To be young, gifted and banjo-playing … and, yes, Black: these were the requirements for inclusion in the group Our Native Daughters, which was assembled by Rhiannon Giddens to make an album for the Smithsonian Folkways label that started as a one-off collective project and turned into a real band. It also turned into a Smithsonian Channel documentary that’s premiering for Black History Month, with the initial airing of “Reclaiming History: Our Native Daughters” Monday night at 9 p.m. ET/PT.
Giddens and the three other members — Leyla McCalla, Allison Russell and Amythyst Kiah — all have solo albums coming up this year. In fact, as a preview for hers, Kiah just last week released a solo version of the Our Native Daughters track “Black Myself,” which is currently nominated for a Grammy for best American roots song. But they do promise they’ll be reassembling, likely for a second album and tour, after pandemics and individual projects pass. In the meantime, they were delighted to be reassembling in what Russell called the “Hollywood squares” of a Zoom call to talk about the hour-long Smithsonian doc… and how Black History Month is, in a way, a recounting of everybody’s history.
VARIETY: I have to admit that, when I first saw that the “Songs of Our Native Daughters” album was coming out in early 2019, given that you’re all banjo players and pictured that way in the album art, I thought maybe all four of you would be playing nothing but banjo for the entire album. Clearly that wasn’t the end game. But the four of you have a lot in common without that — Black women who are singer/songwriters and multi-instrumentalists with a roots orientation and deep social consciousness. Could this collaboration have happened even without that instrument as an even more specific point of commonality?
GIDDENS: I wanted to use the banjo to tell these stories. That was there first. And I knew all of these amazing women and that idea came at some point in the process. And then when we got together and started making songs, I realized pretty quickly [that the musical palette would expand]. And I was like, ‘Can we just have the banjo on most of the tracks, in there somewhere?’ [Laughter.] Because I recognized that the project was taking on a life of its own, which is what every good project does. You have to get out of the way and let it fulfill its destiny. So it turned into the amazing recording that I couldn’t have even imagined. We have to always get out of the ways of the limits of our imaginations. So I think there is banjo on most of the tracks, but the banjo is where it started, and there are still really important pieces of the story being told through the banjo. But yeah, the banjo quartet thing — I don’t think I ever had that in mind. Although there is a track that did not make it onto the record that all is all of us playing our banjos. Do you remember?
McCALLA: Yeah, I have that memory. And there’s footage of it in the doc.
GIDDENS: Yeah, there’s footage of us all playing banjo together. A powerful image! Not as strong of a song. [Laughter.]
KIAH: It was literally like we were in a 25-minute banjo trance. Maybe we’ll release it someday as a B-side.
Banjo consciousness really feels like a thing right now, with the racial conversations that have been happening around country music and other music that has deep roots. It got a strong focus in the Ken Burns “Country Music” documentary that you were featured in, Rhiannon. And just last week there was a discussion about race at Country Radio Seminar where Maren Morris was talking about how she grew up not knowing the banjo came out of West Africa before it was adopted by whites. Did you originally have it as the starting focus for Our Native Daughters for the pure sound of it, or is it safe to say you were looking to bring out the historical nature of it?
GIDDENS: Well, it’s not just the historical nature of it. It’s the way that it represents America. You know, what happened in America is what happened in the banjo. So it is an absolute perfect representation for the story of America… Sorry, Leyla, you wanted to say something?.
McCALLA: I was just going to add to what you’re saying, that, yeah, the banjo is the concept that we’re exploring, and then what does it feel like to explore that in our bodies in this day and age, processing this history that is sloooowly being uncovered? And how many other histories are slowly being uncovered at the same time, both internally and in our society? I think it’s always been a perfect jumping-off point. And I remember, even way back in the day when Rhi and I were touring with the Carolina Chocolate Drops, all the research you (Rhiannon) were doing, and all the learning of all of those minstrel tunes, and then you had one minstrel banjo, and then you bought another one and got another one made… It was this rabbit hole, you know? So yeah, we love the sound of the banjo, but it’s always been a very mission-based project, and we are individually pretty mission-based artists. And I don’t think that (mission) is just because we’re Black women and what we represent to other people, but I think it’s just what motivates us to make music.
RUSSELL: The banjo embodies the fact that we are one family (in America). It might be a broken, dysfunctional, abusive family sometimes, but it’s a family — that’s the deal. The banjo is America’s African instrument. And of course, it’s not just West Africa, because people were being kidnapped from all over the continent. There’s this problem with marginalization and specifically with racism in this country, where Black people are just lumped together as one indistinguishable, monolithic color of Blackness, and there’s so much individuality — including within the population of the folks who were enslaved, There would have been all these different languages, cultures, religions represented in the ships, and people literally chained together, maybe, who couldn’t speak the same language. But what is the universal language? It’s music. And these gourde instruments that came across that evolve into the modern banjo here in America… Rhiannon’s right. It’s like the whole story of America in the same way that Black history is American history is world history. It’s not this compartmentalized thing that we celebrate for the shortest month of the year. It’s ongoing — a greater story, a more integrated story.
Having seen some of you play individually and then all of you perform together collectively when you briefly toured… there are several components go into one of your performances. Of course you want a concert to provide some fun or joy at some point, and then there are tears as you are doing the song that is most overtly, wrenchingly about slavery…
GIDDENS: Which one is that one? [Laughter.] I’m like, wait a minute, which song…
McCALLA: “Mama’s Cryin’ Long,” probably.
That’s the one. But good point — you go there a lot with this repertoire, but that is the song that might be the one that most leaves everyone shaken. And then, with the joy and tears, there is an academic aspect, too, where you speak with the audience and put these songs in context, whether they’re historically rooted songs or those completely of your own invention… there’s an educational aspect to the show. Which is why the Smithsonian connection is apropos.
McCALLA: Much in the same way that the music came together very spontaneously and in the moment, those (elements) were spontaneous. We weren’t like, “We’re going to get on stage and make people cry and laugh and have this cathartic experience.” I mean, every time I’m on stage; I want to have that cathartic experience. But I don’t think we had a specific conception of what it was going to be like when we were on stage. … For me in those emotional moments on stage, it was reflecting on what even brought those songs to life. I still cry every single time Ally sings cause “Quasheba.” I don’t always know why I’m crying, but it’s like, there’s just so much there emotionally.
And most of us have been pretty tokenized our whole lives. You know, we’re like one of two or three Black people in the room, or people of color in general. So there’s real power and vulnerability in us being on stage together. And I think that blew people away. And then to say, “Well, this is what we’ve been processing, and this is why you should care,.. And this is your history, too. It isn’t just Black history.” Like Ally said: “This is about you, too. This is about you and your grandfather and your grandfather’s grandfather. And don’t think that you’re immune from any of this just because you’re not a person of color or an African-American person.”
RUSSELL: That is so insightful. I agree with what Leyla said about how usually we are sort of having to explain ourselves in the predominantly white spaces of the roots music world. That is shifting slowly, as people (of color) feel their experiences and their voices welcomed a little bit more. But you referred to what’s happening in country music and how intensely purposeful the whitewashing has been, and how much pushback there is against opening up the door to let everyone in, and also to remember the real history of country music, which was just as Black as the blues, just as black as jazz, just as black as rock ‘n’ roll. I mean, obviously, I’m not detracting from white creators in any way. I’m a mixed-heritage person. But I walk through the world in my Black body. And it’s a false dichotomy, right? That’s what it comes down to, to me. “It’s black and white” — no, it’s not. It’s a big, huge, mixed family, and it’s indigenous and it’s Asian and it’s Black and it’s white and Latinx and it’s all of these things mixed together that creates the power of the modern music that was born in the crucible of America. That’s huge. And again, Black history is our history. It’s not compartmentalized.
Being together… the fact that people are like, “Oh, there’s four of you.” How many times have each of us been mistaken for the other at festivals when we’re not all present? I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve been called Rhiannon or Amythyst or Leyla — or Yola, our sister, who’s not in this project, but is very important. Or Kaya Kater and I, who are both Grenadian- Canadians who play banjo from Montreal. We get mistaken for each other constantly, and we’re all incredibly individual, very different singers, writers, musicians, artists, people. And there was such power in just being on stage together. Yes, there are four of us! Like, recognize that, see us. We are different people. And we love each other.
That’s the other thing that happens, not just with Black women, but women in general in the music industry. We get pitted against one another all the time, because of this false scarcity lie that’s been pushed on people to make us feel disenfranchised and disempowered. It’s the notorious ‘tomato in the salad’ for women artists within the country or rock industries, too, like “We can only play a few women, so so you’ll have to fight it out.” We’re not competing against one another, and there’s not scarcity.
And plenty of people clearly want to hear our voices. We had no idea what would happen with this record. When we put it out, we were thinking, “Well, it’s a project for Smithsonian. Who knows how many people will hear it?” We had no idea that there would be this groundswell of response, of people embracing it and taking it in with such open hearts. And that says to me that people are, in fact, very interested in what four Black women have to say.
Are there moments in the documentary that you’re particularly glad made it in?
RUSSELL: I’m really happy some of the Newport (Folk Festival) footage made it in. Because that was the culmination of our tour, and I think we were really just kind of telepathic with each other by that point. It was a really emotional day. All our children were watching for the first time — or I should say, Rhiannon’s and Leyla’s and my children, and Amythyst just being the incredibly patient auntie on the road. And of course the history of that festival, and its importance in the civil rights movement and integration of all the families of America made that Newport time a really special thing. I’m glad it’s in there.
KIAH: I have to agree. And I love that the creation of some of those recordings is also on film. I really feel like the documentary captured that very essence of really being in the moment. I know the term “organic” can be a little bit overused to talk about something like that, but it was really living in the moment. I think before going into this process of recording this record, I had writers’ block, like I had run into a wall with writing. It was my first time co-writing with other people, and so it was this thing where you really can’t overthink. You have to get out of your head and write a song — just let it happen. And the minute you just let stuff happen and don’t overthink it, then you create something that you didn’t even think you could do. That was a really powerful moment for me.
McCALLA: I was just thinking how it captured the time when we didn’t know that we were a band, which was also a pretty magical time — just full-on spontaneity. Rhiannon and I had toured together in the Carolina Chocolate Drops and have been friends for years, and I knew Ally a little bit from being on tour and crossing paths. But I didn’t know Amythyst at all. So to just have it feel so easy and natural was such a revelation. And I’m in my early second trimester, pregnant with my twins, in a lot of the footage. So it’s just a very interesting time to think about the fact that we didn’t really know what we were making — and apparently we were making a movie!
RUSSELL: I have to give it to Charlie, one of the main videographers, that he managed to kind of disappear and be the fly on the wall after the first day Because it’s really vulnerable, that creative process, and as Amythyst and Leyla referenced, the three of us didn’t know each other that well. Rhiannon is the center of the wheel; we’re all connected to her, but we really just getting connected to each other while we were writing this record and making the movie we didn’t know we were making. And it was magical. I love that there’s some of that footage of us putting songs together, like (Kiah and Russell) writing “Polly Ann’s Hammer” at the last second, when we thought we were done with the record; it was like, “Oh no, there’s one more story to tell here.” Leyla sang it, and having that creative energy that we all had while actually making two humans, more pregnant than any of us has ever been, was amazing. I was like, “Can I rub your feet or get you a massage? I want this to feel good.” Some of the best parts weren’t captured because it was late at night at the AirBnB, with the four of us having a glass of wine and just communing in this really open, fearless, beautiful way.
McCALLA: Just feeling really supported feels like a thread throughout the film. The doubtlessness that existed in some of those spaces is really beautiful and rare and special.