Swimming in Dark Waters: Rhiannon Giddens, Leyla McCalla, and Bhi Bhiman
Welcome to Musicology 101 – tonight’s lesson – “the history of protest, subversion, and cultural resistance from musicians of color throughout the history of the United States” – as presented by Professors Rhiannon Giddens, Leyla McCalla, and Bhi Bhiman.
When these three artists took the stage, a majority of the sold-out house were unaware of the concept behind this eight-stop tour. Organized by Giddens, in part, to celebrate Black History Month, but also, as Bhiman stated, to change the lens and present the singer-songwriter “from a people of color angle”.
Coordinated by Giddens, she was joined by her former Carolina Chocolate Drops bandmate, Leyla McCalla, and singer-songwriter Bhi Bhiman. These three artists addressed social injustices from our country’s history and present day, all with their own unique approach.
Serving as the history scholar for the evening, Rhiannon Giddens’ presentation relied heavily in historical narratives as was apparent with her song selections, as well as her vintage styled instruments. A highlight of her set was Giddens’ selection of “Factory Girl” which connected the original 1830s lyrics to modern day and the 2013 Rana Plaza collapse in Bangladesh. Treating the audience as pupils in a college course, Professor Giddens even chided her students for inappropriate laughter; during her lead into a song about a slave advertisement that suggested “child optional” as an “add-on”, several audience members chuckled and laughed, but Giddens was quick to state, “This isn’t funny.” In that moment, Giddens’ passion and sincerity regarding the content of the evening became indisputable – she was not a singer-songwriter on stage making witty banter or trying to entertain – rather, she was giving voice to millions who never had a voice. Giddens comes across as the wise scholar, the professor you respect and never would want to disappoint.
Leyla McCalla’s approach to the evening was more subtle as she let her song selections do the lecturing for her. Pulling from her 2013 release, Vari-Colored Songs : A tribute to Langston Hughes, McCalla’s performance also pulled from her family’s Haitian heritage and more recent experiences living in New Orleans. The characters we met through her songs were both beautiful and devastating. One could easily get lost in her arrangements, in Langston Hughes’ words, in her voice … pain and suffering masked by beauty (especially with the songs “Girl” and “Song for a Dark Girl”). McCalla struck me as the professor who encourages introspection and patience, allowing her students to make self-discoveries in their own time.
As for Bhi Bhiman, his approach was more satirical in nature, providing the perfect blend of humor and substance. Probably best known for his most recent album Rhythm & Reason and his video for “Moving to Brussels” (which features Keegan Michael-Key in a Whiplash send-up), Bhiman’s songs are immediately accessible, often funny (as with “Kimchi Line” – a song addressing North & South Korea … or any divided country); yet, when one unpacks them and focuses on the lyrical subject matter, the social commentary is both caustic and cogent (as with “There Goes the Neighborhood”). Bhiman was like the “cool” professor, the one who thinks learning should be fun, but never allows the learning objectives to be drowned out by laughter.
Providing more truth and honesty than any Presidential Debate has offered, for approximately 90-minutes, these three artists shared the stage and took turns offering a predominantly white audience, a different perspective.
I would be remiss if I did not also mention that the night that I saw the tour, it was also Rhiannon Giddens birthday … so Bhi & Leyla led the audience in singing an obligatory “Happy Birthday”.
To hear an interview with Bhi Bhiman discussing the tour, other social commentary, as well as his music and music that matters to him, visit my website.