Maya Angelou and Music

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Editor’s Note: When Jason Bentley played the Buckshot LeFonque song “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” earlier this week, it immediately reminded me of the passing of Maya Angelou earlier this spring.

Music librarian Eric J. Lawrence was reminded as well & wrote this remembrance of the great American poet and her presence in popular music.

American writer & professor Maya Angelou was probably the most prominent & public poet of our lifetime, which is why the pain of her passing will be felt for quite some time.

Her 1969 memoir, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, has become a classic of autobiographical fiction that covers a wide range of topics, from racism and being a woman in a male-dominated society, to the strength of family and coming of age in the South.  But it is her voice itself that sticks with me.

Her distinctive cadence is instantly recognizable, conveying self-confidence, world-weariness, wisdom, playfulness, modesty and a true sense of the poetic all in a single utterance.

Hearing her speak at innumerable appearances, from interviews to inaugurations, made her voice a frequent sound in modern life, and thus it should come as no surprise that she has appeared in a number of musical settings throughout her life as well.

Herself a singer and dancer, Angelou performed in a touring production of Porgy and Bess and was a popular Calypso singer in the mid-50s (her 1957 album, “Miss Calypso” was reissued on CD nearly 40 years later, although she generally dismissed it as a youthful oddity).

Angelou can also be heard in a number of hip-hop records.

She appears on Common’s 2011 album, “The Dreamer/The Believer”, with her monologue on America’s immigrant history serving as the coda to the album’s introductory cut, “The Dreamer.

Angelou is sampled alongside fellow civil-rights activists Dick Gregory, the Watts Prophets and numerous others on DJ Shadow’s epic single, “In/Flux” (compiled on his 1998 collection, Preemptive Strike).  And a portion of her poem “O,,” read at President Bill Clinton’s 1993 inauguration, is used on drum & bass producer LTJ Bukem’s 1995 track, “Horizons”.

Perhaps the most dynamic use of Angelou’s voice in a song is on a track from saxophonist Branford Marsalis’ genre-crossing pseudonym, Buckshot LeFonque.

On their 1994 self-titled debut album, Buckshot and friends provide a sensitive and compelling musical backdrop for Angelou’s recitation of part of her most famous work on “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings”.

A light funky groove, the sounds of birds chirping, and an African call & response frame Angelou’s timeless, inspirational words.  It’s a memorable performance, one that will long serve as a sonic reminder of a powerful orator, writer and thinker.