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Musician Rhiannon Giddens on her new children's book about taking back her home


Back in the summer of 2020, when racial justice protests were unfurling all across the country...


UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: George Floyd. George Floyd.

CHANG: ...Grammy-winning artist Rhiannon Giddens was watching her homeland from afar. She was in Ireland, where she's now based with her family, and feeling - as she put it - furious, despairing, impotent. She wondered, would the U.S. ever truly change? And so she wrote down some words and set those lines to music. And then she collaborated with cellist Yo-Yo Ma. The song was called "Build A House."


RHIANNON GIDDENS: (Singing) You brought me here to build your house, build your house, build your house. You brought me here - build your house and grow your garden fine.

CHANG: And now these lyrics have been paired with vibrant illustrations to form a new children's book, also called "Build A House." It tells the story of a family's resilience in the face of oppression and hatred as they try to build their own house.

Rhiannon Giddens joins us now. Welcome.

GIDDENS: Hi. Thanks for having me.

CHANG: Well, thank you for being with us. So I want to start with the first lyric in this song, which are the first words on the first page of this book - you brought me here to build your house. Can I just ask why you started there - this idea of home, like, how so many enslaved people built the homes of so many white Americans? Why start there?

GIDDENS: Well, that's kind of where my feelings were. I just - the anger kind of came from, like - look, you brought us here, you know, to build this country, and now you're saying we can't have a fair life within it? And so that kind of, you brought us here to, sort of turned right into, you brought me here to build your house.

CHANG: Yeah.

GIDDENS: When I write sort of these kinds of songs that are just sort of - I feel come through me, they are very much in a traditional kind of ballad, repetitive kind of form - which, as it turns out, is perfectly suited to figure out how to turn into a kids' book.

CHANG: Yeah. I wanted to ask you about that because I imagine you had a pretty broad audience in mind when you wrote and performed "Build A House" as a song. So what made you want to turn it into a book for kids specifically?

GIDDENS: Well, it was kind of amazing because we posted the song, and somebody in the Twitter comments said, you know, this would be a great kids' book. And I was like, oh, that's a really interesting idea, and I - the thing is, it's not that - I've been thinking about kids' books for a very long time. And it kind of just got put way back on the back burner until this comment sort of re-woke that desire, and I was kind of locked down in Ireland, and I was like, well, what better time to sort of explore this than now?

CHANG: Right. I was struck by how these illustrations - they don't hold back in many ways. Like, this family - they're searching for a place to call home. And there's one illustration that's pretty unflinching. It's a white man on a horse who is setting fire to this family's house. Can you tell me why you and Monica Mikai, the illustrator, why you both felt it was important to have a moment like that so vividly portrayed in a book for children?

GIDDENS: The song doesn't pull any punches at that point, or the words. You know, you said I couldn't build the house, and so you burnt it down. And there's this sort of narrative of, everybody can just, like, haul themselves up by their bootstraps and everybody has an equal chance, and it's kind of like, well, actually, there is this narrative of wherever we try to build, it's torn down.

Like, the child's not going to know redlining. The child's not going to know, like, all of the towns that were burnt down during Reconstruction. They're not going to know the massacre of 1898 in Wilmington, N.C. They're not going to know those things, but they are going to know how unfair that is. They're going to get that immediately. And it's just - it's really - it's that simple, and it's important for them to be able to see that in a way that's not - you know, that is a very strong image, but it's not unbearably violent. It's just - it's extremely stark. And it's - I think it's important to not...

CHANG: Sugarcoat.

GIDDENS: ...To not pull punches, and - yeah, to not sugarcoat in those moments, you know, as long as you have the framework around it.

CHANG: How much did you feel when you were growing up that what you learned about slavery and Reconstruction while in school - how much did you feel that that was incomplete?

GIDDENS: Oh, my gosh. Like, the older I get, the more I realize, like, so much of what I was taught around slavery was just - there wasn't much to begin with. And what I remember was like, oh, well, you know, plantation-based slavery wasn't very efficient, and it was dying out anyway during the Civil War. And then - you know, and then Black people aren't heard of again until the civil rights movement in the '60s. It's like - it's really incredible how much we're not told. You know, because really, when you tell a more complete story, you know, you're less surprised by the things that are happening today and that have been happening in this country. Like, it's just - yeah, I don't know. I think it's just really important to start that early - you know, those ideas of the complexity of it all.

CHANG: You know, this book - it reminds us how many things were taken away from Black people in this country - freedom, property. And you further point out - music was also stolen. I want to quote here. You write, "But then you came and took my song and claimed it for your own." Can you talk to me more about that piece of this story?

GIDDENS: Yeah. I mean, it is complicated. Like, I have to always say that there's been cross-cultural, collaborative, you know, creation of American music for many, many, many years. But what this is talking about specifically is - you know, particularly the banjo. It first was created by African Americans in the Caribbean, you know, or people of the African diaspora, and it's like, that in and of itself is such a huge emblem for, you know, the idea of so much Black-innovated music that then the profit has been outside of the community. And it's something that I've been dealing with ever since I picked up the banjo.

CHANG: Well, you write in the afterword to this book, we keep finding ways to make our family and our home no matter where we are. What does home mean to you, ultimately?

GIDDENS: Home to me - I mean, I'm a nomad, you know. I'm back and forth, here and there. Like, so when I'm in Ireland with my kids, that's my home. When I'm in North Carolina with my parents and my sister, and - that's my home. When I'm on the road with my partner Francesco, that's my home, you know. For me, it's really about family and about personal connections.

But, you know, for a lot of people, the land is, like, super important, and it has been for a very long time. And, you know, for African Americans, you know, owning land was such a big deal because, you know, when we came here, we had nothing. And the ability to continue to rebuild after being torn down so many times, and that's ultimately what this story is about. It's - the idea is that, you know, the well never runs dry. We are always able to replenish because ultimately, our well comes from our creator. You know, it comes from that thing that's bigger than us. And we'll survive it and we'll thrive and we'll, you know, get to that next place.

CHANG: Rhiannon Giddens' new book is called "Build A House." Thank you so much for being with us and sharing this.

GIDDENS: Thank you for having me.


GIDDENS: (Singing) You brought me here to build your house, build your house, build your house. You brought me here - build your house and grow your garden fine. I laid the brick and built your house... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: October 25, 2022 at 12:00 AM EDT
An earlier headline misspelled Rhiannon Giddens' last name as Gidden.
Megan Lim
[Copyright 2024 NPR]
Ashley Brown is a senior editor for All Things Considered.
Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.