the person you try to avoid at the party because she'll talk to you about slavery or the banjo. Right now, she is searching for some joy.

Her new album is full of soul, country, blues, and fun – while also tackling the serious subject matter she's known for. She draws inspiration from music legends like Aretha Franklin, Nina Simone and Dolly Parton.

"I did feel after [writing the opera] Omar that it took a lot out of me," said Giddens. "As an artist, you have to continue to explore yourself and not stay in the same place. Even just for my own spirit, I needed a little bit of joy to bounce into."

The digital version of the interview with Rhiannon Giddens was edited by Majd Al-Waheidi. contributed to this story

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Kaity Kline
Kaity Kline is an Assistant Producer at Morning Edition and Up First. She started at NPR in 2019 as a Here & Now intern and has worked at nearly every NPR news magazine show since.
Michel Martin
Michel Martin is the weekend host of All Things Considered and host of the Consider This Saturday podcast, where she draws on her deep reporting and interviewing experience to dig in to the week's news. Outside the studio, she has also hosted "Michel Martin: Going There," an ambitious live event series in collaboration with Member Stations.
Phil Harrell