“You know, I love spirituals and rock, Sarah Vaughn, Johann Sebastian Bach, Shakespeare, Maya Angelou, and Nikki Giovanni, just to name a few! ”
— Teena Marie, “Square Biz“
Music has always been a vital part of Nikki Giovanni’s life. Nikki is a poet, mother, professor, activist, Grammy nominee, National Book Award finalist, and a muse/collaborator for many musicians, including Kanye West, Capathia Jenkins, Queen Latifah, and Blackalicious. Nikki stopped by the MobileBooth recently in Roanoke, Virginia (an hour from where she is a professor at Virginia Tech) and remembered a few musically inspired moments in her life.
The year was 1981. Nikki had just moved home from New York City to Cincinnati to take care of her father, Gus, who had been diagnosed with cancer. One afternoon, Gus was lying in bed listening to WCIN, tired from fighting the cancer when he suddenly heard, “and Nikki Giovanni just to name a few!” blaring from the radio.
“Did you hear that, did you hear that, you’re on the radio?!” He yelled for Nikki, who rushed to his room.
Moments later her 10-year-old son Thomas ran into the room screaming, “Mom, mom! You’re on the radio!” Gus and Thomas began to chant, “You’re famous! You’re famous!”
“Yeah, but there’s no rich and,” says Nikki, laughing in the booth. “Everybody thinks that rich-and-famous is one word but there’s no rich-and.” Nikki eventually heard Teena Marie’s shout out and bought a copy of “Square Biz” for her father, who played it proudly over and over for her mother.
A few years later, Thomas came home from school one afternoon and asked Nikki,
“Mom, did you know Prince?”
“Yes, I know who he is. I’m a fan of his music,” she said.
“No, I mean, have you met him?” he asked.
“No,” she said. “I haven’t met him.”
“Are you sure?” Thomas asked.
“Thomas, what’s the problem here?” She asked.
“I told them,” he said. “I told them that you didn’t know Prince.”
Then Thomas dropped the conversation. A couple days later Thomas came home from school and it was clear that he had been in a fight. Nikki approached him again and asked,
“What’s going on? If you don’t tell me then I am going to go to school and ask.”
“Mom,” he said, “well you haven’t heard ‘Darling Nikki?’ “
Nikki hadn’t heard “Darling Nikki,” a sexually explicit song from Prince’s album Purple Rain. “But then I heard it,” Giovanni says laughing. “And I told him, no, no, no, baby, I don’t know Prince.”
“I was trying to find a way to send a message to Tupac’s mother and mostly also to my generation. To say, this is a great loss. How can we not mourn with another generation? Trying to think of what to do, I dedicated Love Poems. Then my editor said that no one is going to see that except those who buy your book.”
Four days after the rapper was gunned down and killed in Las Vegas, Nikki walked into a downtown Roanoke tattoo parlor called Alex’s New Tattoo and asked to have the words “Thug Life” inked on the underside of her forearm.
“I said I’d like to get a tattoo. And these big NASCAR guys are standing all around, and there’s a little old lady.”
Charles the tattoo artist asked her,
“What would you like it to say?”
“And I said, ‘Thug Life.’ And Charles is saying to me, ‘Well, you don’t look like a thug.’ And I say, ‘Well, Charles, I’m a thug. If you’re going to shoot thugs down, you shoot me.’ And I wrote that. I would always rather be with the man hanging in the tree than the people looking up. I would always rather be with the people running than the people chasing. And if you are going to shoot thugs, I would always rather be with the thugs than the people shooting them down.”
It was an honor for Jeremy and I to be in the booth with Nikki Giovanni. For information about her poetry, essays, interviews or to just see her throw down on the mic, go to nikki-giovanni.com.
p.s. – Thanks, Jeremy.