The Words Of Nikki Giovanni Told Through Song Guest host Jennifer Ludden speaks with Louis Rosen and vocalist Capathia Jenkins about their new album "The Ache of Possibility" which puts to music four poems by Nikki Giovanni. Giovanni also joins the conversation to talk about what it means to see her words transformed into song.
NPR logo

The Words Of Nikki Giovanni Told Through Song

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/120844586/120844590" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
The Words Of Nikki Giovanni Told Through Song

The Words Of Nikki Giovanni Told Through Song

The Words Of Nikki Giovanni Told Through Song

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/120844586/120844590" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

Guest host Jennifer Ludden speaks with Louis Rosen and vocalist Capathia Jenkins about their new album "The Ache of Possibility" which puts to music four poems by Nikki Giovanni. Giovanni also joins the conversation to talk about what it means to see her words transformed into song.

JENNIFER LUDDEN, host:

This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Jennifer Ludden, in for Michel Martin.

There's always been a deep connection between poetry and song lyrics. Both usually include things like cadence, rhythm and rhyming, but where they diverge is in melody - the musical signature to the words - and that's where singer-songwriter Louis Rosen and vocalist Capathia Jenkins come in.

For years now, the two of been putting the works of renowned poets, such as Maya Angelou, to music. For their latest album, they put to music four works of poet Nikki Giovanni, as well as several of Rosen's own works. The album is called "The Ache of Possibility." Let's take a listen.

(Soundbite of song)

Ms. CAPATHIA JENKINS (Singer): (Singing) And when I dream, I dream in color. Yes, when I dream, I dream in colors. Even rainy days sparkle.

LUDDEN: Capathia Jenkins and Louis Rosen join me now from our New York bureau, along with poet and professor Nikki Giovanni.

Ms. JENKINS: Hello, thank you.

Mr. LOUIS ROSEN (Singer, Songwriter): Hello, thank you.

Ms. NIKKI GIOVANNI (Poet): Hello.

LUDDEN: So Louis Rosen, as we mentioned, this isn't the first time you put poetry to music. Your album with Maya Angelou is called "12 Songs on Poems." What is your process for taking a poem and putting it to music?

Mr. ROSEN: It's an intuitive process of living with the words for a little while, literally just looking at the words, putting them down, walking around. It could take a few days, it could take weeks, it could take months, and at a certain point, I have the urge to write. I pick up the poems, and then literally, the poems sing to me.

There's a sense of - the rhythm gives me a beginning, and I get a melodic spark, and I go from there.

LUDDEN: And Nikki, as the provider of the words, I mean, do you have a role in this process? Where do you come in?

Ms. GIOVANNI: My role is to be supportive. I gave birth to the baby, and I taught it to, you know, be good, I hope, and I let it go. I think it's so important that you let your work be enjoyed and appreciated and changed and turned around by other people. It's how the words live.

LUDDEN: You can't say no, no, really, I had a salsa in mind when I did that?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. GIOVANNI: No because you always trust that the universe is fair, and so you let it come out. Now, if somebody else comes back and says, oh gosh, I did see that as a salsa, do it - because there's no stopping. You know, how many times did we see Shakespeare - and I am not Shakespeare - but how many times did we see Shakespeare done in 800,000 different ways? And if Bill were here, and he were a typical writer, he would be sitting around, telling people, I didn't have that in mind. But thank God he's gone. So we can do what we want.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ROSEN: And hopefully, he would be often pleasantly surprised.

Ms. GIOVANNI: I'd hope so, too.

LUDDEN: They still speak to people, whatever - yeah.

Mr. ROSEN: You know, the thing about Nikki's words is that she writes with such terrific and vivid imagery that makes them natural for popular song. You know, often when people hear about poetry being set to music, they think classical, they think art song, but this is song that's built out of blues, and jazz, and soul music and folk music, and everything that, certainly, Nikki grew up listening to, consciously and unconsciously, I'm sure got into her rhythms and her words. And then for me, it's just a perfect match.

LUDDEN: Well, let's take a listen to one of Nikki Giovanni's poems performed by Louis and Capathia. It's called "Love in Short Supply."

(Soundbite of song, "Love in Short Supply")

Ms. JENKINS: (Singing) Scarcity in oil and gas can bring about a cold spell. No one cares if you conserve, as long as you can pay well. Cash is not the only tool to purchase what we need. Dollar bills and jingling change are very cheap, indeed. Buying power in our world speaks to why and reason in understanding what I need. I've come to this conclusion. Gold is in short supply and we don't know where find whether it's right or whether it's wrong. I'll pay the price for my - the price of love.

LUDDEN: Capathia, what a beautiful voice you've got there.

Ms. JENKINS: Thank you so much.

LUDDEN: I hear it's really big and you have this background singing on Broadway, you've been in, you know, "Dreamgirls." It strikes me that putting together an album like this must to be an altogether different experience from that.

Ms. JENKINS: It is a very different experience. I love working with Louie. I think he's a brilliant songwriter, composer. And for me, as a singer and also an actor, it's a joy to come to a piece of music and look at it and just literally sing the ink off the page and be able to convey what it is.

And you know, in theater you have to put things on a character or take a character on, and this for me is from the inside out. I get to live with these words and convey an idea or an emotion and I get to do it in my own way. And I just, it is such a joy to be doing my own thing, I have to say.

Mr. ROSEN: And we've been working together for - we debuted five years ago and this is the fourth piece that I've written for us. And so it's a just a joy to have this kind of ongoing collaboration.

LUDDEN: If you're just joining us, we're speaking to musicians Capathia Jenkins and Louis Rosen, along with poet Nikki Giovanni. Their new album puts Giovanni's poetry to music. It's called "The Ache of Possibility."

Nikki Giovanni, I'm curious what you make of hearing your words put to music. I mean do they amplify the meaning you intended somehow? Do they change it?

Ms. GIOVANNI: It's a newness to me. And I think any artist wants to see what someone else sees in their work, and this is what happened here. So I was thrilled. I was thrilled when Louis contacted me. The answer was an automatic yes. We put no restriction on it, just let me hear. Actually, I didn't know that I might possibly get paid, and I said, well, you think I can have a copy of the CD?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. GIOVANNI: Because I was just excited to see my work is going and, you know, it is. It's just like a kid. You just want to see it do well.

Mr. ROSEN: You know, something that's been fun for us, I think, is that our first record was called "South Side Stories," and for that one I wrote music and lyrics.

Ms. JENKINS: Right.

Mr. ROSEN: And then the second one we did was all Nikki's words.

Ms. JENKINS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. ROSEN: And so this one being a mix of my lyrics and Nikki's poems just kind of brings everything together that we've been doing up to this point.

Ms. GIOVANNI: Sure.

LUDDEN: Yeah.

Mr. ROSEN: I know for me, it's a joy to be able to move back and forth between writing lyrics and then working with Nikki's words, because her words take me places musically that I might not have thought to go on my own.

Ms. GIOVANNI: Right.

Ms. JENKINS: And for me, what's interesting as a singer is, you know, sometimes when a composer sets poetry, as a singer you come to it with that and that's sort of like art song-y kind of thing, and Nikki's words really feel like lyrics in my mouth. They really sing themselves, and so that's why it's such a joy to collaborate with her for me as a singer.

Ms. GIOVANNI: Yeah.

LUDDEN: Well, let's listen to another one. Here now is another poem that you put to music. It's called "Twinkle."

(Soundbite of song, "Twinkle")

Ms. JENKINS: (Singing) If I can't go where I need to go, then I must go where the signs point, through always understanding parallel movement isn't lateral. Parallel's not lateral.

LUDDEN: All right. Nikki, you've told us about how you have to let go of the poem and just let the music happen. Capathia, are you ever worried about what Nikki's going to think when you're, you know, singing and...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. JENKINS: Well, you know, Nikki has been so generous. And like she said, her first response is always yes. And so when I'm working on one of the songs where we're using her words, you know, I approach it that same way. I know she said yes, and so for me it's just a matter of conveying the idea of what the words are saying. And Louie has such a brilliant way of setting it so that, you know, it's sort of like the melody goes with the feeling of the words and the idea. And so I'm just trying to bring myself to it and just be as clear and succinct as possible.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. JENKINS: Yes.

Mr. ROSEN: You know, often people want to type writers, that a writer does this thing or that thing.

Ms. JENKINS: Right.

Mr. ROSEN: And I think sometimes it confuses people that I both write lyrics and also love to set...

Ms. JENKINS: Set them. Yeah. Yeah.

Mr. ROSEN: ...words of others, especially in recent years, Nikki. But to me, there - why not be able to do both, because they enrich what Capathia and I are able to do. They bring a broader range of subject, of thought, of ideas.

Ms. JENKINS: Yes.

Ms. GIOVANNI: Mm-hmm.

Ms. JENKINS: Yeah. Absolutely.

Mr. ROSEN: But, you know, I need to be honest. Not that I was being dishonest. But I need to be honest about one thing. You ask how hearing my words changed.

LUDDEN: Mm-hmm.

Ms. GIOVANNI: But there is one poem that I will never hear myself do again. I will always hear Capathia. And that's "The Genie in the Jar," "The Black Moon."

LUDDEN: "The Black Moon" was...

Ms. GIOVANNI: Because Capathia...

Mr. ROSEN: That was from our last album.

Ms. GIOVANNI: Yeah. But Capathia has this thing (Singing) Careful baby don't prick your finger.

Ms. JENKINS: Prick your finger.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. GIOVANNI: And now when I read that poem, you know...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. GIOVANNI: ...take a note and spin it around and when I get there, it's like (Singing) careful baby don't prick your finger.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ROSEN: Well, that's about as flattering a compliment that you can get from a poet.

Ms. GIOVANNI: I know.

LUDDEN: That's great. So Nikki, your poetry readings have really been jazzed up by all this, huh?

Ms. GIOVANNI: Oh yes, they have.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. GIOVANNI: They have indeed.

LUDDEN: Now, this album, as we've mentioned, is not all Nikki's poems. I mean it was written - Louis, you have in here some tracks in here you wrote. I gather it was written - some of them - during the 2008 presidential campaign.

Mr. ROSEN: Right. Most of the record was written actually between June of 2008 and January of 2009. So right in the middle of all of the campaign rhetoric and intensity and...

LUDDEN: Yeah. So you want to...

Mr. ROSEN: ...and economic crash.

LUDDEN: You want to set up the title track for us, "The Ache of Possibility?"

Mr. ROSEN: Sure. This song was written about two weeks - finished about two weeks before Obama was elected, and I began it about 18 months earlier. But the part that I began then was much more about the frustration I felt over the previous eight years. And then at this moment, before the election, I was so hopeful. And as the title suggests, I ached in a sense with possibility as I felt we all did, that I realized that, ah, now there's a song.

LUDDEN: Let's take a listen.

(Soundbite of song, "The Ache of Possibility")

Ms. JENKINS: (Singing) ...incompetent with every lie, soldiers and civilians die. Money can't relieve our fear and billions disappear each year. Profits for some profiteer, and all too long we let it happen here. But I know the ache of possibility again. But what to do we say a prayer and then our sorrows take the place for the soul of tomorrow. The ache of possibility.

LUDDEN: So Louis, how is it listening to that now? And we're speaking days after the Gallup Poll found that President Obama's approval rating just dipped below 50 percent for the first time. Does this matter into how your music is received?

Mr. ROSEN: Well, I was thinking about that when we were on stage this past weekend, because before we ever presented this song - played it live - I wasn't exactly sure how it was going to go over. I certainly thought if there are conservatives in the audience, they may not welcome it so completely. And yet the song elicits the greatest response, which suggests to me that we all still have this ache of possibility.

There's another line in the song that says, And I know the ache of disappointments yet to come, because of course there will be.

LUDDEN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. ROSEN: But I still think that that sense of hope and possibility is very much before us.

LUDDEN: Nikki...

Ms. GIOVANNI: Yes.

LUDDEN: You've released spoken word albums. And you've used the backdrop of Gospel music on your album "Truth is On Its Way."

Ms. GIOVANNI: Mm-hmm.

LUDDEN: But do you foresee more and more collaborations like this between poets and musicians and is it maybe a way to get your words out to a wider audience?

Ms. GIOVANNI: Oh, I would certainly encourage any poet to find some other way to bring the music out. Poetry is music, and so for me, you let the musicians have their way, but you also do things. "Truth is On Its Way," which should've won a Grammy, as my mother used to always say...

(Soundbite of laughter)

LUDDEN: Well, she knows.

Ms. GIOVANNI: Yes, indeed. But, you know, what it was is there was no - when "Truth" came out, there was no category in the Grammy's for spoken word with music. And it's an amazing thing because now we have the hip-hop generation.

LUDDEN: Mm-hmm.

Ms. GIOVANNI: Everything has changed, and I know the mistakes that writers make trying to be something that we're not. And so the ideas that you have, you keep throwing them out and you hope that they're seeds. You know, you hope that the seeds will fall on fertile ground some place and somebody else will take it up.

LUDDEN: Well, let's go out listening to one more song here. Another one of your poems, Nikki, is set to music here, "How You Gonna Save 'Em?"

Ms. GIOVANNI: Yeah.

LUDDEN: Capathia, can you set that up for us?

Ms. JENKINS: "How You Gonna Save Em?" Oh, I love this. This is actually the first track on the CD and it's just this rousing call. How you gonna save 'em? And the way we save 'em is we give 'em a song. Give 'em a song to chase the blues away. That's what this whole thing is about. You know, I think it's a beautiful poem and Louie has set it beautifully, and it's just this rousing call.

(Soundbite of laughter)

(Soundbite of song, "How You Gonna Save 'Em?")

Ms. JENKINS: (Singing) How you gonna save 'em if they can't learn how to pray?

LUDDEN: "How You Gonna Save 'Em?" with poetry by Nikki Giovanni and music by Louis Rosen and Capathia Jenkins. It's from the album "The Ache of Possibility," which is in stores now.

This was so much fun. Thanks to all of you.

Ms. GIOVANNI: Thank you.

Ms. JENKINS: Thank you.

Mr. ROSEN: Thank you very much.

(Soundbite of song, "How You Gonna Save 'Em?")

Ms. JENKINS: (Singing) Give 'em a song I say to chase those blues away.

LUDDEN: You can read special holiday reflections from our Barbershop guys in the TELL ME MORE blog. In commemoration of the Thanksgiving weekend, freelance journalist Jimi Izrael, civil rights attorney Arsalan Iftikar and syndicated columnist Ruben Navarrette share what they're thankful for. To check them out, just go to our Web page at NPR.org, click on Programs and then on TELL ME MORE.

(Soundbite of song, "How You Gonna Save 'Em?")

Ms. JENKINS: (Singing)...to chase those blues away. How you - how you gonna save 'em? How you - how you, give 'em a song, give 'em a song to chase the blues away. Yeah. Yeah. How you gonna save them?

Copyright © 2009 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.