Skip to main content
You have permission to edit this article.
Giddens, 'Our Native Daughters,' highlight the struggle of Black women in music
top story

Giddens, 'Our Native Daughters,' highlight the struggle of Black women in music

  • 0
Our Native Daughters bring Black women's voices to forefront

This image released by Smithsonian Channel shows, from left, Rhiannon Giddens, Allison Russell, Leyla McCalla and Amythyst Kiah, of Our Native Daughters, near Parks, La., in 2018. The group will appear in the documentary "Reclaiming History: Our Native Daughters" premiering Monday on Smithsonian Channel.

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Playing a banjo as a Black female artist is a form of activism for the four members of Our Native Daughters.

Their story, appearing in a new documentary called “Reclaiming History: Our Native Daughters” airing this week on the Smithsonian Channel, is both personal and ancestral, connecting the stories of Black enslaved women to their own experiences dealing with constructs of genre, race and class.

Documented on video, Rhiannon Giddens, Leyla McCalla, Allison Russell and Amythyst Kiah wrote together in 2018 in a tiny Louisiana studio and recorded the music in just 12 days. All of them play the banjo and have worked primarily in acoustic roots music.

A Greensboro native, Giddens has won a Grammy Award and a MacArthur Fellowship for her exploration of Black musical history that has largely been whitewashed. But all of them have experienced dismissals of their interest in acoustic and folk music.

“We wouldn’t be here doing this, having this talk, if it wasn’t for the strength and the resilience and tremendous wealth of that lineage that’s carried forward in us,” Russell said. “It was a healing experience to make this music together. Why, if you pick up a banjo, does someone assume it’s a white Appalachian thing? Why does someone assume if you’re Black, you must be doing urban music, whatever that means?

“I am an urban, Black, country woman playing the banjo.”

“Songs of Our Native Daughters,” which came out on the Smithsonian Folkways record label in 2019, focused on the stories of women during the transatlantic slave trade, but also the triumphs of Black women. One song focuses on Polly Ann, the wife of the steel driving folk hero John Henry, while “Quasheba, Quasheba” is about Russell's African ancestor who was bought as a slave.

Support Local Journalism

Your subscription makes our reporting possible.

“People are ready to sit with this history, and I think doing it with music, it’s like the best way to disarm a person,” Kiah said.

Kiah earned a Grammy nomination for her song “Black Myself” from this record. The song addresses the intraracial discrimination that focuses on the darkness of a person’s skin, inspired by experiences she had seen in her own life as well as historical accounts.

“There’s this idea of the lighter that you can get, the more you’ll be respected by the white supremacist society that they were living in, that we are still living in,” Kiah said.

The documentary shows the group on tour playing to largely white audiences, an issue that has prompted a lot internal discussions among the four members. They aren’t responsible for how their music is marketed in a commercial music industry, but what does it mean if they aren’t reaching some Black audiences?

“We each have had frustrations with the way that American music is segregated,” Giddens said. “What we’re trying to do is dismantle the thing that is keeping the Black audiences from the show.”

Throughout the documentary, the artists explain the history of Black music and instruments that created the roots of so many different styles of modern American music. As Russell explains it, the music is global, mixing and traveling across continents through the African diaspora.

“As much as we need to face the pain of the past, we also have to bring forward the joy and the innovation. And I think that’s what we tried to do on this record,” Russell said.

Get local news delivered to your inbox!

* I understand and agree that registration on or use of this site constitutes agreement to its user agreement and privacy policy.

Related to this story

Most Popular

Recommended for you

Get up-to-the-minute news sent straight to your device.


Breaking News