Even after 40 years, hip-hop is still an adolescent in American culture.
Our leaders are just approaching middle age and the entire breadth of what we do still is still youth-centered. And like teenagers themselves, hip-hop culture is often simply tolerated and urged to mature by those in earlier generations.
But not Maya Angelou. Until her death, she rode with the culture in a way that was a testament to her open heart and spirit.
The future of poetry according to Maya Angelou? She told Time last year: “All I have to do is listen to hip-hop.”
Seems simple. But it’s not a sentiment we’re using to hearing from folks who are old enough to be our grandparents—or great-grandparents.
Since day one, hip-hop is used to being heavily criticized by our elders.
From the first time someone decided to tag a subway, steal electricity to fuel a park jam or flatten a cardboard box to backspin on a street corner, we’ve been blamed for societal ills and disparaged, condemned and denigrated as a general rule.
Hip-hop? All that talk about violence and sex; the lyrics heavy with despair and anger? In the beginning (and sometimes still today), most of our elders heard nothing but hyper masculinity, profanity and all that sheer noise.
Those of us who live the culture have always had a thick skin. We fight back against many of our critics on wax, in the press and in person. Some of our detractors we ignore, others are forgiven for their ignorance.
Maya Angelou was one of the ones we listened to. She brought Tupac (someone she “didn’t know from a six-pack”) to tears after talking him down during a rant on the set of Poetic Justice. When she disapproved of Common’s use of the n-word on a song in which she appeared, she took him to task—but refused to denounce him or the culture in general.
“I’m not going to be separated from him,” she said about Common on BET’s 106 and Park.
And this is why we loved her. Even into her 80s, she was honest with her feelings about the younger generation without ever being dismissive or hypercritical.
And of course, Dr. Angelou was a lyricist, first and foremost. As a precursor to rap, she had a trajectory similar to many of our legends of the genre—humble beginnings, more street-knowledge than formal academics and an uncanny ability to survive and thrive.
She will forever be known as the godmother of hip-hop because she directly begat it, unlike many of the elders who were caught off guard by these kids today.
To her 400,000 Twitter followers, Maya Angelou’s last tweet serves as an epitaph that is almost too perfect in its simplicity: Listen to yourself and in that quietude you might hear the voice of God. —Aliya S. King