Maya Angelou, who was born 90 years ago on Wednesday, made an indelible mark on American culture and society, including a genre that was born decades after her but that dominates popular music today: hip-hop.
Angelou saw hip-hop’s innate connection to the tradition of poetry. When asked whether she thought of using students’ interest in rap to lead them to poetry, she replied: “Absolutely.”
“Take ‘A Negro Love Song’ by Paul Laurence Dunbar. Mr. Dunbar wrote this poem in 1892,” she continued. “It could have been written last week for Queen Latifah, or M.C. Hammer or L.L. Cool J, or whoever they are. Just listen to a couple of lines. The man is speaking, but this is a woman’s poem.”
Over the years, Angelou met with pop culture icons like comedians Richard Pryor, Dave Chappelle and Chris Rock. She would also work with rappers. In her later years, she befriended Common, and they spoke about generational gaps.
“The one beautiful thing and the incredible thing is Dr. Maya Angelou, she transcends age and time periods. It’s a spirit,” Common said in an interview. “Her spirit will be here forever.”
Angelou added: “The truth is we make a mistake when we think generations can be separated: The truth is, you need me so that I have shoulders you can stand on, and you need me so that you have shoulders somebody else can stand on. We are one.”
In 2011, she contributed to Common’s “The Dreamer.” (She later said she was disappointed the rapper used the n-word on the track, but then clarified, “I will not be divided from Common. By anybody’s imagination, he is brilliant and even genius, maybe.”)
Several rappers have named her as inspirations. “I tried to copy Maya’s fluid voice early on but failed miserably,” Q-Tip of A Tribe Called Quest wrote after Angelou’s passing in 2014. “But because of her I found my own.”
Kanye West mentioned her on several tracks and shouted her out as an inspiration a few months before his 2010 release, “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy.”
“We will follow in the same footsteps Maya Angelou, Gill Scott Herron and Nina Simone,” he wrote in a blog post. “Their work improved with time. They documented what was happening in culture. That is our responsibility as the modern day artists and poets, to accurately represent what is happening now, so when the powers that be try to rewrite history you can always look at our works and find truth and sincerity in a world of processed information.”
Angelou herself won three Grammys for spoken word albums, released a calypso album and collaborated with Motown singer-songwriter duo Ashford & Simpson. And before she died in May 2014, Angelou gave her blessing for a 13-track album — “Caged Bird Songs” — that mixed her poetry with hip-hop and soul.
“Grandma loved it from the beginning,” her grandson Colin A. Johnson told Billboard of the album’s concept. “These guys were inspired by grandma’s work, which many people are, and felt like giving it a different medium of delivery to make it more obtainable to a larger group of people.”
Johnson added: “She saw [hip-hop] as this generation’s way of speaking and conveying a message.”
Angelou frequently recounted one particular encounter she had with Tupac Shakur, one of rap’s brightest prodigies, on the set of the 1993 movie “Poetic Justice.” At the time, she had no idea who he was.
“There was a young man on the first day who cursed so much, I couldn’t believe it,” she once recalled. “I tried to walk around, and ignore him. But the second day, he and another young man, a black man, ran toward each other and they were about to fight. And hundreds of extras started to run away, but one black man walked up to the two young men, and I walked up, and I took one by his shoulder and I said, ‘Let me speak to you.’ ”
But he continued to go off, as Angelou kept repeating, “No, let me speak to you please.”
Then “he finally calmed down,” Angelou recalled. “I said, ‘Do you know how much you are needed? Do you know what you mean to us? Do you know hundreds of years of struggle have been for you?’ ”
In another interview, she indicated that she also said: “ ‘Did you know our people stood on auction blocks, were sold, bought and sold — did you know, so that you could stay alive today?’ ”
After she asked him those questions, Angelou pleaded: “ ‘Please baby, take a minute. Don’t lose your life on a zoom.’ ” She then put her arm around him. “He started to weep,” so she walked away with him and turned his back so others couldn’t see him.
“I used my hands to dry his cheeks and I kept talking to him, sweetly,” she recalled. After returning to her trailer, the movie’s other star, Janet Jackson, came running and said, “ ‘Dr. Angelou, I don’t believe you actually spoke to Tupac Shakur!’ So I said, ‘Darling, I don’t know six-pack.’ I had never heard of him. That wasn’t in my world.”
Over the next week, whenever Angelou walked by Tupac on set, he’d stop his boasting and cursing to pleasantly greet her.
Tupac’s posthumous 1999 release — “Still I Rise” — borrowed its name from one of Angelou’s poems.