Rhiannon Giddens on Her MacArthur 'Genius' Grant: 'I'm Thrilled to Get This Affirmation'

Rhiannon Giddens
David McClister

Rhiannon Giddens

It's the kind of thing that can change a life. And on Wednesday morning (Oct. 11) that's exactly how it felt for singer/songwriter Rhiannon Giddens just hours after it was announced that the Greensboro, North Carolina, native had been named a 2017 MacArthur Fellow.

The "Genius Grant" comes with a $625,000 prize that is paid out over five years, with no strings attached -- meaning the  artist can use the funds any way she chooses. Giddens found out about the annual award given to "individuals who show exceptional creativity in their work and the prospect for still more in the future" several weeks ago, but speaking to Billboard just hours after her name was added to the impressive list of past grantees (Te-Nehisi Coates, Vijay Iyer, Chris Thile), the relentless banjo booster sounded as excited as you'd imagine.

"It feels amazing that so many people going 'we’re so happy for you,'" says Giddens, 40, who released a string of acclaimed albums as the singer in the revival string band Carolina Chocolate Drops before going solo in 2014. The banjo/fiddle player released her second solo album, the Americana Award-nominated Freedom Highway, in February, a collection of 9 original songs and a moving cover of the Staples Singers' civil rights anthem "Freedom Highway."

Billboard spoke to Giddens about her reaction to the honor -- which also went to 23 others, including urban planners, community leaders, opera directors and novelists -- what she plans to do with the award, and whether she'll pay it forward to other musicians.

Who did you call first?

It was the worst secret to have to keep. They said you could talk to one person, so I called my sister and squealed a little bit. And, yeah, it was pretty awesome.

She's obviously watched you do this for years and years. What was her response?

It was a pretty good freakout. Then I would just text her every once in a while like, "Oh my god!" and she'd text me back, "I know!"

What were your first thoughts when you found out?

Ever since I found out that it existed, you fantasize about it. You're like, "Oh man, wouldn't it be great to get one of those?" But when the call happens, it's surreal. You're like, "What? What are you talking about?" You don't actually expect it to ever happen, you know? 

The thing that hit me harder than just learning that I got it was the blurb that had been put together, and the knowledge that it meant that I had the respect and support of colleagues and people in that world that thought I deserved to have this kind of chance. That blew me away more than anything. It feels amazing that so many people are going, "We’re so happy for you." It makes me even more determined to take the opporttunity to do something -- or several somethings -- bigger than I could dream before.

What they wrote was really elegant about what you've done with music, about your "contributions to folk and country genres, and revealing affinities between a range of music traditions." That's such a great distillation of what you've done with your music. Do you feel like that captured what you've been trying to to?

And using it to promote just coming together as a culture. That's the next step. You've got to provide the foundation, and ask, "How can we use this to help some of the ills that have been uncovered by recent things?" It felt amazing because I'm in a commercial industry. It's record sales and... I don't have any radio play, because I just put out a record about social issues, and did it in a way that felt perfect in sound to me, but is not calculated in any way to get any commercial response. And I had the support of my label and my management, which is amazing. 

But to have that recognized... we know that’s not the only thing that can get you where you need to go. I have to be on the road so much, supporting my family and supporting the production of the tour, and I definitely want to continue touring. I love my band, and we've spent a lot of time honing this show and this energy and all the musicians I work with are just incredible. I definitely don't want to lose that, but it means I don't have to take everything that comes my way to help pay for everything. I'll have time to work on these larger-scale projects that I want to do.

Do you have a specific project in mind? Is there a notebook, or four, filled with your dream projects?

Yep. Multiple. Multiple. It was literally like I was walking around with a couple of these things wondering, "when am I going to have the time to do this? But I have to do this. What am I gonna do?" And then this comes along. The timing is impeccable. 

For any working musician it would be life-changing, but with no strings attached, have you thought specifically about how you're going to spend it? 

I’m not out there to buy some expensive instrument or build a house. I really want to use it to have the time to make. In a way that is going be the best of for my creative flow. That's really what the money is to me, it's time. Also time to be with my family. I've sacrificed a lot in the last 10 years to do this. I've sacrificed a lot of time with my children [ages 4 and 8], so to be able to be home with them more and to be creating is everything.

Any chance you'll do something fun with some of the money? Or can you help other musicians with it?

I definitely see a piece of it like that. I don't want to do so much of that that I can’t do my own thing. That's definitely an important piece, and there are definitely some folks that I want to pass on that idea of, "Here, make something. I'm gonna seed it, make it." And I don't care if it's commercially successful, I don't care if your release it as a record, I want you to explore. These are the small scale things I feel like I could do for other artists while still pursuing what I want to do.

I have a couple projects in mind already like that. There's nothing I need to sit down and figure out. I have everything I want to do, now it's just a matter if figuring out when and managing my time. That's a great problem to have. 

When you set out to make music with the band and then on your own, I can't imagine you dreamed something like this would happen some day. What was your goal when you started?

No. No, I really didn't. That was the special thing about the Carolina Chocolate Drops. We didn't want to do music full-time. We weren't looking to get rich, which is good, because we didn't. But we went further than we thought we would go. We started that band to celebrate Joe Thompson and the black string band music. That's not really a recipe for commercial success. Within the folk realm, we did have commercial success; we did really well, we had lots of touring, we got a Grammy. For a black string band playing, old, old music it was a pretty amazing run that we had. [

But] I really feel like your intentions should be pure when it comes to art. You have to be smart and make it happen in a way to support yourself, but there's lots of different ways to do that. At the core of it is to do something -- to me, that's the only way I can do this -- to have a point to it. I love music, but it has to serve the culture, it has to serve this message. That’s what we did in the Chocolate Drops and that's what I do now.

It's in a long, long tradition of music telling a story, and that’s what draws me and that’s what I want to do. So I'm thrilled to get this affirmation that what I’m doing hasn't gone unnoticed, and the sacrifices I've made haven't gone unnoticed. Because I could have picked different routes, I could have picked an easier route, or sung music that had a chance at more commercial success but that's just not what I was interested in. It didn't mean anything to me. Success that way would have been hollow. This way I did it my way. I talked about the banjo to anyone who would would listen. I cultivated this really supportive, amazing group of people who also felt the same way, and who were all trying to push the envelope and push this narrative out into the top and out into the light. So I'm just gonna keep that going.