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Rhiannon Giddens returns to her North Carolina roots with the opera 'Omar'

Rhiannon Giddens
Ebru Yildiz
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Rhiannon Giddens co-composed and wrote the libretto for the opera “Omar,” chronicling the life of Omar ibn Said.

Rhiannon Giddens won a 2023 Pulitzer Prize for "Omar," an opera she co-composed with Michael Abels about an enslaved man's life.

The Grammy Award-winning “Carolina Chocolate Drops” entered the music scene to rave reviews, with its old-time string band style. Rhiannon Giddens co-founded the group, performing songs with a twang and a history — mostly Black history.

Today, the acclaimed musician and MacArthur “Genius Grant” recipient is celebrating one of her biggest accomplishments — the opera “Omar.”

Giddens co-composed and wrote the libretto for “Omar,” chronicling the life of Omar ibn Said. The West African Muslim was taken from his home in the early 1800s and enslaved in the Carolinas. His autobiography is believed to be the only known surviving slave narrative written in Arabic. Rare photographs of Omar and manuscripts were available for viewing this week at Wilson Special Collections Library at UNC-Chapel Hill.

WUNC's Leoneda Inge spoke with Giddens, a Greensboro native, after she saw “Omar” performed at UNC’s Memorial Hall.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and brevity.

Giddens: "This is the third production that I’ve seen. It was in Charleston first, it was in L.A. If you know anything about opera, that in itself is a great privilege. Usually, a lot of times a new opera, it gets done once, that’s it. This one had so many co-commissioning bodies that came onboard to provide the structure for this opera to get made and are now putting it on around the country. So Chapel Hill is the third production, but it was the same folks who did the Charleston production. There was this really interesting homecoming of the cast, of the fact that this was the state that Omar lived in for more of his life than when he lived in Africa. He was 37 when he was captured, but in his 80s when he died and North Carolina was — for better, for worse — his home. And to have that story being told an hour or two from Fayetteville... you're kind of like, 'Oh, my God, the locality of it.'"

Inge: "I thought you were going to faint when you went on the stage."

Rhiannon Giddens
Ebru Yildiz
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The Grammy Award-winning “Carolina Chocolate Drops” entered the music scene to rave reviews. Rhiannon Giddens co-founded the group, performing songs with a twang and a history.

Giddens: "I kind of did. We were in L.A., big ole thing... For me, the most intense of those moments after the premiere was here in North Carolina because, it was my family, my friends. People who have followed me since the beginning of the Chocolate Drops, like right outside on Franklin Street was where we were busking years and years ago. Here I am standing on a stage of an opera that I wrote and co-composed and it’s just about somebody who is important to North Carolina history. But back when I was with the Chocolate Drops, I didn’t know who he was."

Inge: "I had never heard of Omar, as well. I’m from Mobile, Alabama, so we talk about Cudjo, we talk about the last living African slave. When the slave trade was supposed to be over, that last boat that came, the Clotilda. Tell me about Omar a little bit. What makes him so important to know, especially in North Carolina?"

Giddens: "Omar was somebody who was fully-formed when he got here. He was a scholar, was literate, and the fact that he was brought here is not unique because there were many other Muslims who were brought and enslaved in the United States. What’s unique about Omar is we have his writings. We have an autobiography that he wrote in Arabic, the only document known to anybody of an enslaved person writing in Arabic. We have other writings that he did. We have pictures of him. That’s what is remarkable. We have his voice... He knew he was writing with people looking over his shoulder where he was enslaved, there are all of these layers that go along with that. But ultimately, we still have something of his voice, which is really amazing."

Inge: "So, I see you as a composer, a writer, a fiddle player, all the things that you do. But I hear stories, a slave narrative story in some way, some connection comes through your work, even with the Chocolate Drops. So, will slave narrative stories continue through your work in the future? I remember you were working on a project out of Wilmington at one point?"

Giddens: "It’s definitely become a mission of mine. The Carolina Chocolate Drops was such an important grounding for me. Working with Joe Thompson, the Piedmont-based African American fiddler. Forming the band with Dom Flemons and Justin Robinson, who is also from North Carolina. And then proselytizing about the Black string band. And that kind of started it all. But as we were playing and as the years were passing, I really needed to know more about the time of slavery. That’s where I started getting into enslaved narratives. I have been doing that work for a long time and I will continue. I am trying to find different ways. Ultimately, it’s the story that needs to be told, that’s what attracts me. That’s what attracts me about Omar. That’s what attracts me about Wilmington. That doesn’t involve slavery, but the 1898 massacre at Wilmington is very firmly situated in the world that slavery made. Because it is not gone. And the structures that it set up and the people that wanted to maintain those structures that’s all at the heart of why that even happened. It touches everything, I’m not running away from that. Some people are like, 'Why you got to talk about slavery?' Because it is everywhere, and it is so foundational to how this country was made, and it was hundreds of years."

Jamez McCorkle performs as Omar in the opera co-composed by Rhiannon Giddens.
Leigh Webber
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Jamez McCorkle performs as Omar in the opera co-composed by Rhiannon Giddens.

Inge: "And we still see it everywhere, on Confederate monuments, on buildings, on schools and street corners. It’s still here."

Giddens: "And just also the way the establishment treats African American neighborhoods, redlining. All of these things are coming straight out of what the structures that slavery created. And ultimately, I would like to get to the point where I don’t have to tell these stories anymore, because we all know them already. We are a long way from there. And for me, it’s a gift, because the music industry is a business, and it can be really shallow and really tough to navigate. And for me, I feel as long as I stay connected to my mission and what I’m trying to do, it keeps my sanity. And I’m really grateful for that."

Inge: "I’ve read several places where they’re saying, 'Rhiannon Giddens is returning to her roots.' Well, I don’t think she really left her roots. How do you feel about that? In a way you are returning home. You grew up in the Triad region of the state. In a way, I guess you are coming home.

Giddens: "It’s like, I never left really."

Inge: "I interviewed you during the pandemic and you were in Ireland."

Giddens: "I was stuck in Ireland. I make my home in Ireland, but like spiritually and musically, I always orient to North Carolina. When North Carolina asks me to do something, I do it. So, I don’t feel like I ever left. But there is something really special about 'Omar' coming here because it’s a massive work I am really proud of. It does feel like, thinking about the Chocolate Drops starting on these streets. And this massive work of grace, generosity, beauty by all these different artists went into making me and Michael Abels’ piece into a reality. That is special and it does feel like a homecoming in a way."

Giddens, 46, is in the middle of a residency at Southern Futures at Carolina Performing Arts. The initiative sets out to produce new works and research on social justice, racial equity and the American South. Giddens says she will continue to research the cultures that make up North Carolina. She says that will include work at the American Indian Center and uplifting the indigenous story.

Leoneda Inge is the co-host of WUNC's "Due South." Leoneda has been a radio journalist for more than 30 years, spending most of her career at WUNC as the Race and Southern Culture reporter. Leoneda’s work includes stories of race, slavery, memory and monuments. She has won "Gracie" awards, an Alfred I. duPont Award and several awards from the Radio, Television, Digital News Association (RTDNA). In 2017, Leoneda was named "Journalist of Distinction" by the National Association of Black Journalists.
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