03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Celebrating Kwanzaa With Maya Angelou (VIDEO)

"If you make an observation, you have an obligation." This is the piece of poetry that fuels me as an artist. It's also what I told Dr. Maya Angelou, a living hero of mine, when I pitched my latest film project to her.

"What's your observation?" she asked.

"That there's a deeply important story that has not been told," I said, remembering Dr. Angelou's famous adage that there is "no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you."

"And your obligation?"

"To tell it," I said.

I told her that I wanted to make a documentary film that uses Kwanzaa as a prism to explore the struggle and triumph of the African-American experience. A film that sings and trumpets and wails and funks and raps our journey in America; a journey hip hop emcee Talib Kweli calls going from "nigger to negro to colored to black to Afro-American to African-American." And at the same time, a film that reminds us that the legacy and heritage of people of African descent didn't start in Jamestown.

"We must make this film," Dr. Angelou responded, signing on to narrate and compose poetry for what would become the first feature film on Kwanzaa: The Black Candle. Dr. Angelou -- whose life has been committed to transforming observations into obligations -- saw, just as I did, the necessity of telling the story of Kwanzaa.

The fastest growing holiday in the world, Kwanzaa is an African-American and Pan-African cultural holiday which celebrates family, community, and culture. Observed annually from December 26th through January 1st, Kwanzaa was founded in 1966 by scholar Maulana Karenga and centers around the Nguzo Saba, a Swahili word that means Seven Principles. As Dr. Angelou tells us in The Black Candle, "It is a time when we gather in the spirit of family and community, to celebrate life, love, unity, and hope."

Although Kwanzaa is a holiday that celebrates African and African-American culture, people of any ethnic background can and do celebrate it, just like people participate in Cinco de Mayo besides Mexicans; Chinese New Year besides Chinese; Native American pow wows besides Native Americans.

As we dove into production on The Black Candle -- traveling throughout the U.S. -- the scope of the project swelled, shoot after shoot, as we were able to witness and capture the impact that Kwanzaa has had on individuals, families, and communities around the country. As we conducted interviews with cast members -- hip hop pioneer Chuck D, NFL legend Jim Brown, Kwanzaa's founder Dr. Maulana Karenga, and Kwanzaa stamp-artist Synthia Saint James, among others -- it became increasingly clear that this film wasn't simply the story of a holiday, it was the story of a people; where they were, where they are, and where they want go.

As we moved deeper into production, it was clear that the story of Kwanzaa and its impact was not isolated to just the U.S. Soon we were traversing across Africa, Europe, and the Caribbean, filming celebrations and talking to people about Kwanzaa's relevance to their lives. In Paris, for instance, we were astonished when we attended an all-day Kwanzaa celebration in Saint-Denis with roughly 1,000 celebrants.

A couple of years later, I'm thrilled that we were able to transform our observation into an obligation and, ultimately, an award-winning movie. The Black Candle, which is now available on DVD and will make its TV Premiere on December 26th, Noon, on TV One, is an inspirational story about the struggle and triumph of family, community, and culture. It is also a timely illumination on why the seven principles of Kwanzaa (unity, self-determination, collective work and responsibility, cooperative economics, purpose, creativity and faith) are relevant today.

After viewing the final film, Dr. Angelou told me that her wish is to "make 5 million, zillion copies. I wish we could have every black person sit down and watch it and listen. I wish every white person could sit down and listen. Harmony."

For more information on The Black Candle, visit

M.K. Asante, Jr.
is the director of The Black Candle and author of the award-winning books It's Bigger Than Hip Hop, Beautiful. And Ugly Too, and Like Water Running Off My Back. He can reached via