How Maya Angelou made her mark from civil rights to hip-hop

Dr. Maya Angelou was that rare but quintessential artist whose work stayed relevant over time and across generations.

By the time of her death at 86 years old, Dr. Angelou had provided the world with decades of art in a variety of formats including dance, theater, poetry, song, authorship and spoken word. All of that was on top of being an educator, director and civil rights activist.

Many of her contemporaries have passed away or are highly but quietly regarded for important works in past eras. Dr. Angelou’s creativity was one that evolved over time and allowed her to produce multiple great works and collaborate with important and culture-shifting individuals from numerous generations.

She even had a Twitter account. Like many people around the world, Dr. Angelou showed her support of the #BringBackOurGirls movement on the social media platform. Like her other forms of media, Dr. Angelou used the space to encourage and offer wisdom. Her last tweet, dated May 23, reads “Listen to yourself and in that quietude you might hear the voice of God.”

The Spirit of the Harlem Renaissance

St. Louis, Missouri–Dr. Angelou’s birthplace–is almost 1,000 miles from Harlem, but the spirit of the Harlem Renaissance, which was in full swing in 1928, was somehow imbued upon the child that would grow into a true renaissance artist. In her autobiography I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Dr. Angelou detailed some of the more tragic incidents that shaped her early life. She not only overcame those obstacles and the challenges of being a teenage single mother, but she thrived.

Dr. Angelou’s singing and dancing career brought her to the attention of Alvin Ailey, with whom she formed a nightclub act called Al and Rita. This was years before he formed the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. She moved to New York and travelled Europe performing in the Porgy and Bess opera.

She joined the famed Harlem Writers Guild and met legendary authors such as John Henrik Clarke and Rosa Guy.

Melding Politics and Art

Upon meeting Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, Dr. Angelou melded her musical talents and civil rights activism by producing a Cabaret for Freedom. She was later named the Southern Leadership Conference’s Northern Coordinator. She also became close with Malcolm X when she lived in Ghana and he was there visiting. There is a picture of the two of them in the 1960s in Ghana looking young, revolutionary and free. She was an early supporter of his Organization of Afro-American Unity, a group that was only in existence for a year before the assassination of Malcolm X. Dr. Angelou understood that there was no need to sacrifice the arts in order to charge ahead for civil rights and in fact, she frequently melded the two.

 Hip Hop Influencer

Even with well-known works such I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings and Still I Rise as feathers in her cap, Dr. Angelou never rested on her laurels. She actively embraced the younger generations. She is featured on a track on rapper Common’s 2011 The Dreamer/The Believer album. After some initial controversy about Common using the n-word on a track where the esteemed Dr. Angelou speaks, the two made sure to publicly acknowledge that there was no friction between them.

While working on the 1993 film Poetic Justice, Dr. Angelou took aside Tupac Shakur. She did not know he was a popular rapper, but she had heard about his feuds with other black men and she got an earful of his profanity-laced explanations of his troubles. He finally calmed down enough to be quiet and listen to her speak. “I said, ‘When was the last time anyone told you how important you are? Did you know our people stood on auction blocks, were sold, bought and sold, so that you could stay alive today?’ And finally he heard me and stopped talking and started to weep and I put my arms around him and I walked him back into the arena and he quieted,” recalled Dr. Angelou.

Hip Hop at that time, was still relatively young in the mainstream and many older generations shunned the often, loud, brash, rule-breaking ethos of the musical genre. But Dr. Angelou, remained open to hip hop. She understood the power of words and rhythm.

Funny Men

The multi-talented artist also sat down with comedian Dave Chapelle in 2006 for the IFC’s show Iconoclasts. This was not long after Chapelle famously left his eponymous show on Comedy Central and the $50 million contract that went with it. Chappelle and Dr. Angelou had an enlightening and often funny exchange that epitomized Dr. Angelou’s ability to use genuine passion and creativity to express truths to any demographic category. “Bitterness is cancer — it eats upon the host. It doesn’t do anything to the object of its displeasure,” noted Dr. Angelou. She teamed up once again with a critically acclaimed comedian as an interviewee in Chris Rock’s 2009 documentary Good Hair.

Presidential Accolades

Dr. Angelou became the first African American women poet to recite a poem at a presidential inauguration. In 1993, she recited her original work “On the Pulse of the Morning” for Bill Clinton’s inauguration. She earned a Grammy in 1994 for that audio recording. A heartwarming picture captures President Barack Obama smooching Dr. Angelou on the cheek as he bestowed the Medal of Freedom to her in 2011.

Dr. Angelou did not earn her doctorate degree in a classroom. The wisdom she gathered across eight decades of living a full, spirited life and touching numerous continents, people and ideas is what makes her work worthy of an official title. From Malcolm X to President Barack Obama, Dr. Angelou used her life to influence, guide, encourage and create with, world famous leaders. She has left the world a better place. In an interview with CBC’s George Stroumboulopoulos, Dr. Angelou offered insight into how she navigated her life.

“I must tell you the truth as I understand it. You may be the last person I’ll speak to. Life is life and death is death. So, I must be telling the truth when I speak.”


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