NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Playing a banjo as a Black female artist is a form of activism for the four members of Our Native Daughters.
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.