There are few people in the world as decorated as writer Nikki Giovanni. She’s a Grammy Award-winner, an NAACP Image Award-winner, and was named one of Oprah Winfrey’s 25 “Living Legends.” Giovanni, who earned fame and recognition in the 1960s as one of the foremost voices on the Civil Rights Movement, has since gone on to publish numerous books and poems. She has also written children’s books and taught at schools like Rutgers and Ohio State University.
More recently, Giovani with Modern Harmonic has re-released three of her albums from the 1970s—Truth Is On Its Way (1971), Like A Ripple On A Pond (1973), and The Way I Feel (1975). The records feature Giovanni reading her work over rhythmic, melodic music. We caught up with the 78-year-old, Knoxville, Tennessee-born writer, and activist to ask her about these re-releases, how much music itself means to her, and the difference between lyric and verse.
Giovanni will also be releasing new curated musical works with saxophonist Javon Jackson in February 2022.
American Songwriter: What is your relationship to music today? What comes to mind when you think about it, either of large or small import?
Nikki Giovani: Well, I’m really a jazz fan. So, I still listen to a lot of jazz. And of course, I love spiritual. So, it’s been a pleasure to have my 50th-anniversary album—I can’t believe it’s been 50 years—to be brought back out.
AS: Yes, there have been three albums of yours reissued just recently. What was it like to hear yourself again now removed 50 years? Of course, with age, our voices can change, our minds, our contexts?
NG: I don’t think my voice has changed that much, so I recognize—I mean, if I was just on the road and turned my radio on, I would recognize it. So, my voice has not changed that much. I was glad, though, some of the music—working with Jay Millar was very, very good. Because he brought some of the music up to date. He made it sound sharper and clearer. He changed a little bit of the rhythm, which was also very good. I loved what he did with it.
AS: You grew up listening to records and the radio. So, how do you think listening to music influenced how you think about the written line and the sonic quality of language?
NG: Well, I grew up in the church. And the Black American church has always been rhythmic. The preacher is rhythmic. [Recently, some friends and I] were laughing because I went to a service yesterday and the minister said that his daughter said, “Daddy, I’m glad you’re not one of these ‘well’ preachers “ He looked at her and he said, “What do you mean, ‘well’?” She said, “You know, ‘Welllllll….’ and ‘Wellllllll’” [Laughs]. The church got a big laugh out of that. I grew up in a Baptist Church. My mother was AME [African Methodist Episcopal]. But the churches have always been so rhythmic that you grow up hearing the rhythm. You always do.
AS: I remember a minor conflict with a professor who chided me for bringing in song lyrics when she’d asked us to bring in our favorite poems. Since you’ve worked in both genres, may I ask: in your mind, is there a significant difference between written poetry and song lyrics?
NG: I think so. I don’t think of Cole Porter as a poet. But more and more, we’re beginning to look at something like “Eleanor Rigby” and we’re saying Paul McCartney, that’s a poem, what he did. He says he wrote a song but if you look at “Eleanor Rigby,” it’s very poetic. You know, some of them work—of course, one of the greatest poems that became a song is “Moonlight In Vermont,” in which nothing rhymes. And it’s amazing. I think it’s the only song of its kind, you know, a State Anthem, that doesn’t rhyme and nobody misses it. If it’s pointed out to them, they say, “Oh, you’re right! Nothing rhymes in that poem.” It’s so beautiful.
AS: Is there a time in your life when music felt especially crucial to you?
NG: Well, I was diagnosed with cancer, and what you’re going to do if you’re laying in the hospital, hoping—you know, you’re going to have an operation. My surgeon took my left lung out, which I thank him for. I still see him. And I said, “Well, okay, take it out, whatever you have to do!” And he did a wonderful job. And I’m still here.
NG: The last thing that I wanted, that I remember wanting was—is it okay if I put my “ears” on if I listen to some music. You never know with an operation like that if you’re going to pass. If you’re going to transition, it may as well be to some music you love [Laughs].
AS: If you could listen to just one song right before you died, what would it be?
NG: Oh my, now that’s going to be hard [Laughs] because I’ve been working so much with music. Hmm, that’s going to be—if I were ill and in pain, my grandmother’s favorite song was “It Is Well With My Soul.” So, it would be nice to hear that, to think that my grandmother was singing to me. But there’s so much that I like. I have my own special CD that I listen to that nobody in my house—they’re all tired of it. Because I’ve been listening to it for, like, 20 years. And because you have Bose, you just put your ears on and nobody else has to hear it. I hear the same songs—I should know every one of them [by heart], I really should.
AS: What songs are on that CD?
NG: I’m listening to Jessye Norman. And I’m listening to, of course, Marvin Gaye, and I listen to not only, “What’s Going On,” but to Marvin Gaye’s “After The Dance,” because it’s such a—well, it’s sexy, of course. It just kind of makes you happy. And that’s followed by something that I really love, and I don’t know if you remember Johnnie Taylor, but “Your Love Is Rated Xtra.” So you just bounce around and feel good, you know. It flows into other more serious music as it changes. Etta James’ “At Last.” It’s some old rock and roll and a lot of it is spiritual and some of it is music that’s making a statement.
AS: You launched your second book from the jazz club Birdland. And I believe that’s also where you had your first-ever public reading. Why was Birdland, a jazz club, the place you felt most comfortable for these big moments?
NG: Oh, it was important to me because my mother was such a big jazz fan. And I was living in New York. And I wanted to have a “real” launch, as you would say now, for my book, Black Judgement (1968), and I knew that she would love—she had never been—I think she may have been to New York. But she had never really been able to go around. Mommy didn’t have much money or anything. So, I thought, well, if I can get Birdland, she can come up and she’ll be able to go to a jazz club. She’d always wanted to.
So, I met Mr.[Harold] Logan and we struck a deal. In those days, in New York, the clubs were closed on Sunday. So, that meant he couldn’t have a “regular” opening. So, what he needed was something that he could say was cultural. That he wasn’t selling drinks, something like that. So, he said, “Bring me 100 people and you can have the club; 99 people and you’ll owe me $500.” We shook hands on it and finally, as I walked upstairs—Birdland was downstairs back then—and as I walked upstairs it had dawned on me that I had just shaken hands with a criminal! [Laughs] But I said, no, I can get 100 people. And we were sold out, it was wonderful.
AS: Do you have a favorite poem that you’ve written that you’ve set to music?
NG: Oh, I think probably one of my most popular poems is “Ego-Tripping” (1973)—I was born in the Congo. But it gets done with a lot of different things. It gets done with drums and people have put music to it and that’s fine with me because, again, we’re talking the rhythm. And I don’t want to sound ignorant, but there’s a lot I don’t understand—and I have an attorney and she’s wonderful—about how you control who puts what to music and why? So, I’m always happy when people do it and I’m always pleased that somebody is still reading it or still listening to it. But it’s not part of the business that I handle.
AS: You’ve dedicated work to Tupac Shakur. Can you talk about his impact on you, as an artist?
NG: Well, ‘Pac was the age of my son. So, his death was very sad. I had begun to listen to rap, which I did not—that’s a little bit younger, well it’s almost 50 years younger than I am. So, he’s one of the few rappers—if ‘Pac were still here, he would still be more popular. He would not have allowed, for example, what Travis Scott allowed in Houston. ‘Pac had more respect and love for his audiences, to make sure that 10 people didn’t get killed coming to hear him, though he always had a packed house. So, I was always glad—I still am—glad to see the young people who can follow what Tupac did and what he tried to do.
AS: What was it like for you, as a poet, to be nominated for a Grammy for your album, The Nikki Giovanni Poetry Collection – do you think about it at all today?
NG: Oh, I still do. I tease my students because I have a lot of good writers and I know quite a few people who are trying to be songwriters and I always tell them, if you have a chance, go to the Grammys. Because the Grammys have the best food. The Oscars, as you know, everybody’s always trying to stay thin for the Oscars. But the Grammys, half the world, as far as the Grammys are concerned and can see, are fat. So the Grammys have great food [Laughs] and they’re cheerful people. So, as I say, whatever you do, be sure, if you get a Grammy nomination, go because they are much more fun!
AS: The last line on your bio on your website is “I’m happy.” So, may I ask what does happiness mean to you and how does where you live and what you do impact that happiness?
NG: Well, I think I’ve done my job. So, I’m satisfied with myself. And as I like to say, because it’s true, the house is paid for and I don’t want another car. My car is 13 years old. And my dog has his shots. So, I don’t know what else I’m wanting. I’m not looking to sign a $10 million deal or something like that. I enjoy what I do. I’m able to give and I do with a lot of my time—I was talking to some 5th graders last week. I think it’s nice to be in control of your life and I feel like I am in control of my life. I feel like I’m in good shape and I am happy.
AS: What do you love most about music?
NG: I love the way it makes you feel. Really, it does. If you’re really having a bad, hard day, there’s nothing like just putting some Billie Holiday on and sitting with a glass of wine and just going with her. Because it’s not that she’s sad, or anything, it’s just that there’s just something that she absorbs of your sadness. But if you’re having a good day, there’s nothing like, as I’ve said, there’s nothing like “Your Love Is Rated Xtra” with Johnnie Taylor. People don’t remember that song but there’s nothing like listening to that. It just cheers you up. You remember life 50 years ago when you did different things. [Laughs]
Photos courtesy Sundazed/Yep Roc Music Group