Their story appearing in a new documentary called “Reclaiming History: Our Native Daughters” airing Monday 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 acoustical, roots 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,” said Russell. “It was a healing experience to make this music together.”
Giddens has won a Grammy Award and a McArthur 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.
“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?” said Russell. “I am an urban Black country woman playing the banjo.”
“There is stigma, and there’s a lot of pain and there’s a lot of reasons why that is,” said McCalla.
“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.
“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,” said Kiah.
Kiah earned a Grammy nomination for her song “Black Myself” from this record, which she has re-recorded into a new version released on Friday. The song addresses the intra-racial 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,” said Kiah.
The documentary shows them on tour playing to largely white audiences, an issue that has prompted a lot internal discussions among the group. 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,” said Giddens. “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,” said Russell.