“When a person writes a song, it’s never in a vacuum.”
Amethyst Khia’s words that bring us into Reclaiming History: Our Native Daughters act as a manifesto; a statement of dissolution to the pervading myths of the Black American, the Black woman, and the American experience simultaneously. Reclaiming History: Our Native Daughters documents the creation of the Americana/Folk album Songs of Our Native Daughters, an album of tremendous artistry and craft that will leave listeners with mouths wandering for words, lungs bereft of breath, and eyes heavy with rushing tears. This documentary is, in every sense of the word, a reclamation.
Our Native Daughters is a collaboration of talented artists Rhiannon Giddens, Amythyst Kiah, Leyla McCalla, and Allison Russell. Acting as the narrators throughout the documentary, they seamlessly weave the insight, personal experience, and unexplored history that inspired the lyrics for this album of original work, except for one Bob Marley cover, done in partnership with Smithsonian Folkways. Though they are all accomplished artists individually, this endeavor proved more kismet than serendipitous as the documentary makes an irrefutable case that only these four women could have produced such a work of timely and masterful storytelling.
RELATED STORY: The Women Behind “Songs of Our Native Daughters”
Rhiannon tells the story of the arresting moment that would become one of the key inspirations for the project – a trip to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C. She encountered a poem “Pity for Poor Africans” by English poet William Powder. In the stanza that left Rhiannon paralyzed, he wrote:
“[I am shock’d at the purchase of slaves]
…but I must be mum, for how could we do without sugar or rum?”
Allison puts it so perfectly that this poem is “an indictment and satire of the moral sophistry used to justify slavery.” She describes the parallels between American slavery and the off-shore slavery used for the goods and products we consume, in excess, daily that is explored in the song “Barbados,” written by Rhiannon. The melody of “Barbados” scores the narration in a somber hum, but the moment Allison states that the melody is the first recorded melody of the enslaved, it becomes haunting and sobering. If you believe in “the ancestors,” you will rejoice in the conjuring that is “Barbados”.
The documentary does more than tell the extraordinary backstories to the songs, but it gives an honest account of the history of banjo, and other string instruments, centered genres.
“You’re going to play some hillbilly country music, as a Black woman. What the h**l is wrong with you?”
Leyla, who is of Haitian descent, has both an American and Haitian connection with this instrument. The creole bania was the first recorded banjo found in Haiti in the 1840s (other research goes as far as 1600 Jamaica and Suriname) but made its way there from the western ports of Africa via the Trans Atlantic Slave Trade. Leyla pulls from a popular Haitian refrain in “Lavi Difisil.”
The common impression is that folk/Americana music was created by, and some would suggest that it should only be played by, white people. This film shows us this is far from the truth, but the majority of people are unaware that this was an intentionally constructed myth. Allison’s interpretation is that banjo music began as impoverished music played by both Black and white people but got adopted by wealthy white people to monetize. It then became “hillbilly music” and “race music” with popular fiddle competitions that excluded Black players, so it became “white,” and once the recording industry was born, it “recorded this transition and reinforced it.”
Throughout this detailed storytelling, images of the enslaved families, slave auction newspapers, and blackface minstrel advertisements are shown. Just as it is common that many people view banjo/fiddle/folk music as “white,” to other people, Black people specifically, the twang of the banjo is synonymous with blackface, racism, violence, and death. Even though we are too young to have been a witness to these horrors, the sound alone is an ancestral trigger.
The artists believe this association, this shame, is why Black people are so scarce in these genres. I will have to admit, once the first twang and strum left the speakers, my stomach turned. It harkens horror deep within me. But after watching this remarkable work, I was left proud. I left with a connection to a sound that I was once repulsed by – afraid of. It was like being reunited with a long-lost family member.
The concert footage shown throughout displays more than just their sheer talent and charisma as performers, but their emotional connection to the music, their personality, their humor, and their want for “healing.” They say the stage is a “healing place” and that healing is palpable from the crowd. Panoramic shots show a sea of rural white faces, those I would never think would accept nor be entertained by four Black women playing folk music, but to watch them explode from their seats, many in tears, in roaring applause left me speechless. Amethyst tells a story of how an uber-conservative father listened to “Black Myself” and said, “You know what? I’ve never thought about the perspective of a Black person,” and that the song made him rethink some of his beliefs. When music is both this beautiful and impactful—it is special.
On Reclaiming History: Our Native Daughters, the themes of race, class, sexism, gender roles, culture, and history of the transatlantic slave trade are synthesized into a melodic bright red heartbeat. Allison Russell recognizes how Our Native Daughters stand in the tradition of the West African griot—the storytellers. “I understand, on a very deep level, how important music and storytelling was for our ancestors—to survive.” Though there is trauma, the humans from these songs aren’t defined by their struggle but by their humanity. This project gives witness to the reclamation of self, of power, of joy, of pride, of humanity, of culture, and to the reclamation of American history.
Amethyst Kiah told a crowd of thousands, “This is America’s history. All of us have ancestors who have partaken in string-band traditions, and that’s what this record is about. It’s about looking back at a difficult past that all of us have been traumatized by and really listening to these stories and thinking about – what can we do to be better as a society and as humans.”
~ J. Frederick Robinson
Frederick Robinson is a writer from San Francisco who has been featured in multiple online publications. Currently, he is in the process of releasing a book focused on profiles of the unseen hospitality figures from the south side of Chicago under the creative collaboration, The Prism Project. Follow him on Medium.com.
EXCERPT FROM INTERVIEW WITH AMYTHYST KIAH:
Amythyst Kiah on the documentary Reclaiming History: Our Native Daughters
You were involved in the documentary Reclaiming History: Our Native Daughters. Can you share with us your experience working with Rhiannon Giddens, Leyla McCalla, and Allison Russell on this important piece of work?
It was unexpectedly spiritual in that I was in a room with four other Black women in folk music, a genre in which we typically find ourselves to be the only Black people in the room. By recalling the stories of the transatlantic slave trade and the havoc it wreaked on Black people, we realized that we were telling the stories of our ancestors’ survival. It was equally tragic and triumphant—the four of us are standing on their shoulders. They allowed us to have the careers and lives we live today. It’s incredibly humbling.
In the documentary, you stated, “It’s about looking back at a difficult past that all of us have been traumatized by and really listening to these stories and thinking about – what can we do to be better as a society and as humans.” What do you feel are some steps people can take to become better humans?
It can be something as simple as listening to each other and reflecting on our own behaviors. It’s really the self-reflection part that is a challenge for most people. In Western culture, there is this idea that we are invincible and that we need to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps and toughen up. If you ask for help or if your feelings are anything but positive, then you’re viewed as too sensitive, and your feelings are invalidated. Humans are capable of doing extraordinary things, but we are fragile. The sooner people realize that the better off we will be.