It's been two months since Dr. Maya Angelou transitioned into immortality. Of course, that's a poetic way of saying she died. During the scramble to find out which famous figures would eulogize one of the most inspirational poets of the 20th century, I began to wonder what Angelou was like when she was alone. That's who I wanted to mourn.
Dr. Angelou's life as a single mother and stripper appears in monochrome on the pages of biographies, but in her mind, they likely existed in living color, as components of what made her monumental.
Singer India Arie speaks about her relationship with Dr. Angelou, as well as her own journey, from anonymity to stardom, and how those elements intersect. This is what was said:
Dr. Maya Angelou inspired millions of people around the globe. In certain ways, I feel your music and message mirrors her essence. How did you two come to meet?
India Arie: I was curious why you thought of me when you wanted to do a piece on Maya Angelou. I thought maybe you thought she and I were similar, which is a compliment, but super far-fetched. But now that you say my work mirrors her essence, it makes sense -- I could see that.
My artistic coach Hilda Williams became friends with Maya Angelou's assistant, and that's how I got to meet her.
The real thing is, my life fell apart in 2009. I started thinking about -- well, 'who am I?' I was trying to be the things people wanted me to be--it's how it works in the music business with every artist; people only want you to make them money.
I had my mom too -- she wanted me to do things -- so I had it coming from all different angles.
I was asking myself, 'who do I want to be?' I created this thing I called a 'hero board' [laughter]. And I put all the people that are my heroes on the board and wrote a short biography about each one. I put myself on the board, and wrote what I wanted my biography to be at the end of my life. It's crazy; I still have that board in my common place in my home.
My life was torn to pieces, and I was giving myself time to reflect on how it got there. It took me a couple of weeks to figure out who my ultimate hero was. It had to be a person who had a lifestyle I admired. That was the thing, my lifestyle in the music business was not quite me -- more than not quite, it wasn't me at all. That's when Maya Angelou came to mind.
She was a person whose essence I felt closest to. Just her face and her voice. And quality of her work, the values she speaks of. I met her a year after that in Harlem, at her brownstone.
I had so much to tell her. I remember I said: "Can I just jump in?", and she said, "Go." I like when people are straight to the point, especially when it comes to talking about something emotional. She said,"Go."
She and I had a talk that changed my life.
I told her, "I've been really struggling, and I want to know, when was the last time you felt not empowered?" I was going to ask her how she healed herself, but I didn't get to ask the question because she thought for a long time -- I mean a long time. She was really thinking about it, and she finally answered, "Never." She said, "I could never feel not empowered as long as I'm telling the truth. As long as I'm truthful, I'm not giving my power away."
What do you think made her so special?
Maya was more honest than most people. She was honest at a time when her life could have been in danger for it. She was honest in the middle of the Civil Rights Movement. She embodied what I think love really is. I think love is acceptance of people.
Her legacy, for me, is that she was a great human being, and she showed us that we all could be that. She didn't have magical powers. She chose to walk through life in such a way that had so much integrity that you couldn't help but to respect her.
I'm in a climate, the entertainment business, where people use sexuality in ways that are degrading instead of beautiful. I love that the sensuality in her work is pleasant, it wasn't like she was a nun. That's something I admire about her and I want to do in my work. People would be surprised when Maya Angelou would flirt. She had that quality.
In the beginning of your career, was it difficult adjusting to stardom? Did life change for you drastically?
Um. [laughing] I have to laugh at that one because my life did change. My life changed so fast that it wasn't enjoyable. I went from being a really sensitive, spiritual and emotional artist (you can tell if you listen to my music), to working 20 hour days and being on 5 airplanes a week. Being in front of crowds of people, offstage, you know, and at meet-and-greets. Then there was all the make-up. There were people making sure I didn't wear the same thing twice. All of these things, it was just too much for a person like me. It wasn't my nature. I always thought my nature was the music. I didn't know how to handle it at all. I retired two times. It was like, I want to make music, but can't do this.
It was harder on me than I ever could have imagined. I went from playing guitar under a tree in Savanna, Georgia, going to my art classes, talking to people, in five years, to the Grammys. And being shut out [in 2002, India was nominated for seven Grammys, and was snubbed], and the whole politics of the thing. Clive Davis and the rest.
Would you share with me what happened with the skin bleaching scandal?
I wrote an open letter about the skin bleaching thing [fans accused India of bleaching her skin]. It was crazy. I finally got someone to talk about me, and this is what they say. If I had retweeted all the things people were saying to me...I was called every misogynistic word you could use for a female. I was like whoa. I knew that it wasn't me people were attacking, it was something inside of people that was triggered. But I didn't put that thing inside of you. There were people saying, "I love you, India Arie," one day on twitter, and the next day, they call me... everything. There were literally two people I saw that said something reasonable to me on twitter. Two people, out of 200,000 plus followers. I went on Oprah, and that incident is what made my appearance noteworthy, but I had a bigger story to tell.
If fame and money aren't all they're cracked up to be, what should be the goal for entertainers and artists?
That's something human beings have to figure out. It's a myth that one thing can happen and make your life better forever, or that you'll be happy forever because of this one thing. A lot of us think it's money, others think it's fame, and if someone has money and fame they should be happy. People think that until they've been there. Every person who's made a big chunk of money early, or got introduced to fame young, knows, it's just one more thing to be responsible for. I've never heard of a person who was happy because they got rich. It takes certain worries off your plate, but it doesn't change the fact that you have this plate you need to deal with. You don't know who your friends are, your parents are asking for things--my mother never asked me for anything, which I'm blessed for -- but I have friends who spent all their money buying their parents cars.
And your friends think you've changed. I could tell you a million things, but you know where I'm going with that.
The advice I'd give to a young, sensitive artist, is figure out how to define what it means to give your power away. For me, that means giving anything outside of yourself the power to define how you feel about yourself. You're going to sit across from people who see the world differently from you, you are a product to them. That doesn't mean you have to see yourself that way. Figure out what your spiritual practice is, and make that the center of your life.
What are two qualities you would like to improve about yourself?
1.) I'm an isolationist. That's not good.
2.) I walk a fine line between opinion and judgement. That's something I'd like to heal about myself. I don't want to be judgmental. I work on myself, I guess it's part of being in the public eye.
What are three qualities you like about yourself?
1.) I like my power of concentration.
2.) I like that I do not lie about music, ever. I don't care if it's Stevie Wonder and he asks me what I think about something, I'm going to tell him.
3.) I like that I'm not insincere about love.
Where are you in your evolution today?
I just want to be able to continue to grow. Once I put out Acoustic Soul, the music industry expected me to keep doing it again. Every time I put out an album, I had to fight for it to be different. I'm not 23 anymore. I'm not 27 anymore. I'm not 30. I'm not that person. There's no way I can pretend. I'm putting out what's in my heart. You can't have an artist with a seven album deal and think they're going do the same over and over.
Now, I want to do what I'm inspired to do. I'm writing songs for dear friends.
Ferrari Sheppard is Editor-in-Chief of Stop Being Famous