Why The Caged Bird Raps Caged Bird Songs pairs some of the late Maya Angelou's poems and lyrics to hip-hop beats — but producer Shawn Rivera says the rhythms were already there.

Why The Caged Bird Raps

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Maya Angelou had many ways of expressing herself. Poetry, dance, painting, singing - she did them all. Now six months after her death, she returns in a new incarnation - hip-hop artist. "Caged Bird Songs" is a play on the long-ago autobiography that made Maya Angelou famous. The CD was one of the last projects she worked on, and it presents some of the author's most famous poems in way they've never been heard before. Let's take a listen.


MAYA ANGELOU: Dancin' the funky chicken. Eatin' ribs and tips. Diggin' all the latest sounds. And drinkin' gin in sips. Now ain't they bad? Ain't they Black? Ain't they Black? An' ain't they bad? Ain't they bad? An' ain't they Black? An' ain't that fine?

SHAWN RIVERA: When you read the poems on the page, they can be interpreted rhythmically by the reader. But when Dr. Angelou reads them, there's no doubt that she was coming from a place of rhythm.

MONTAGNE: That R&B music producer Shawn Rivera. He coproduced this album. It was a few years ago he started wondering what it would sound like to put Angelou's words to music that wasn't even around when she first wrote most of them.

RIVERA: Somehow over and over again, I kept hearing like music underneath what she was doing. She actually put the music into it. You can tell the rhythms were implied already. So she already was the first lady of hip-hop.

MONTAGNE: Rivera finally met Maya Angelou in 2008 at her 80th birthday party, and they began talking about the project. She had released spoken word albums before, and in fact, had won three Grammys for them. But what Angelou's grandson, Colin Johnson, likes about this latest project is that it allows her longtime fans to see a whole other side of her.

COLIN JOHNSON: Some people can look at Grandma as a really heavy, kind of heady type of person, you know, really deep. But, you know, she liked to have fun. And she was a fun person. She gave the best parties, too, by the way - I mean, hands down, the best.


ANGELOU: I'm the best that ever done it - pow pow. That's my title and I won it - pow pow. I ain't lying, I'm the best - pow pow.

MONTAGNE: The CD is a compilation of archival readings and new recordings of Angelou. Colin Johnson hopes putting them to hip-hop will draw younger people to his grandmother's work.

JOHNSON: 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. And I want that message to continue on for many different years.


ANGELOU: I note the obvious differences between each sort and type, but we are more alike, my friends, than we are unalike. We are more alike, my friends, than we are unalike.

MONTAGNE: Here is the poet herself in an interview she did with aol.com speaking about the kind of person she wanted to touch with this project.


ANGELOU: Some young woman, who had decided that life owed her nothing and she owed nothing - she had decided that life had no promise for her. But she'll turn on the radio or pass a car with the radio booming and it will be playing something that came out of our meeting. And the young woman's eyes will open, and her heart will be lifted up.

MONTAGNE: That's the late Maya Angelou. The album of her words set to hip-hop beats, "Caged Bird Songs," is out now.


ANGELOU: You may write me down in history.

UNIDENTIFIED CHORUS: (Singing) You may write me down in history...

ANGELOU: With your bitter, twisted lies.

UNIDENTIFIED CHORUS: (Singing) ...With your bitter, twisted lies.

ANGELOU: You may trod me...

UNIDENTIFIED CHORUS: (Singing) You may trod me...

ANGELOU: ...In the very dirt...

UNIDENTIFIED CHORUS: (Singing) ...In the very dirt...

ANGELOU: ...But still like dust.

UNIDENTIFIED CHORUS: (Singing) ...But still like dust.

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