Maya Angelou's Influence on Hip-Hop

(Photo © Steve Exum / Getty)

"I tried to copy Maya's fluid voice early on but failed miserably. But because of her I found my own..." - Q-Tip

Maya Angelou. Poet. Author. Activist. Renaissance Woman. Icon. Best known for her memoir I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, the doyenne of poetry inspired anyone who dared to sing or, in some cases, rap about their journey. Hip-hop artists aspire to Angelou's poetic prowess. Some show reverence by referencing her in their songs, however ratchet or vulgar.

Below, a history of Maya Angelou's influence on hip-hop.

Poetic Justice

  • Janet Jackson starred alongside rapper Tupac Shakur in the movie Poetic Justice. Jackson's character Justice writes and recites poems penned by Maya Angelou throughout the film.

Maya Angelou and Tupac Shakur

Maya Angelou met 2Pac on the set of Poetic Justice. She didn't know who Tupac was at the time. "He cursed so much I couldn't believe him," she later recalled in an interview.

On the second day of filming, 2Pac was about to get into an altercation when Angelou pulled him aside. "I said, 'Do you know how much you're needed? Do you know what you mean to us? Do you know that hundreds of years of struggle have been for you? You? Please, baby,  take a minute -- don't lose your life too soon,'" she cautioned. " 2Pac was moved to tears. "The tears came down."

  • 2Pac's song "Still I Rise" is titled after an Angelou poem.

The Dreamer/The Believer

  • Common and Angelou teamed up for the title track/intro to The Dreamer/The Believer.

Here's Angelou's verse:

"Once you find your shoulders dropping
And your speech gets slow and hazy
You better change your way of being
Before you found your brain got lazy
You can build a better future when you join the winning team
If you desire a bright tomorrow, you must build a brighter dream
Dare to let your dreams reach beyond you
Know that history holds more than it seems
We are here alive today because our ancestors dared to dream
From Africa they lay in the bilge of slave ships
And stood half naked on auction blocks
From eastern-Europe they crowded in vessels overloaded with immigrants
And were mis-named on Ellis island
From South America and Mexico, from Asia, they labored in sweat shops
From all over the world, they came to America
Many shivering in rags, and still they dared to dream
Let us dream for today and for tomorrow
Let us dare to dream"

The N-word Controversy

  • Upon hearing the final version of Common's "The Dreamer/The Believer," Angelou took issue with his use of the N-word. Rather than see the issue as a means to drive a wedge between generational viewpoints, she seizes the opportunity as a teaching moment.
  • Following the N-word kerfuffle, Angelou released this statement: “I don’t think the word “disappointment” quite makes it.  I was “surprised.”  I know that Common is brilliant.  He may, in fact, be close enough to be called a genius – I’m not sure.   I know that we are all in process and young artists are in process.  It’s important to realize that all of you – all of us – [are in process].  There was a statement made by Machiavelli in the 15th century.  He said if you want to control the people, separate them, and you can rule them.  Divide them and you can conquer them.  I will not be divided from Common.   By anybody’s imagination, he is brilliant and even genius, maybe.   But certainly smarter than us to know that he’s in process.  And next week, he might not even use the N-word[,] or the B-word.  It may even take two or three weeks, or a month.  But I’m not going to be separated from him…"

Maya Angelou References in Rap Lyrics

Kanye West
Song: "Get By" Remix
Lyric: "It's like a Michaelangelo painted a portrait of Maya Angelou" 

Lupe Fiasco
Song: "I'm Beamin'"
Lyric: "Mix Melissa Ford with Maya Angelou/Become a top model and Sojourner too"

The Roots
Song: "The Session"
Lyric: "Like Shakespeare, Mark Twain, or Edgar Allan Poe/But since I'm a negro, I flows like Maya Angelou"

Danny Brown
Song: "Pac Blood"
Lyric: "Langston Hughes with a blew fuse and a screw loose/Maya Angelou abused child with her notebook/Spitting like Kipling with a tooth missing/Tongue bring torture to men, women and children"

Jean Grae
Song: "Killin' 'Em"
Lyric: "Word evangelist/Diabolical vandalist/Infamous/Maya Angelou with Marlon Brando sh-t"

Kanye West
Song: "Hey Mama"
Lyric: "Can't you see? You're like a book of poetry: Maya Angelou, Nikki Giovanni. Turn one page and there's my mommy"