At the Pops, a defining moment for Rhiannon Giddens

Rhiannon Giddens performed at 2018’s Boston Pops Fireworks Spectacular on the Esplanade.
Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff/file
Rhiannon Giddens performed at 2018’s Boston Pops Fireworks Spectacular on the Esplanade.

Is Rhiannon Giddens the busiest working musician on the scene? If not, she’s up there. When I reach her on the phone at a New York hotel, the MacArthur Foundation “genius grant” winner has no shortage of projects to talk about.

In the last few months, she’s released two albums; “Songs of Our Native Daughters,” with a foursome of black women banjo players and singers that she assembled, and “there is no Other,” a collaboration with Francesco Turrisi, a freethinking multi-instrumentalist who usually works in jazz and early music. She recently composed the score for the ballet “Attitude: Lucy Negro Redux,” which received wide acclaim at its Nashville world premiere. An Oberlin Conservatory-trained soprano, she hosted the podcast “Aria Code,” which was produced in part by the Metropolitan Opera. She’s also writing an opera, which she can’t say more about.

And next week, she’s the center of a four-night residency with the Boston Pops, titled “Redefining American Music.”


“It’s busy!” she says with a laugh.

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Over the phone from Symphony Hall, Boston Pops conductor Keith Lockhart says that the orchestra hasn’t done a residency like this before, but Giddens was reason enough to start. “When I saw Rhiannon, what struck me is that she’s an incredibly compelling performer, but you don’t get a MacArthur genius grant for being a performer. You get a MacArthur grant for having some sort of concept that you’re following through to really change your understanding of something,” he says. “Rhiannon really represents a real connection to the roots of American music.”

With old-time band Carolina Chocolate Drops and other endeavors, Giddens has helped elevate the tradition of black string band music out of the archives and onto stages. Her Pops residency includes two programs. In the first, on May 22 and May 23, she and her band join the Pops to perform selections from her own albums. For the second program on May 24 and May 25, she’s curated an evening of music by black composers including Billy Strayhorn and Florence Price. She tapped singer Darius de Haas and pianist Lara Downes as collaborators, she says, because they share her mission — to center previously unheralded composers and music.

Boston got a first taste of that mission last July 4, when Giddens performed at the Boston Pops Fireworks Spectacular. She opened the show with a tribute to rock ’n’ roll foremother Sister Rosetta Tharpe, and added messages of immigrant inclusion in her post-set interview and onstage banter. Her performance was hailed as the evening’s high point, but a handful of online commenters blasted her for what they saw as needless politicizing.

“[July 4] isn’t a beer-and-hot-dog day,” says Giddens in response. “It is inherently a political holiday.” She doesn’t necessarily see her message as inherently political, but a black woman who sings about various aspects of American history, she knows that people are going to attach political significance to her work whether she wants it or not. “They can call it political if they want, even though I don’t talk about policy,” she says.


In a larger context, Giddens sees such responses to her work as the natural discomfort that comes when one’s assumptions are challenged. “To sit in my concert and be uncomfortable is brave. Because you could always leave, you know?”

Her hope, she continues, is that those feelings will lead to listeners learning something. “I’m not putting myself in any place above the audience. I’m just saying, ‘Look, I learned this before you did . . . it’s a systemic and structural thing rather than a personal thing,” she says. “It’s why we don’t know the history, and why I do what I do — because of what has happened and who has created this idea of what American culture is, and has carefully crafted that narrative.”

Lockhart says he has already learned something new, as Giddens introduced him to the music of Hazel Scott, the jazz and classical pianist and singer who was the first black performer to host a nationally syndicated television show. “If you can show an old pro new, exciting things about American music, just think what you could do for the audience,” says Lockhart excitedly.

Giddens’s conservatory training didn’t teach her about the black composers she’s spotlighting with the Pops, either; in fact, she deliberately stepped back from the classical world when she started to delve deeper into roots music. Waiting to see if she passed an audition, she says, didn’t fit with the performer she wanted to be.

But with her latest projects, she’s doing to classical music what she’s done with old-time music: laying down her own path. “It’s really funny how I’ve come round to classical music around the back door with my banjo in my hand, and I love it.”



At Symphony Hall, May 22-25. Tickets: $30-$96, 888-266-1200,

Zoë Madonna can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @knitandlisten.