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Why The Caged Bird Raps

Maya Angelou's poetry and lyrics meet hip-hop beats on the new album <em>Caged Bird Songs</em>.
Chester Higgins
Courtesy of the artist
Maya Angelou's poetry and lyrics meet hip-hop beats on the new album Caged Bird Songs.

Maya Angelou: poet, singer, dancer, painter, Grammy winner — and now, hip-hop artist.

The new album Caged Bird Songs takes its title from Angelou's 1969 book I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. One of the last projects Angelou worked on before her passing in May, it blends some of her most famous poems and lyrics with hip hop beats.

Music producer Shawn Rivera said he was first inspired to put Angelou's words to music back in 2007 — and through a friend of a friend, he heard that she liked the idea. Still, it was years before he actually met Angelou, at her 80th birthday party.

"I said, 'Excuse me, Dr. Angelou, do you mind if I take a photograph with you?' " Rivera remembers. "She said, 'If you will stand with me, do not pose.' And I'm like, wow. I knew she was telling me to be myself, and we just kind of clicked right away from that point."

Rivera says that, while the project might surprise even devoted readers and fans, the collaboration reveals something inherent to Angelou's writing.

"When you read the poems on the page, they can be interpreted rhythmically by the reader," Rivera says. "But when Dr. Angelou reads them, there's no doubt that she was coming from the place of rhythm. ... You can tell the rhythms were implied already. She already was the first lady of hip-hop."

Angelou had released spoken word albums before — and won three Grammys for them. But her grandson, Colin Johnson, says this latest project shows Angelou in a new light.

"Some people can look at Grandma as a really heavy, kind of heady type of person. You know, really deep. But she liked to have fun," he says. "She was a fun person. She gave the best parties, too, by the way — I mean, hands down, the best."

He says that putting Angelou's words to hip-hop is a way to bring his grandmother's messages to a new generation. "One of the things that she speaks to, for me at least, is our humanity and where we can go as a people coming together," he says. "It's a valuable message, no matter what generation. And I want that message to continue on for many different years."

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