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A Brief History of How Maya Angelou Influenced Hip Hop

5 minute read

The renowned poet Maya Angelou, who died at age 86 today, was a major inspiration to the hip-hop community — Wu Tang Clan, Mary J. Blige and mogul Russell Simmons are among the celebrities who mourned her death on Twitter today. But Angelou’s relationship with rap runs deeper than just a few memorial tweets.

Tupac Shakur’s posthumous 1999 release Still I Rise (released as 2Pac+Outlawz) borrowed its title from Angelou’s poem of the same name; the rapper and the poet met on the set of the 1993 movie Poetic Justice, an experience that brought him to tears, as Angelou once told it:

“Years ago I did a movie called Poetic Justice, and there was a young man the first day who cursed so, I couldn’t believe it. I walked around, behind him, tried to ignore him. But the second day, he and another young man, [a] black man, ran to each other and were about to fight. 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. I said, ‘Let me speak to you.’ … He finally calmed down, and I said, ‘Do you know how much you are needed? Do you know what you mean to us? Do you know that hundreds of years of struggle have been for you? Please baby, take a minute.’ … I put my arm around him. He started to weep. The tears came down. That was Tupac Shakur. I took him, I walked him down into a little gully and kept his back to the people so they wouldn’t see him, and I used my hands to dry his cheeks.”

“Still I Rise” was also the title of a track on Nicki Minaj’s 2009 mixtape, Beam Me Up Scotty. Though the rapstress doesn’t name-check Angelou specifically, her lyrics about continually overcoming hardship match the themes of Angelou’s poem. There are plenty of others who do mention her explicitly, however: As XXL also points out, Angelou is referenced in a number of songs by Nas, Wale, Danny Brown, Lupe Fiasco, Jean Grae and The Roots.

Kanye West, too, has referenced Angelou throughout his career. The recently married rapper mentioned her on a 2002 remix of Talib Kweli’s “Get By” and on “Hey Mama” from 2005’s Late Registration. He also cited her as an inspiration alongside other greats in a 2010 blog post written several months before he released My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy:

“We will follow in the same footsteps Maya Angelou, Gill Scott Herron [sic] and Nina Simone. 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.”

Common took his appreciation of the poet one step further by collaborating with her on his 2011 song, “The Dreamer,” which features Angelou reciting a poem toward the end of the track. (Similarly, Kendrick Lamar uses a recording of her voice on “Sing About Me, I’m Dying of Thirst” from good kid, m.A.A.d city.) Angelou, however, wasn’t thrilled with Common’s final product: She told the New York Post that she was “surprised and disappointed” by Common’s use of the N-word on the song, which she hadn’t been warned about. “I don’t know why he chose to do that,” she said. “I had never heard him use that [word] before. I admired him so because he wasn’t singing the line of least resistance.”

Later, Angelou called into the BET program 106 & Park to clarify her feelings on the matter:

“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.”

Angelou believed that rap music was a portal for youth to discover poetry. As she put it in one old interview: “Take ‘A Negro Love Song’ by Paul Laurence Dunbar. Mr. Dunbar wrote this poem in 1892. It could have been written last week for Queen Latifah, or M.C. Hammer or L.L. Cool J or whoever they are.”

Last year, talking with TIME, Angelou said she was optimistic about the future of poetry.

“All I have to do is listen to hip-hop or some of the rappers.”

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Write to Nolan Feeney at nolan.feeney@time.com