Hannah Mayree hopes to spread banjo awareness at the CU Folk and Roots Festival


Photo Courtesy of Avé-Ameenah Long

Hannah Mayree and Seymour Love of the Black Banjo Reclamation Project pose with their banjos in front of some foliage.

By Casey Daly, staff writer

This year’s 4th Annual C-U Folk and Roots Festival will shift onto an online live stream with the public’s health and safety in mind. The volunteer-run festival, which has traditionally occupied downtown Urbana, embraces dynamic folk and bluegrass performances and incorporates jam sessions, presentations and family activities into its lineup. This year, over 10 artists and groups have confirmed their participation in the festival. 

Hannah Mayree is one of these artists, but her focal point at the festival this year is on presenting information on her influential organization, The Black Banjo Reclamation Project (BBRP).

The project, currently headquartered in Oakland but outreaching nationwide, was founded on the understanding that the banjo is an instrument that was appropriated from West Africa and popularized by slaves in the 19th century. BBRP undertakes to fundraise for music education and salaries while also physically accepting banjos as a form of reparations. 

“I feel like people donating banjos as a form of reparations is a beautiful thing, and it’s something that we’re going to continue to do,” Mayree said. 

This year, the BBRP moved into building banjos as well.

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    “When we did a banjo build, we had 15 people who did that for 10 days. We fundraised it, and those are the types of events we’re going to advertise to the public,” Mayree said. “At this point, we are transitioning into a more organized form while developing into our roles.” 

    Hannah Mayree, alongside her musical and BBRP collaborator Seymour Love and the growing Black Banjo Reclamation team, collaborates with farmers across the nation to sustainably cultivate and harvest gourd plants and materials for banjo assembly. During their workshops, they teach others to do the same. 

    “Yes, we are musicians, and yes, we are artists, but at the end of the day, we’re people living on this earth. Us connecting with the earth and being able to steward land freely is the basis of this project,” Mayree said. “Originally, when people made instruments without going to the store and paying for them, we did that by growing the materials and stewarding the animals that could produce them.” 

    The Black Banjo Reclamation Project considers the ideology of self-determination and functions “through perspectives of Afro-futurism,” a philosophy shaped by black musicians, artists, scholars and innovators who aim to construct how the future could look. This philosophy also regards the intersection between black culture, technology and progress. For Mayree, this means looking toward and working on the project’s potential. 

    We want to expand because we’re also Afro-futurist, which is about imagining and creating those futures,” Mayree said. “Those are the ways that we’re all employing our imaginations and our work.” 

    The Black Banjo Reclamation Project is multi-faceted in its basis and goals. So is Mayree’s music. 

    According to her website’s biography, Mayree was raised by a violist mother and journalist father in a mixed-race family. Her music connects urban and rural ways of life and invites the listener to reconsider the boundaries between the masculine and feminine, the world of matter and the world of spirit. 

    Her 2017 album, “Thoughts of The Night,” adheres to stripped-down and lyrical folk while also allowing for movement in layering and vocals, which thrive in the album’s healing, resonant soundscape. But that’s not all. She also engages with electronic elements in her recent work, specifically some of her Soundcloud pieces. 

    “I think (the album is) important because it’s an excellent way for people to be introduced to my music in a way that’s pretty stripped down,” Mayree said. “I’m very rooted in folk music and acoustic music but do a lot of work with looping and going in electronic directions too. That sort of speaks to the Afro-futurist aspects of it. It’s rooted in something that is from the earth but also can expand into a lot of different things.”

    Mayree sees the C-U Folk and Roots festival as an opportunity to educate the community on the banjo’s diasporic journey, the Black Banjo Reclamation Project and community work that lies ahead for dismantling behaviors of appropriation, such as playing the banjo without considering its origins. 

    “I have enjoyed being able to share ideas about this because they’re not always topics that people are talking and speaking about, and sort of connecting in this way,” Mayree said. “It’s a perfect introduction, I think, for white folks who are feeling like they want to step into more of an allyship role. This event is also perfect for people who are experiencing more of a desire to learn about antiracism and how to be part of dismantling white supremacy.”

    The C-U Folk and Roots Festival will take place on Oct. 23 – 24. Hannah Mayree will represent The Black Banjo Reclamation Project on Friday at 8 p.m., and Seymour Love will represent the organization on Saturday at 11:40 a.m.

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