Courtesy of David Bazemore

Rhiannon Giddens, a powerful, Grammy-winning folk artist from North Carolina, performed at Santa Barbara’s Arlington Theatre on April 23 for her 2023 album, “You’re the One.” This was hosted by the UC Santa Barbara Arts & Lectures concert series, where students are encouraged to learn from artists and educators with provided discounts.

The opening performance featured Charly Lowry, an Indigenous artist who brought forth her experiences belonging to the Lumbee/Tuscarora people of North Carolina, as well as showcasing a classic country/folk sound similar to that of Linda Ronstadt’s groundbreaking candor and stage presence. 

On stage, she described that she enjoys performing a variety of genres, including ancestral songs played with a traditional hand drum, as well as singing songs a capella, including “Crazy” by Patsy Cline. 

The Daily Nexus had the opportunity to meet Lowry before Giddens’ performance, and asked her how it feels to be performing on stage, telling important stories. 

“It feels like it’s been a long time coming. I wrote ‘Brown Skin’ 20 years ago — I wrote that song in college! It feels important to share my stories and have the opportunity to do so,” Lowry said. 

Lowry’s songs are a proud and liberating showcase of individuality and Indigenous culture. The song is an ode to Indigenous experiences not being erased — being present and a powerful force.

Giddens’ performance was equally as culturally rich and beautiful. When the band started to play, a Southern bluegrass and Creole sound filled the room, with instruments such as the accordion, keys and banjo used in harmony with each other. Giddens’ voice was soulful, smooth and she could belt to the very edges of the venue, singing of love with songs like “Who Are You Dreaming Of.”

The most notable aspect of the performance was the historical storytelling and significance that Giddens shared with the audience. As an African American woman, she has learned about the historical stories of slavery and struggle in the Southern United States. She brought these stories to the forefront, as she “spotlights people whose contributions to American musical history have been overlooked or erased, and advocates for a more accurate understanding of the country’s musical origins through art,” according to UCSB Arts & Lectures.

Giddens structured the performance through spoken storytelling as an introduction to the narratives presented through music. For example, Giddens clarified that the banjo was not always used for joyful swing music, but rather had origins as an African diasporic instrument of resistance.The slave trade in Africa stretched over centuries, and this historical pain and displacement has been captured by Giddens through song. 

Giddens made a joke about disturbing typical wine-and-relaxation-filled evenings by speaking about slavery. She added how it is important to bring more context around slavery in the United States, especially since education systems have failed to give proper acknowledgment to the subject.

Near the end of the performance, Giddens briefly brought Lowry back onstage to perform a duet that sang of freedom fighters and people who paved the way for a brighter future. 

Courtesy of David Bazemore

One song that stood out was “We Could Fly,” which speaks about a tale Giddens’ loved ones told her about Black folk on plantations in the South. In this children’s story, some of these people were able to fly away with wings to a better place. She sang, “Mama, dear mama, look in yonder tree / See that pretty little sparrow, a-lookin’ back at me / She can soar above the clouds, way up in the sky / She can fly away from here, why, o why, can’t I?” This heartful imagery speaks on generational trauma and healing from wounds that can’t be erased. The song acknowledges history that has affected and will continue to affect Black Americans for generations, but hope and love will always be treasured.

Giddens admitted that she doesn’t usually write about current events, but she felt called to speak on the incarceration of Kalief Browder in her song, “Another Wasted Life.” Kalief Browder was a young Black man who was wrongly accused of stealing a backpack, leading to his unfair imprisonment (without trial) on Rikers Island for three years — two of which he spent in solitary confinement. When he was released, he couldn’t cope with the world he returned to and committed suicide. 

The whole for-profit prison industrial complex — an outgrowth of slavery — is a stain on the American story; the people and families caught up in it, and in the numerous gaping holes in the social safety net, need incredible amounts of support,” Giddens said.

Giddens works in collaboration with Innocence Project, a nonprofit that works to help wrongfully convicted individuals get out of prison and provide resources for them once they do. She is selling merchandise while on tour that supports these projects

In the performance of “Another Wasted Life,” Giddens’ nephew joined her on stage, inspiring and encapsulating what the entire show stood for. He sang, “Their lives won’t be wasted as long as you say their name.” The strength of Giddens’ community is honored by her historical and musical storytelling. 

This appeared in the May 2 printed version of the Daily Nexus.