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Maya Angelou's 'Africa' Poem Gets A Jazz Reinterpretation From Fallou Diop

Maya Angelou's 'Africa' poem gets a Jazz reinterpretation from Dakar-born/Brooklyn-based producer Fallou Diop.


Dakar-born/Brooklyn-based producer Fallou Diop pays tribute to the late poet and defender of justice, Maya Angelou, in a jazz reinterpretation of Africa. In a nod to the poem’s prophetic power, Diop layers Angelou’s striking words over a pacing jazz melody. Africa describes the riches and beauty of the continent plagued with instances of external exploitation and manipulation. Despite Angelou's lyrical description of battles with slavery and colonialism, Africa is not a fatalistic poem expressing defeat, but rather, proclaims the rise of the continent informed by lessons learned from the struggles of its past.

Diop’s reinterpretation of Angelou's poem is a reminder of the late poet’s time spent in Africa and the work she conducted to unite people of African descent in solidarity against systems of oppression. Throughout her life Angelou explored different ways to represent the cultural linkages that exist between Africans and African Americans. In 1968 the memoirist wrote, produced and narrated ‘Blacks, Blues, Blacks!’– a ten-part television series documenting “Africanisms still present in the United States.” Diop’s rework captures Angelou’s unifying sentiment, the rhythmic undertones of the music referencing jazz's ties to the continent with a pulsating bass imitating the steady low-sounding beats of a dundun drum. Angelou's distinct voice rings clear through the background melodies, carrying her hopes for the continent and its people both distant and far.

Africa by Maya Angelou

Thus she had lain

sugercane sweet

deserts her hair

golden her feet

mountains her breasts

two Niles her tears.

Thus she has lain

Black through the years.

Over the white seas

rime white and cold

brigands ungentled

icicle bold

took her young daughters

sold her strong sons

churched her with Jesus

bled her with guns.

Thus she has lain.

Now she is rising

remember her pain

remember the losses

her screams loud and vain

remember her riches

her history slain

now she is striding

although she has lain.

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This article was originally published on OkayAfrica in March, 2017. We're republishing it here for our Crossroads series.

It's 2000 something. I'm holed up in my bedroom searching for samples to chop up on Fruity Loops. While deep into the free-market jungle of Amazon's suggested music section, I stumble across a compilation of Ethiopian music with faded pictures of nine guys jamming in white suit jackets. I press play on the 30 second sample.

My mind races with the opportunities these breakbeats offered a budding beat maker. Catchy organs, swinging horns, funky guitar riffs, soulful melodies and grainy and pained vocalists swoon over love lost and gained. Sung in my mother tongue—Amharic—this was a far cry from the corny synthesizer music of the 1990s that my parents played on Saturday mornings. I could actually sample this shit.

The next day, I burn a CD and pop it into my dad's car. His eyes light up when the first notes ooze out of the speakers. “Where did you get this?" He asks puzzlingly. “The internet," I respond smiling.

In the 1970s my dad was one of thousands of high school students in Addis Ababa protesting the monarchy. The protests eventually created instability which lead to a coup d'état. The monarchy was overthrown and a Marxist styled military junta composed of low ranking officers called the Derg came to power. The new regime subsequently banned music they deemed to be counter revolutionary. When the Derg came into power, Amha Eshete, a pioneering record producer and founder of Ahma Records, fled to the US and the master recordings of his label's tracks somehow ended up in a warehouse in Greece.

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