Rhiannon Giddens, a Grammy-winning singer and musician skilled in an array of genres from fiddle to folk to opera — earning a MacArthur “genius” grant in the process — will be the 2019-2020 Frank Sinatra Chair in the Performing Arts at Santa Clara University (SCU).
As this year’s Sinatra Artist-in-Residence, Giddens will give a number of performances on campus, work with students, and engage with the University community on special projects.
The Sinatra Artist-in-Residence program is hosted by the Center for the Arts and Humanities in the College of Arts and Sciences. The residency seeks to feature performance artists with a strong physical presence on campus, who live out the University’s fundamental values to teach, learn, create and study across disciplines to advance human understanding. The program is intended to energize the arts at Santa Clara, inspiring students and the community by bringing life to SCU’s mission in a tangible way, according to a SCU press release.
In her role, Giddens will work closely with many departments and programs within the College of Arts and Sciences, underscoring the interdisciplinary nature of the Sinatra program.
“Santa Clara is delighted to welcome Rhiannon Giddens, whose brilliant work addresses many themes that cut to the core of a Santa Clara education, and is truly emblematic of a person who has explored all facets of herself in her music, her passions and her voice,” said Terri Peretti, acting dean of the College of Arts and Sciences. “Our students are lucky to have such a multi-talented and multi-dimensional role model on campus for three academic quarters.”
Giddens is an acclaimed solo artist as well as co-founder of the Carolina Chocolate Drops, a black string band which studied with the legendary black fiddler Frank Johnson and won a Grammy in 2010 for their album “Genuine Negro Jig.”
In 2015, she performed for President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama at a White House Tribute to Gospel; she sang a duet with country superstar Eric Church on 2015’s “Kill a Word,” a song condemning hate, which reached the top 15 on the country radio charts. In 2016, she received the BBC Radio 2 Folk Award for Singer of the Year and the Steve Martin Prize for Excellence in Bluegrass and Banjo.
Giddens uses her gifts as a performer to synthesize, uplift, question, and bring to life musical history, often that which has been undeservedly buried. Her album Freedom Highway comprises songs based on slave narratives, the civil rights movement, and more, said the press release.
She recently released an album, there is no Other, with multi-instrumentalist Francesco Turrisi, that traces the overlooked movement of sounds from Africa and the Arabic world and their influence on European and American music. It is at once a condemnation of “othering” and a celebration of the spread of ideas, connectivity, and shared experience. Giddens and Turrisi also composed the music for a ballet for Nashville Ballet titled “Lucy Negro Redux,” about Black Luce, a 17th century brothel owner who might have been the inspiration for the Dark Lady of Shakespeare’s sonnets.
Additionally, Giddens is in the process of creating a full-length opera, which will be conducted by SCU Orchestra Director and Lecturer John Kennedy, based on the life and autobiography of Omar ibn Said, the Islamic scholar who was enslaved in his West African homeland — what is now Senegal — in 1807 and brought to the United States. The opera will premiere at the Spoleto Festival on May 22, 2020.
Giddens hosts “Aria Code,” a podcast series from the New York classical-music station WQXR and the Metropolitan Opera, which explores opera’s most famous arias in depth. She also had a recurring role on the show Nashville and is a frequent guest on National Public Radio programs.
She has previously performed with famed artists and groups including the Boston Pops, Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, and many more. She has performed at national and international festivals and venues, including Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center, the White House, the Spoleto Festival, the Vancouver Folk Music Festival, the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, the Chicago Blues Festival, the Aarhus Festival (Denmark), and the National Folk Festival.
She received a B.M. from Oberlin Conservatory of Music. She has two children and lives in much of the year in Ireland.