Rhiannon Giddens, 'Build A House': Protest Music In 2020 : We Insist: A Timeline Of Protest Music In 2020 This song, part of our 'We Insist' timeline of 2020's noteworthy protest music, was released June 19.
NPR logo Rhiannon Giddens Channels The Words Of Enslaved Musicians On 'Build A House'

Rhiannon Giddens Channels The Words Of Enslaved Musicians On 'Build A House'


Rhiannon Giddens has dedicated her career to speaking up for Black people via the sounds and structures of our oldest musical traditions. Joined here by Yo-Yo Ma, acclaimed cellist and Giddens's predecessor as artistic director of the Silk Road Ensemble, she puts her interpretive and musical skills to the test.

"Build A House" opens with an ancient, technically demanding tune, "Koromanti," which was transcribed from enslaved musicians in Jamaica in 1688. The tune eventually settles into the spare, wandering sort of banjo melody Giddens excels at creating. Ma's cello fills out the sound and creates rich textures. Giddens proceeds to sing the story of Black people's enslavement, of emancipation, of the systematic destruction of Black prosperity and the exploitation of Black art. As her lyrical indictments draw to a close, she takes a stand: "I will not be moved."

Many modern Black activists, like Kimberly Jones, have emphasized the deep connections between our people's historical oppression and the struggles we face today. Giddens has woven these threads deftly together, linking today's movement to 400 years of history, both lyrically and musically. "Build A House" arrives just in time to remind the public that while racism has worn many faces over the years, each has turned on the same neck.