Allison Russell, Yola, Rhiannon Giddens on Roots Music

Yola, Allison Russell, and Rhiannon Giddens are nominated for Grammys in the 2022 American-roots categories. “If one of us wins, we all win, right?” Giddens says.
Illustration: Elly Rodgers

The Grammys have a problem with history. The Recording Academy loves to give awards to artists past their prime or to stuff categories full of dinosaurs rather than recognizing current innovation. Look no further than Nas’s win for Best Rap Album in 2021 or the current rock slate, packed to the brim with white boomer men. That’s why the 2022 nominations in American roots came as a pleasant surprise. They’re filled with a diverse group of newer, younger musicians who are moving the genre forward, from 23-year-old guitarist Christone “Kingfish” Ingram (Best Contemporary Blues Album) to singer-songwriter Valerie June (Best American Roots Song). And this year, the field has more eyes on it than usual thanks to the night’s most nominated artist, Jon Batiste, who has 11 in total including two in roots categories.

Roots encompasses a broad spectrum: folk, Americana, blues, and other genres tied to early American music. As the name implies, roots preceded many contemporary forms, including rock and R&B, and originated predominantly with enslaved Africans and Black Americans. The genre is frequently seen as a counterpart to country music thanks to its shared musical language and being centered in Nashville.

The best roots artists today strike a balance between honoring and preserving the history of that music while using it as a space for innovation. Look no further than Rhiannon Giddens, Allison Russell, and Yola, a trio of Black women leading roots into a new era. The three musicians are not only longtime friends — Yola began spending time at Giddens’s home outside Nashville in 2017, and when Giddens sold the house to move to Ireland, a friend of Russell’s bought it, and Yola and Russell became roommates — they each make music that represents different facets of the genre:

➽ Giddens is a veteran, having won her first Grammy in 2011 with the Black string band the Carolina Chocolate Drops. Since the group stopped performing in 2014, Giddens has released music under her own name and formed the quartet Our Native Daughters with Russell, Amythyst Kiah, and Leyla McCalla. Most recently, Giddens has been collaborating with her husband, the Italian musician Francesco Turrisi, with whom she’s nominated for Best American Roots Song and Best Folk Album (for “Avalon” and They’re Calling Me Home, respectively).

➽ Russell had been a musician for years in the groups Po’ Girl and Birds of Chicago before joining Our Native Daughters with Giddens. In 2021, she released her solo debut, the achingly personal Outside Child, which led to her first Grammy nominations this year in Best American Roots Performance, Best American Roots Song (both for “Nightflyer”), and Best Americana Album.

➽ Yola sang with British groups such as Massive Attack before beginning her solo career with the 2016 EP Orphan Offering. In 2019, her soul-country debut album, Walk Through the Fire, netted a Best New Artist nomination at the Grammys along with three more in American roots. Her follow-up, Stand for Myself, adds disco, R&B, and rock into the mix, and it earned her two more nominations in Best American Roots Song (for “Diamond Studded Shoes”) and Best Americana Album.

When Vulture got all three together in mid-January, they were focused on projects outside their recording careers. Giddens was preparing to sing the role of Bess in Porgy and Bess at the Greensboro Opera, Russell had just announced a memoir with Flatiron Books, and Yola was awaiting her film debut as rock-and-roll originator Sister Rosetta Tharpe in Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis. In a free-flowing conversation, Giddens, Russell, and Yola spoke about the state of their genre and the barriers they’ve had to break to get to the point where Black women in roots are a presence at the Grammys. “It’s finally starting to bear some fruit,” Russell says of their efforts. “It feels like we’re in a renaissance — a Black renaissance — in Nashville right now.”

Giddens formed the Carolina Chocolate Drops in 2005 with Dom Flemons and Justin Robinson, quickly turning into one of the most visible groups of Black musicians playing roots music. They were lauded in roots circles and became the first Black string band to perform at the Grand Ole Opry in 2008, which host Marty Stuart called a “healing moment.” Years later, Giddens formed the group Our Native Daughters with similar intentions: as a venue for four Black women to perform roots music.

Rhiannon Giddens: When I first came to Nashville, we had the “healing moment” at the Opry that everyone seems to have forgotten. The landscape was vastly different. And it’s not to say that there weren’t any less people of color doing this music, but they didn’t have the exposure. I felt I was often a tokenized, light-skinned sort of, Oh, she’s okay. We’ll pull her in when we want to say, “Blah blah blah blah blah.” And I left right when it started to happen! There’s part of me that’s a bit sad to have not been there — watching everything happen from Ireland and seeing the Newport show. But I’m also doing what I need to do. I would love to be in the middle, feeling all of the beauty, but I’m loving seeing it. That’s all I ever wanted.

Allison Russell: You are there. You are foundational to all of it.

R.G.: I’m over the moon. My feed is full of Black women killing it, and I’m just like, Ah!

A.R.: You kicked those doors open, Rhi. In that uncomfortable space, and other people trying to tokenize you, you didn’t allow that. Having that communion after all the ways we’ve all experienced being fetishized and diminished and not seen as the eclectic individual artists that we are. Rhiannon and I experienced it even on the Our Native Daughters tour: people coming up to Leyla, calling her Rhiannon. And you just watched us all onstage! And that’s when I’m like, All right, I have to take a breath and get back in my empathy, because that’s who we need the empathy for.

Yola: That’s where I draw the line — at the person that called you Mavis, Allie.

A.R.: Oh my Lord, I know. I’ve been called Mavis. I’ve signed Ruthie Foster CDs accidentally. And this is when I was 22 years old!

Y: It’s gone past racism at that point.

A.R.: That’s the force of tokenization, turning us all into one homogenous mass. It’s always a white person telling me racism is over. It’s a white country singer saying, “There’s no racism in country music.” How would you know? Because racism doesn’t affect you negatively. It affects you positively. It’s white-centering whether you’re a white supremacist or not.

Y: Kind of why I wrote Stand for Myself as an album was that idea of monolithic Blackness. I really wanted to break that down. I don’t think I realized that I was writing about that because some of those songs are older. I was just constantly reflecting this idea of people trying to minimize me because I’m dark. The Black people, when I was coming up in my 20s, that were allowed to be in the front certainly weren’t this dark. And there was only ever two or three allowed at any one time. And then they would say, “Oh, we’ve already got a girl with a banjo.” Which is exactly why you were like, “Okay, how about four Black ladies with banjos?” Deal with that. But it’s essential that we don’t allow this tokenizing stuff to happen. I’m not going to go through what Rhiannon went through and then leave. We’ve seen it. It wasn’t fun.

R.G.: We didn’t have the critical mass at that point.

A.R.: You didn’t have 2020 at that point. We didn’t have every single white person in the world who told us there was no racism sitting at home watching Black people be murdered on their phones for eight minutes straight. I think there were people that genuinely believed that we were in a post-racial, postcolonial, no-more-racism world. I feel sad for them that they had to see the reality, but those of us who live the reality every day knew we weren’t in that world. That’s what shifted.

I was shopping Outside Child, and it was crickets for a really long time, and then, in quick succession, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd. And guess what happened? Suddenly people wanted to talk to my manager, wanted to invite me to speak at marches and keynote speeches, and a bunch of doors opened because of it. And you’ve been trying to open doors for me for years, Rhi, and you did with Our Native Daughters, with inviting me to be part of Keep a Song in Your Soul. The band of sisters, we do it ourselves. No one else will do it.

Despite its history as music of the people, the contemporary roots scene can be exclusive. Russell credits Brandi Carlile — who is a lesbian — with connecting her to Fantasy Records, her eventual label for Outside Child. Carlile recently experienced this exclusivity herself when a nominating committee moved her song “Right on Time” from American roots to the pop field despite her winning three awards from the field for her previous album, By the Way, I Forgive You, in 2019. She criticized the move at the time, writing, “I feel great responsibility in representing marginalized queer people in rural America who are raised on country and roots music but are repeatedly and systematically rejected by the correlating culture.” Carlile still received a nomination in Best Pop Solo Performance for the song. The move underlined what these three musicians have experienced in roots and the need to work toward inclusivity in the genre.

Y: There is the idea of when you get to a certain level of success, all of a sudden you graduate from Americana and roots. No. You listen to that album, you listen to “Right on Time,” and there’s plenty Americana on that record. That’s one thing that I think we need to be really, really reticent of doing in Americana: pricing someone out of a genre just because they’re doing well. I think that can happen quicker when you are an “other” because it’s that idea of We were going to move you out because we don’t really feel like you belong in roots, country, Americana. And I think that’s a dangerous precedent to get into. Being an other, you can feel that tug to do other genres. Why don’t you not claim what is yours?

A.R.: Rhiannon is on the board of the Americana Foundation, and I’m on the Americana Music Association board now because I threw my hat in the ring when a vote came up. It was in a conversation with Brandi when she said, “Well, how is anything going to change if we don’t step forward to be that change? Or at least try.” I was shocked that I got voted onto the board at all. And that enabled me to start digging in to really try and make some change. I believe that what Holly G at Black Opry is doing is changing a system — and so much for the better. And I’m not going to say the name, but it really frustrated me that the conversation gets centered around a mainstream artist that has nothing to do with what we’re really discussing. You’re talking about bigotry within a system. Why people were upset at the Opry was because of the Opry making these gestures, as Rhiannon said, of, We’re going to have these healing moments. We’re going to invite Black people onto our stages. And then very quickly doing things that make it clear that was skin deep.

Y: I tried to hold them over a barrel as much as I could. Still, after being their NextStage in October, I’m like, Are we making moves? Are we actually caring? And then for them to go and turn 180 degrees like that. I spoke to my manager, and we had a talk and were like, “I don’t know if we can do anything with them now.” Because you’ve made your position known that you’re a lip-service entity. That you are not really looking to have any more than one or two members of color — you’ll have another token, maybe you’ll take on one more. Maybe that was going to be me! I was going to be their dark-skinned lady token. Uh, no.

R.G.: We have to be very clear about how systemic these things are. We’re talking hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of years of a system. It’s not going to change overnight, but we can change a lot of things quickly. I think all of these things are true at one time. So what we have to figure out is, Where are they not budging? Say, the Opry: Where do we cut our losses? And we create something new. Where do we work within a system that’s flawed but, like the Recording Academy, they’re clearly trying to make it better? When we see the steps, then we can meet with our steps.

A.R.: I’m much more interested, at this point, in doing a lot of amplifying and fundraising for the Black Opry. They did a showcase, and I got to sit in and hear these incredible young writers, and that’s how I ended 2021. And it gave me so much hope. And what is happening now is giving me so much hope. Exactly as you say, Rhiannon, just circumventing the parts that are not working. That’s where I think we need to start looking at hiring. We have to look at equity. Who gets paid within these organizations? If everybody at the Opry in a position of power who holds the purse strings and makes the ultimate curatorial decisions is a cis-het white man of a certain age, then it’s going to be very hard to shift that perspective ever. What are steps if an institution like the Opry wants to make real change? Pay. Hire.

R.G.: And then do it. Because they like to hire them …

A.R.: … and then not do it. Right. It’s the credibility of the organization. There was a reason the Recording Academy hired Tina Tchen in 2018 to come in, because there were so many accusations of corruption that it became necessary to do something. This is what I mean. I’m not a totally naïve person that thinks we can create a utopia overnight. I’m talking about consistent, multifaceted ways to reduce harm.

“People go, ‘Your voice is so raspy and so rock and roll — what’s that all about?’ I’m like, ‘I don’t know, Sister Rosetta Tharpe? The inventor of rock and roll,” says Yola, who plays Tharpe in Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis.
Photo: Tom Cooper/Getty Images

This year, a majority of the nominated musicians in Best American Roots Performance and Best American Roots Song are Black. But Giddens, Russell, and Yola still see barriers in the Recording Academy, from a lack of transparency and roots traditionally being shut out of the main telecast to the sheer concept of competition against other artists. And those Grammy nominations still don’t translate to airplay on country radio, where it’s all but impossible for Black musicians to break through, and the broader success radio support can bring.

R.G.: We ultimately have to remember we’re talking about the Grammys. It’s a trophy for art, which is inherently flawed anyway. But I’ve been encouraged. I have felt that there has been actual intent to change right now. Whether it actually happens, it’s taking everybody to do that difference. I’ve just become the artistic director of the Silk Road Ensemble, which is this multicultural, multigenerational ensemble that Yo-Yo Ma started 20 years ago. We are in the process of really trying to substantially, substantively change the model that we are in and make it a truly artist collective, but it still has a board. And it’s fucking hard. I just think that we have to be committed. We have to also talk about that for these youngsters coming up.

Y: We all look at young kids that remind us of us and we go, “I don’t want it to be like this for you!” I’m not a mother. I still feel that. It’s something inherent in Black ladydom, just wanting it to be better for the kids. One thing — before I was signed, may I add — whilst I had the EP out, they’re finally not calling Rhiannon for one thing because they’re calling me. And Rhiannon’s going, “Yes! Yes! I’ll just stay in my room, and you do some of that annoying press as well.”

R.G.: I mean, that’s real change. Multiplicity of voices.

Y: It is. But they would be like, “So how are you giving back?” I’m like, I’m not on the property ladder. I don’t even have a home right now. What do you mean, “How am I giving back?” Screw you.

A.R.: But you still did, Yola! You did MusiCares, and you pulled Brandi and I in on that. And I hear you, Rhi, the whole trophy thing, but I was so moved by the Americana Awards show this year. Watching Valerie with Carla Thomas on that stage. Watching the Fisk Jubilee singers — who are the reason Music City is Music City — honored. I was thrilled when they won their Grammy. It didn’t feel like American Idol. It felt like community recognizing each other. And I was honored to be nominated alongside my sisters and these beautiful artists who have been working so hard and not getting their flowers for a very, very, very long time. People would say things to me in interviews like, “Oh, you’re up against …” And I just shut that shit down immediately. I don’t care about the trophy. I remember even Amythyst talking about when she got nominated for her incredible song “Black Myself” and how it didn’t matter that she didn’t win that year. It opened doors to her finding her producer now; it opened doors to her finding her label. It was lifting her out of poverty. Not having to work at fucking Target anymore.

R.G.: I just wish we didn’t need that, I guess is what I’m saying. I’m happy for my team that we were nominated for this record we made on our own in a farmhouse in Ireland. The first time I went to the Grammys was with the Carolina Chocolate Drops, and we didn’t know what the hell was going on. They shove all of these categories that are deeply rooted in tradition into this afternoon. And then Kathy Griffin was there making these terrible jokes and making fun of these little Japanese women. It was horrible. And I was sitting there going, Why am I here? I have my daughter — I’m nursing her in this ball gown. What the fuck am I doing here at this thing?

A.R.: That was your Mavis one, right?

R.G.: So her category is right before ours. Then she gets up there, and it was like the world stopped. Because she’d never had a Grammy. This is Mavis Staples. Mavis Staples! Which is proving how wrong the Grammys are. She starts to talk, and she’s like, “It took me a long time to get here. I’m going to take my time.” It was like a benediction. I was like, I do not care if we win. This was why I was here — to see this woman, as you say, get her flowers. I was like, I’m going to respect this because she respects this. She’s been in this industry longer than I’ve been alive. Then the next category was us, and we won, and I went up there, and it was all about, for me, Joe Thompson. I was like, This is why we’re here. It’s because this 86-year-old man that we learned from, who would never, ever make it to this ceremony, but we are carrying on his music. So I do also believe this whole idea of trophies for art is crazy, but when you get into the idea of it —

A.R.: — or it can be true at the same time.

R.G.: It can be true at the same time. And that’s the inherent contradiction in that. It makes it difficult, but we have to find all that joy in it, which is what we do when we support each other. If one of us wins, we all win, right? That’s it. And the more that we can do that, I think the better we are.

“Rhiannon and I experienced it even on the Our Native Daughters tour,” Allison Russell says of the racism the roots quartet experienced on the road. “People coming up to Leyla, calling her Rhiannon. And you just watched us all onstage!”
Photo: Sachyn Mital/Shutterstock

A.R.: I have a problem with the Grammys only uplifting mainstream country on the broadcast. I think that the artistry that’s happening in the threshold spaces, those of us who will never — I don’t need or want the recognition of mainstream country; I never have. The Opry is a different thing to me. That’s why I was excited about debuting there at one point. But I’m now shifting my focus to Black Opry, to Americana, to folk. You know, I’m good. I’m like, “Mickey Guyton, come on over. We got you. We love you.”

Y: Not just on Twitter! In real life.

A.R.: And I would love for country radio to prove me wrong. I would love it if they start playing Black women and queer folks and trans folks and even white women!

Y: Even them!

A.R.: I would like to see our Recording Academy really recognizing what’s happening in the Zeitgeist of the culture in roots music and alternative to mainstream music. And I would love to see them announcing the American-roots categories on the mainstream broadcast. It’s not going to make it too much longer; they can do it. They can get some artists on there who all the households that tune in have never gotten to hear or see. It’s the whole Catch-22 where they’re like, “Oh, Mickey, you can’t come on this tour because you don’t have a hit on the radio,” but country radio won’t play her music. They canceled the Chicks for God’s sake, you know?

Y: People could say, for example, “But why Americana?” Or “Why roots music?” I’m like, Because it’s the roots of the rest of the music that you’re celebrating! I don’t mean to be biased, because I’m playing Sister Rosetta Tharpe, but it’s very infuriating having that much of a claim to rock and roll and it being a big part of my screaming-ass voice. People go, “Your voice is so raspy and so rock and roll — what’s that all about?” I’m like, “I don’t know, Sister Rosetta Tharpe? The inventor of rock and roll.” They’re like, “Who?” I’m like, “You should be ashamed of yourself.”

A.R.: First time I heard of Sister Rosetta Tharpe, I was in a CD shop in Scotland. I bought a box set, and I was like, Who the hell is this badass, and why is this box set not available in the United States?

Y: This is why it’s important to put the roots of the music and the purveyors into the mainstream narrative. Not just so white, powerful guys know anything about the music that they have control over but also so young kids don’t go, “Someone told me that I was playing guitar, and that was a white person’s thing.” You’re like, “No, it’s really not, buddy.” Or that paying a banjo is a white person’s thing because it’s literally African, shut up.

R.G.: I’m listening to us talk, guys, and I’m so burnt out after this year. I just want to go sit in the corner and play ukulele. I’m so burnt out from these conversations because I’ve been having them for so long and against so much resistance. The last thing that I would want to say in this conversation is that, first of all, we have to practice really good self-care, right? And we have to support each other. And then we have to expect our allies to step the fuck up and not just offer an opening slot. That’s brilliant, and people are doing that. It’s also educating themselves about the music. It’s knowing who Sister Rosetta Tharpe is, actually being interested in the music that they’re fucking playing. Why do you have a $30,000 mandolin if you don’t know where the music came from? We cannot continue to do this. We should be able to go make a fucking record about whatever we want to make and not have somebody say, “How is this tied to American slavery?” What that takes is everybody else stepping up. And just uncompromising. Like, “Thank you for doing that. What next?”

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Russell curated a headlining set called “Once and Future Sounds: Roots and Revolution” at the 2021 Newport Folk Festival featuring Yola, Kiah, Joy Oladokun, Adia Victoria, Kam Franklin, Kyshona, Sunny War, Daisha McBride, Yasmin Williams, Celisse, and Caroline Randall Williams. It concluded with a surprise appearance by Chaka Khan.

McCalla, Giddens’s former Carolina Chocolate Drops bandmate and a member of Our Native Daughters.

Staples, the soul and gospel legend who performed in the Staple Singers. She is 82.

The Grammy-nominated blues singer-songwriter, who is 58.

Days before this conversation, Luke Bryan was asked about Morgan Wallen and racism in country music at a TCA panel for American Idol. “There’s racism throughout the whole country,” he said. “Just to sit here and single out country music as some kind of racist format is not altogether natural and true.”

Giddens and Russell starred in the musical retelling of Black American performance history from 1830 to 1930 at Chicago’s Old Town School of Folk Music in 2011.

An organization spotlighting Black country, folk, and Americana musicians on a website and a national revue tour.

Days before this conversation, Wallen performed at the Grand Ole Opry with Ernest less than a year after Wallen was caught saying the N-word on video.

Yola was the Grand Ole Opry’s NextStage artist in October 2021, a designation spotlighting up-and-coming artists in country and roots music.

The former chief of staff to Michelle Obama and CEO of the Time’s Up, who chairs a Recording Academy task force on inclusion and diversity.

Yola performed “Cryin’” with Gary Clark Jr. to honor Aerosmith at the Recording Academy’s 2020 MusiCares Person of the Year event. Carlile and Russell are performing at this year’s event honoring Joni Mitchell.

The Americana Music Honors & Awards, put on for the past 20 years by the Americana Music Association.

Celebrating Fisk!, honoring the 150th anniversary of the influential Fisk University group, won the Grammy for Best Roots Gospel Album in 2021.

Russell was nominated for Emerging Act of the Year in 2021 alongside Kiah, Oladokun, Waxahatchee, and Charley Crockett, who won.

Kiah, a member of Our Native Daughters who was nominated for Best American Roots Song in 2020 for “Black Myself.” She rerecorded the song for her 2021 solo debut, Wary + Strange.

The late fiddle player who earned a National Heritage Fellowship in 2007 for his dedication to old-time and Black string-band music. He taught the Carolina Chocolate Drops and sometimes performed with them, including on a 2009 live album.

The Recording Academy since announced that Billy Strings, a Grammy-winning bluegrass musician who is white, will perform during the ceremony in an attempt to recognize “genres not historically represented” at the show. Russell is performing during the preshow.

The banjo has roots in a number of African stringed instruments that were brought to Europe and the U.S. by enslaved people.