With my end of this shared blog making it’s 100th post today? I wanted to personally dedicate this to the memory of the late poetess and human rights champion Maya Angelou-who left this Earth in the summer of 2014. I’ve already shared a song she did with Ashford & Simpson in the mid 90’s But during her final year she teamed up with multi instrumentalist Shawn Rivera to record her reciting her poetry rhythmically over a contemporary hip-hop style backing for the 2014 posthumous release Caged Bird Songs,which leads off with the number “Human Family”.
The song leads off with a sizzling bass synthesizer tone which goes into a higher electronic alarm sound over which Angelou declares “It is time for the preachers,the rabbis,the priests,pundits and the professors to believe in the awesome wonder of diversity”. A driving uptempo drum machine kicks in with a song that musically interchanges instrumental gears between each refrain. The first refrain showcases a gentler variation of that synthesized alarm sounding effect playing rhythmically very much in the vein of the late 80’s Bomb Squad sound,while the second refrain features a grinding and funky rhythm guitar solo from Rivera.
Maya Angelou was one of those people who epitomized the female black American side of what writer William Strauss famously coined as the Silent Generation. This generation,born during the second half of the Harlem Renaissance into the Great Depression were likely the most important black American generation of the 20th century. They were the generation of the civil rights and black power movements,of Rosa Parks,Martin Luther King Jr,Malcolm X,Bobby Seale and Huey Newton. When there’s such a spiraling level of positive change going on? It’s always helpful to have a sage maternal figure with a kindly dignity speaking of it in the literary sense. Maya was that person. And this deeply rooted nature of hers is dripping from this song like tears of tremendous joy.
Lyrically Angelou’s poem about the human family displays a series of situations in which people can possibly relate-at one point stating that while some are serious,others live for comedy. But either way? The reception of important values are still there. The central point of the song is Angelou’s statement “in minor ways we differ,in major we’re the same”. While her very musical style of poetry comes to full flower there,using the internal comparison between the differences in major and minor chords on a musical instrument? The song is the idea statement for understanding differences rather than trying to homogenize them to your personal liking. At a time when America has just started recovering from the onslaughts of racism denials and fears over matters such as the Ferguson shooting of Michael Brown and the witch hunt of Bill Cosby at the end of last year? This shows that even in death,Maya Angelou’s message still has the power to help heal the hearts and minds of the people.
One of the most surprising musical moments of my life was when I was browsing through Bull Moose Records in Bangor and found a copy of an EP by Ashford And Simpson from 1996 featuring…Maya Angelou? I was so puzzled by the seemingly odd creative fit that I avoided the album time and time again. Yesterday I was met with the unfortunate news that Miss Angelou had passed away at the age of 1986. She was one of those individuals who had an amazing life-a black Silent generation woman who achieved an enormous level of literary respect on her own. And someone whose prose,verse,dignity and grace of person not only earned her much acclaim but was an enormous influence on the careers of many diverse figures-from Oprah Winfrey to Barack Obama. Realizing Motown being founded by a group of eager Silent generation artists looking to present music with grace and dignity? I suddenly realized just how appropriate Maya’s collaboration with Nick & Val was. Especially upon hearing their song together entitled “Sweet Thing”.
The song opens musically with an echoing, Clavinet like synthesizer that rings out a tinkling blues riff before the drums kick in and this foot stomping rhythm & blues shuffle kicks in,full of hard gospel/soul style horns and a thumping bass-all with a slickly contemporary production twist of course. Nick and Valerie start in by alternately harmonizing on what begin as passionately romantic lyrics that have that great storytelling quality that most classic Motown songs possessed. After their their harmonized chorus,Maya chimes in offering her own spoken word impressions of a similar impulse. She utilizes her imagistic metaphors,which would not be out of place had they actually come from the pen of a Smokey Robinson. A favorite lyrical aspect of Maya’s part of the song for me is when she says “when the world asks me what’s my favorite film,I say St.Louis Blues and he plays it a little” . She goes on to say “If someone asks me how to call your name,your a riff by Bird and solo by John Coltrane,your the whole Misssissippi river the the whole coast of Maine”
The lyrical imagery that Maya Angelou bought to this song enhances the fact that this is actually extremely hard driving,high quality funky music-especially for its era. During the mid 1990’s,many Silent generation veteran musicians were rather concerned with sounding “new” rather than being true to themselves. A trend that continues to this day to a degree. While musical styles of past decades accomodated many generations? The post hip-hop world was a bit more fickle in that regard. What Maya Angelous and Ashford & Simpson did on this song was not only modernize classic shuffling rhythm & blues music,by that time largely a brand name whose true meaning seemed lost,and looked to remind a younger and often more profane youth culture that the concerns of the three generations of black people living at the time were not as divergent as they seemed to be . While Maya herself could politely ask her friend Richard Pryor to leave her home due to his profane language? She also realized that romance and hope were something that would far outlast one rather cynical age. And both musically and lyrically,this song with Ashford & Simpson bought that to the table when it was perhaps most needed. Both the late Nick Ashford and Maya Angelou will be missed,yet their legacy together as artists will remain in works such as this