UNC Greensboro alumna Rhiannon Giddens is already a certified genius, as she received a MacArthur Fellowship. She is a two-time Grammy Award recipient.
The Pulitzer committee called it “an innovative and compelling opera about enslaved people brought to North America from Muslim countries, a musical work that respectfully represents African as well as African American traditions, expanding the language of the operatic form while conveying the humanity of those condemned to bondage.”
Giddens spoke about the beginnings of her work on this opera at a UNCG talk in 2018. Titled “Bilal’s Songs: Mixing and Re-Mixing the African Diaspora and Islamic World – A conversation with Rhiannon Giddens, Dr. Omar Ali, and Francesco Turrisi,” the event explored the ways in which African Americans have shaped musical traditions in the Americas and are the products of multiple traditions, including Muslim-influenced cultures and people from across the world.
That evening, Giddens, who studied as a Music graduate student at UNCG, spoke about Omar ibn Said, a Muslim enslaved in the Carolinas in the 19th century. Dr. Ali noted that a mosque here in eastern North Carolina is named for him.
Giddens told the UNCG audience she has been working on a project about Omar ibn Said. She noted the North Carolinian wrote his autobiography in Arabic. The evening concluded with a very Turkish sounding song, her banjo sounding similar to an oud and Turissi playing his tamburello with Arabic/Muslim influence.
Her concerts at UNCG, whether as a solo artist or with the old-time Carolina Chocolate Drops, are the stuff of legend.
In December 2020, Giddens was the UNCG commencement speaker. At that online ceremony, she recounted the education experiences she “packed a lot” into her one year in the graduate program. She noted her UNCG voice teacher, Levone Tobin Scott. She recalled her two operas while a UNCG student, “Little Women” and “Susannah” – and that opera director David Holley allowed her to choreograph the square dance for the latter, in December 2020. Very importantly, she learned about entrepreneurship and the business of having a career in music. She ended the commencement address with the title song from her soon-to-be-release album, “They’re Calling Me Home.”
She is believed to be the third UNCG graduate to receive a Pulitzer. Claudia Emerson received the Pulitzer Prize in Poetry in 2006. Margaret Louise Coit received the Pulitzer Prize for Biography or Autobiography in 1951.
The Pulitzer-winning opera premiered in 2022 at the Spoleto Festival USA in Charleston, S.C, with UNCG alumna Cheryse McLeod Lewis playing Omar’s mother. The work has been performed in several U.S. cities in the past year.
By Mike Harris, UNCG Magazine editor
Archived photography by Martin W. Kane, UNCG
Updated on 5/9, to include information on Coit, and updated on 10/3 to include in fall online magazine.