Musician Rhiannon Gidden on her new children’s book about repossessing her house : NPR

NPR’s Ailsa Chang chats with Grammy-winning musician Rhiannon Giddens about her new children’s book, “Build a House.”


In the summer of 2020, when racial justice protests were unfolding across the country…


UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: George Floyd. George Floyd.

CHANG: … Grammy-winning artist Rhiannon Giddens looked down on her homeland from afar. She was in Ireland, where she is now based with her family, and felt – as she put it – furious, desperate, helpless. She wondered if the United States would ever really change? So she wrote a few words and put those lines to music. And then she collaborated with cellist Yo-Yo Ma. The song was called “Build A House.”


RHIANNON GIDDENS: (Singing) You brought me here to build your house, build your house, build your house. You brought me here – build your house and cultivate your garden well.

CHANG: And now those lyrics have been combined with vibrant illustrations to form a new children’s book, also called “Build A House.” It tells the story of a family’s resilience in the face of oppression and hatred as they attempt to build their own home.

Rhiannon Giddens joins us now. Welcome.

GIDDENS: Hi. Thank you for.

CHANG: Well, thank you for being with us. So I want to start with the first words of this song, which are the first words on the first page of this book – you brought me here to build your house. Can I just ask why you started there – this house idea, like, how so many slaves built the houses of so many white Americans? Why start there?

GIDDENS: Well, that’s kind of where my feelings were. I just – the kind of anger came from, like – look, you brought us here, you know, to build this country, and now you’re saying we can’t have a righteous life in it? And so this kind of, you brought us here, kind of morphed into, you brought me here to build your house.

Chang: Yeah.

GIDDENS: When I write these kind of songs that are just sort of – I feel like they’re going through me, they’re really in a kind of traditional ballad, kind of a repetitive form – which, ultimately, is perfectly adapted to understand how to turn into a children’s book.

Chang: Yeah. I wanted to ask you about this because I imagine you had a pretty large audience in mind when you wrote and performed “Build A House” as a song. So, what made you want to make it a book specifically for children?

GIDDENS: Well, it was kind of amazing because we posted the song, and someone in the comments on Twitter said, you know, this would be a great children’s book. And I was like, oh, that’s a really interesting idea, and I – the thing is, that’s not it – I’ve been thinking about children’s books for a very long time. And it kind of got put on the back burner until that comment kind of reawakened that desire, and I was kind of locked up in Ireland, and I was like, well, what better time to explore this than now?

CHANG: That’s right. I was struck by how these illustrations – they don’t hold back in many ways. For example, this family – they are looking for a home. And there’s one illustration that’s pretty unshakeable. It is a white man on horseback who sets fire to the house of this family. Can you tell me why you and Monica Mikai, the illustrator, why you both thought it was important to have a moment like this portrayed so vividly in a children’s book?

GIDDENS: The song doesn’t pull any punches at that point, nor the words. You know, you said I couldn’t build the house, so you burned it down. And there’s this kind of narrative of, everybody can just, like, pull themselves up by their boots and everybody has an equal chance, and it’s kind of like, well, actually, there’s this narrative of wherever we try to build, it’s torn down.

For example, the child will not experience redlining. The child will not know all the towns that were burnt down during Reconstruction. They will not experience the 1898 massacre in Wilmington, North Carolina. They won’t know these things, but they will know how unfair it is. They will get it immediately. And it’s just – it’s really – it’s as simple as that, and it’s important for them to be able to see that in a way that’s not – you know, it’s a very strong image , but it is not unbearably violent. It’s just – it’s extremely brutal. And that’s – I think it’s important not to…

CHANG: Sugar coating.

GIDDENS: …To not throw punches, and – yeah, not to sugar coat those times, you know, as long as you have the frame around it.

CHANG: How much did you feel, growing up, that what you learned about slavery and reconstruction in school – how incomplete did you think it was?

GIDDENS: Oh, my God. Like, the older I get, the more I realize, like, a lot of what I was taught about slavery was right – there wasn’t much to begin with. And what I remember was like, oh, well, you know, plantation-based slavery wasn’t very efficient, and it was disappearing anyway during the Civil War. And then – you know, and then you don’t hear about black people anymore until the civil rights movement in the ’60s. It’s like – it’s really amazing how much we don’t get told. You know, because really, when you tell a fuller story, you know, you’re less surprised by the things that are happening today that have happened in this country. Like, it’s just – yeah, I don’t know. I think it’s really important to start early – you know, these ideas about the complexity of it all.

CHANG: You know, this book – it reminds us of how many things have been taken away from black people in this country – freedom, property. And you additionally point out – the music was also stolen. I want to quote here. You write, “But then you came and took my song and claimed it for yourself.” Can you tell me more about this piece of this story?

GIDDENS: Yeah. I mean, it’s complicated. Like, I always have to say there’s been a cross-cultural, collaborative creation of, you know, American music for many, many years. But what it’s specifically about is – you know, particularly the banjo. It was first created by African Americans in the Caribbean, you know, or people from the African diaspora, and it’s like, in and of itself, it’s such a great emblem for, you know, the idea of ​​so much innovative black music that then the profit has been outside the community. And that’s something I’ve been dealing with ever since I took up the banjo.

CHANG: Well, you write in the afterword to this book, we continue to find ways to make our family and our home no matter where we are. What does home mean to you, ultimately?

GIDDENS: Back home, I mean, I’m a nomad, you know. I go back and forth, here and there. Like, so when I’m in Ireland with my kids, this is my home. When I’m in North Carolina with my parents and my sister, and – this is my home. When I’m on the road with my partner Francesco, it’s my house, you know. For me, it’s really about family and personal relationships.

But, you know, for a lot of people, land is, like, super important, and it has been for a very long time. And, you know, for African Americans, you know, owning land was so important because, you know, when we got here, we had nothing. And the ability to continue to rebuild after being torn down so many times, and that’s ultimately what this story is about. It’s – the idea is, you know, the well never runs dry. We are always able to replenish because ultimately, our well comes from our creator. You know, it comes from this thing that’s bigger than us. And we’ll survive it and we’ll thrive and we’ll get to, you know, the next place.

CHANG: Rhiannon Giddens’ new book is called Build A House. Thank you so much for being with us and sharing this.

GIDDENS: Thanks for inviting me.


GIDDENS: (Singing) You brought me here to build your house, build your house, build your house. You brought me here – build your house and cultivate your garden well. I laid the brick and built your house…

Copyright © 2022 NRP. All rights reserved. Visit the Terms of Use and Permissions pages of our website at www.npr.org for more information.

NPR transcripts are created in peak time by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative recording of NPR’s programming is the audio recording.


Not all news on the site expresses the point of view of the site, but we transmit this news automatically and translate it through programmatic technology on the site and not from a human editor.
Back to top button