In The Water: Rhiannon Giddens Pays Musical Tribute to the Painful Legacy of Wilmington, N.C.

Rhiannon Giddens performs onstage at GRAMMY Museum on October 21, 2019 in Los Angeles, California.
Photo: Alison Buck (Getty Images for The Recording Academy)

Rhiannon Giddens is nothing if not prolific; the Grammy award-winner and Macarthur Genius Award recipient may have initially made her mark as co-founder and lead vocalist of the Carolina Chocolate Drops, but her musical acumen spans genres. From the roots music of her banjo-based all-female super-quartet Our Native Daughters (earning her one of two Grammy nominations for 2020) to her work as the host of the opera podcast Aria Code (a nod to her past as an opera singer), Giddens, who also received the inaugural Legacy of Americana Award at the Americana Honors and Awards in Nashville this year, seems to possess limitless musical prowess—and an equally strong reverence for history.

Like her music, Giddens’ interviews and social media regularly pay tribute to the African-American legacy in this country. So too, does the Greensboro, N.C. native’s recent appearance on Come Hear NC’s live session series In The Water, each episode of which features North Carolinian musicians “at unique and meaningful locations throughout the state,” according to a release. Featuring a multi-song performance coupled with environmental footage and artist narration, each episode “[paints] a picture of the spaces—both literal and metaphorical—that shape the sounds and souls of each musician.”


Per the release:

Previous In The Water sessions included Mary Lattimore performing from the Chapel of Rest in Historic Happy Valley, near Lenoir, N.C. (located between her hometowns of Asheville and Shelby), while discussing the impact of North Carolina on her music. Greensboro native Vanessa Ferguson then performed at the childhood home of Nina Simone in Tryon, N.C. as part of an effort to save and preserve the historic birthplace of the high priestess of soul. The Mountain Goats debuted their brand new song “Let Me Bathe In Demonic Light” in John Coltrane’s birthplace of Hamlet, N.C. and discussed the jazz great’s immense influence on the band.


For Giddens’ session, she chose to highlight the history of the Wilmington, N.C. insurrection of 1898, where a white supremacist mob attacked the then-thriving African-American community, burning and destroying businesses and taking countless lives, decades before the more famous tragedy that was the Tulsa race riot of 1921. “Before the insurrection, Wilmington was considered to be one of the South’s great examples of a city coming together in Reconstruction,” reads the release. Earlier this month, the now-121-year-old massacre was commemorated with a historic marker in the state.


“It is so hard because things were working...They weren’t perfect but things were working,” says Giddens of Wilmington’s painful legacy, which has become a passion project for her, as more is unearted about the community and insurrection. “And for that to not be knocked down but completely destroyed, stamped out and then forgotten about, that’s just tragic. The people who died, it was tragic—the fact that we don’t even know all who died is tragic...All of these things are tragic.”


You can watch Giddens’ homage to Wilmington, N.C. and how it relates to her own evolution as an artist below on her Come Hear North Carolina In The Water session:

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Maiysha Kai

Maiysha Kai is Managing Editor of The Glow Up and your average Grammy-nominated goddess next door. Minneapolis born, Chicago bred, New York built. Nuance is her superpower.