By Mimi Read
April 14, 2020
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Musician Rhiannon Giddens and Daughter Aoife Laffan
Credit: Amy Dickerson; Makeup and Wardrobe Styling: Ali Fuentes/Directions USA; Hair: Kyle Britt/Directions USA

"My mother has given me some pretty good advice—a couple of gems that have served me well,” recalls musician Rhiannon Giddens, who has racked up some of the world’s most prestigious honors.

The singer, instrumentalist, and songwriter has mined vintage African American folk music and given it a fresh, riveting prominence. She won a Grammy Award in 2010 with her band, the Carolina Chocolate Drops, and in 2017, she received a MacArthur Foundation “genius grant.” Both of these have helped her continue to pursue her mission: to explore and also re-expose audiences to a little-known music that underscores and dramatizes this country’s difficult history. Not coincidentally, it is music that speaks directly to her.

Giddens is biracial. Her father, Paul David Monroe Giddens, is white. Her mother, Deborah Jamieson, is African American and still lives and works in Greensboro, North Carolina, the Piedmont city where Giddens was brought up.

“My mother has a great sense of humor and is very loving,” Giddens says. “She has been through some tough stuff in her life and has made big efforts not to perpetuate the cycle. She has a huge strength of personality and always sees straight to the heart of the matter. She used to say, ‘Never do anything for money, prestige, or power. Try to figure out what you want, what you like, what you’re hoping to get out of a given experience, rather than the shape the experience comes in or the surface of it or the name of the school or any of that. Focus on the thing that speaks to you. Do it for the right reasons, and good things will follow.’ ”

Her mother’s advice also came in the form of continuous commentary on the world around them. “When I was growing up, we’d be watching TV, and she’d say, ‘Consider how they framed this.’ She was always pointing out how this culture looks at race and gender,” Giddens remembers. “I’d say, ‘Oh, can you shut up and just watch the movie?’ But now her commentary is the constant voice in my ear.”

Without even planning to, Giddens has passed down her mother’s ways of seeing to her 10-year-old daughter, Aoife (a Celtic name that’s pronounced EE-fa). Sometimes, when they are reading together or watching a movie, Giddens will be surprised to hear Jamieson’s voice coming out of her own mouth: “So why do you think those fairies have high heels on? What is the point of that?”

Giddens laughs in the telling. “It’s like there’s a through line,” she says, a conduit from her mother through her to her daughter. Just as Jamieson did, she is cultivating rigorous mental habits to keep Aoife safe and strong in the years to come. Giddens wants her daughter to know that if she observes the world actively and critically and asks the right questions, she will always be in a saner and healthier position from which to make decisions.