Two years ago, four of America’s premier roots musicians and string instrumentalists — Rhiannon Giddens, Amythyst Kiah, Leyla McCalla, and Allison Russell — joined forces as Our Native Daughters for Smithsonian Folkways Recordings’ release Songs Of Our Native Daughters. The album features four Black women reclaiming the banjo’s power as America’s first and Blackest melodic instrument. Songs like “Mama’s Cryin’ Long” “call on the persistent spirits of the daughters, mothers, and grandmothers who have fought for justice” on an album that Rolling Stone calls “a crucial pronouncement in folk music.” NPR notes that the album’s artistic mission is to “supplant the portrayals of slavery as an abstract, ancient sin with the imaginative, immersive contemplation of its human impact and aftermath.”
Tonight at 9pm ET, the Smithsonian Channel premieres Reclaiming Our History: Our Native Daughters, a documentary highlighting the creative process to create such a dynamic album. In regards to what inspired her to join the quartet, Amythyst Kiah notes, “It’s frustrating to have to prove that it’s my birthright, by blood, to play, enjoy, and participate in the making of this music. This music has thrived off of [Black people] being ‘othered,’ so we’re over-compensating for that.”
As well, in regards to the mystical and spiritual creative process — shown in the documentary — that transpired during recording, Kiah relates a poignant memory:
“Sometimes, I’d see a white family smiling and laughing, and I’d say, ‘How could you possibly be smiling and laughing! Don’t you know what happened in our history?’ I was losing my mind because I was absorbing the good, bad, and ugly that create the pain of history and channeling it into a pure, beautiful, and musical form.”
In sitting with Giddens, Kiah, McCalla, and Russell to discuss this impacting and incredible album, as many notes are revealed regarding transformational emotional experiences, as are ones related to Black history and music.
CMT: Foremost, I feel this to be — since its release in 2019 — one of the albums essential to reconciling Black people as a fundamental yet forgotten element of America’s cultural evolution. Would you agree with that statement, and why?
Rhiannon Giddens: As country, roots, and Americana music reckon with America’s present state, the most important thing is to reframe the conversation from welcoming people of color into these spaces to instead recognizing that people of color were always here, and were written out of our place in history.
Amythyst Kiah: I first became interested in roots-based music in college. My natural curiosity for music and oral traditions, plus my ability to play by ear, led me to Celtic, bluegrass, and old-time music. Over time, I began to feel [while studying and learning these sounds] that I was stepping into someone else’s world and playing someone else’s music. Then I took an American Folk Music class and learned about the West African influences in old-time music. Couple that with seeing how the Carolina Chocolate Drops played old-time music in a fresh, innovative, and exciting way, I realized that I was not a person “standing on the sidelines” with this music. I learned that this music was a part of my history and that regardless of what room I was in, I knew that I belonged.
CMT: I’d also be willing to say that this album is one of the first actual pieces of “reparational art” in existence. How does this work serve to create reconciliation between America’s past and present, with an eye towards its future?
Leyla McCalla: White supremacy requires that culture is presented from a Western European perspective. When you challenge [that perspective], you start to realize that [the issue] is much more nuanced than history and music. American identity is complex because we’re all forced to compare ourselves to and judge ourselves by a culture defined by a white supremacist mindset. [Our Native Daughters] attempts to undo that mindset’s [influence].
Allison Russell: White supremacy harms everyone. It’s insidious. My adopted father is a white supremacist from Southern Indiana, so I was raised to be crushed by this mindset daily. I had no sense of Black pride or Black history. It was all erased. A process similar to how I was raised has been occurring to people throughout the Black diaspora for centuries. This project is “reparational art” because it’s not just healing Black people. It’s healing everyone by teaching, through music, a much less skewed — and decolonized — version of history.
CMT: Rhiannon, you come to this project with a history with Black banjo-driven music from the Carolina Chocolate Drops. What did you bring from that process to this one?
RG: Very early on in the Carolina Chocolate Drops project, we discovered the power inherent in groups. Each of us was pushing a [metaphorical] stone up a hill in trying to represent an entire race’s [American] truth through this music. Black string bands are the backbone of all early American music. By working together, we were able to pull strength from each other [to achieve that goal.
CMT: Moreso than with many other projects — even say, gospel-inspired roots music — there’s a deep spirituality present on this recording that shines through and gives the record not just an immediate connection, but one that has a powerful emotional impact, too. Regarding the spiritual nature of recording this album, how was it present to you?
AR: It’s emotional to talk about this. I’m agnostic and not a traditionally religious person. However, my sense of worship has always been derived from collecting and creating art. This is a spiritually transcendent project because its whole is greater than the sum of its parts. [Songs Of Our Native Daughters] was created by emotionally open people who removed their egos in a communal, intuitive space. This created a nurturing and loving yet also explosive creative process where we wrote songs we channeled by standing on our ancestors’ shoulders the night before recording them. Unimaginable atrocities tempered our forebears’ lineages to the finest edge, and through this album, we are telling stories to honor a long line of resilient, hopeful survivors. From slavery to Jim Crow, to mass incarceration, the past is present, and we’re healing through song.
AK: I’m not a religious person either, but music is my therapy. The songs I wrote after reading slave narratives and looking at photos from the archives of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African-American History and Culture were the first songs I’d ever specifically written about issues [specific to this information]. I took a Black American political thought class in college. So initially, I looked at everything I was reading as history. This allowed me to put up a very academic layer to protect me from the emotions I felt. However, the feelings finally surfaced when I sang not just my songs but also the songs Rhiannon, Allison, and Leyla wrote [related to this information]. There was a powerful connection to the ancestral spirits we’re describing. I didn’t anticipate that happening. It opened up a new perspective for me of understanding that the opportunities I have in the modern-day as a Black person were related to people standing up for their rights to this music and culture.
CMT: Insofar as one of Our Native Daughters’ goals, I feel like [Songs Of Our Native Daughters] successfully restores the banjo’s historical lineage to Black culture. Your thoughts about achieving the purposes of this project and what this means moving forward?
RG: By playing the banjo already and knowing the instrument’s history, we reclaimed the banjo before we made this record. Projects like these just educate more people who don’t know that history. However, the reclamation of the banjo is not a one event thing. It’s a multi-year and multi-generational process because the erasure of the banjo’s history was a multi-year and multi-generational process. We still have a lot of work to do.