So, you’re picking up one of your favorite literary figures (poetry or prose, living or dead) from the airport before taking them to dinner and conducting an interview. You’re a huge fan and you’re super excited about the assignment, but also a bit nervous. Relax. The main thing you need to be concerned with is having a kickass playlist going on the tape deck when you roll up to the terminal and I’m here to help. I offer no guarantees, but with some deductive reasoning, digital crate digging, and intuition I think we can manage something that leaves everyone comfortable, happy, and bobbing their heads.
Below is a 12 track set that I think should get you from the airport and back again with some stops in between. You can play it in sequence, but it will work on mix-mode as well (this might even be better). The important thing is to have it already playing when you pick them up and to not discuss it at all unless they bring it up first. Basically, play it cool and act like you’ve been there before. I can in no way guarantee that they’ll actually dig this, but I have my hopes. Worst case scenario, just have NPR locked in as station preset 1 in case things get desperate. Best of luck!
Your passenger this week is none other than the legendary Maya Angelou. Poet, memoirist, journalist, activist, dancer, singer, ICON. Quite simply she was, and remains, essential. Her accomplishments and importance are too numerous and too enormous to list here. Just get ready for a hell of a ride.
1. Singing Sweet – When I See You Smile Given all the tragedies, losses, and challenges she endured in her remarkable life it’s amazing to notice just how often Angelou was smiling (if not beaming) in the many photographs of her taken over the decades. Through everything she experienced she never deviated from her own dictum: I can be changed by what happens to me. But I refuse to be reduced by it. For her, a song as beautiful as her smile. Just try not to spend too long in a state of awe-struck disbelief over the fact that this is a dancehall cover of a hit tune by Bad English.
2. Brownstone – If You Love Me Waterfalls, On Bended Knee, Fantasy, Candy Rain…it’s pretty clear that the 1995 Top 100 chart represents an indisputable annus mirabilis for Modern R&B. As a culture we can only hope to scale such heights again. And not least among the bounty was this one from Brownstone. The song is infectious and unforgettable on its own, but as far as I’m concerned it reached icon status as a central element it the Holly Hunter / Queen Latifah rollin on E lesbian club dance sequence in Living Out Loud which will be recognized as a top-10 1990s movie moment in history books 1,000 years hence.
3. Fuentes All Stars – Pégale a la Nalga I have no idea what’s going on at the beginning of this song. Is the dude having a seizure? Catching the Holy Ghost? Presiding over an auction? Whatever it is, I dig it. Your average Toyota does not allow much room for dancing while seated, but I’m sure you’ll find a way…you’ll need to. Any passenger who refuses to move with you to this one can be promptly deposited on the nearest curb/exit-ramp. Not to worry, Dr. Angelou is definitely down. P.S. I got curious and Google translated the title, it seems to roughly mean “Hit him in the ass”. Sounds about right.
4. Cymande – Dove 11 minutes of effortless cool, plain & simple, from Cymande (among Spike Lee’s favorite soundtrack adds). There won’t be any talking while this song is playing. You and Dr. Angelou won’t need language. Just lean your seat back a bit, stiff-arm the wheel and go where the track takes you. Warning: chanting will likely ensue.
5. Louis Jordan – Beans and Cornbread This is quite simply the greatest song ever recorded about two anthropomorphic food items getting into a brawl. Always fun, always energetic, this is a solid trip-starter. Also, speaking of Spike Lee soundtracks: it’s a little iconic due to being prominently featured during a scene of utter (and fairly comic) mayhem in Malcolm X (if you’ve seen the movie you’ll remember it well.) It’s a fairly sure bet that Dr. Angelou would dig the Louis Jordan, considering she covered his Run Joe on her only official full-lengthmusical release. I dare you not to be singing this to yourself 3 days later.
6. Rashaan Roland Kirk – What’s Goin’ On’/Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology) She wrote seven autobiographies, but make no mistake Maya Angelou never took her eyes off the injustice, the strife, and the resilience in the face of both that she saw around her in both America and the wider world abroad. Still, she met it all with grace and the conviction that things can (and will) get better with our hard work and willingness to change. I dig Kirk’s cover of Marvin Gaye’s classic jams because he honors their original depth and truth without losing his own essential joy.
7. Common – The Food (Ft. Kanye West) Put aside the fact that Dr. Angelou referred to herself & Dave Chappelle (on whose show this track was recorded live) as “soulmates”, or that she appeared on Common’s song The Dreamer, and you’re left with a ridiculously chill cruising song that manages to incorporate some super-sly shots at pop cultural/consumerist sacred cows. This one makes the playlist on a musical level, no question. But the biographical extras don’t hurt either.
8. Lyn Collins – Think (About It) Sure this is basically a James Brown song with a guest vocalist…but there could never be anything wrong with that, so crank this! Hard funk, in-you-face lyrics, female empowerment, endlessly sampled (Dj E-Z Rock I’m looking at you). Hell yes, play it twice.
9. Alice Coltrane – Journey in Satchidananda If only every journey down the interstate were as mellow, expansive, and as full of possibility as this, the title track of Alice Coltrane’s 1970 release. A perfect light-night tune, no one in history has ever managed to switch this off past 11 p.m. If you acquire a single harp record in your entire life, make it this one.
10. Nirvana – Where Did You Sleep Last Night Angelou often spoke of how the rhythms & mysteries of the blues acted upon her writing and how important the music was, not only for African-Americans but as part of the DNA of the country. This song, originally an Appalachian folk tune, but most famously recorded by blues legend Leadbelly, was covered by Nirvana for their 1993 MTV Unplugged set and it just might be the most searing moment from that entire series (for real, check out 5:08 in the clip when Cobain finally opens his eyes). I can never listen to it without thinking of Angelou’s Insomniac.
11. Wendy Rene – After Laughter I’ll admit, this isn’t necessarily the most road-friendly song out there. For one it doesn’t have the kind of intense & pulsing beat that you generally appreciate on the open road. Beyond that, it’s difficult to stay in your lane when your sight is occluded by open weeping. Still, this is one of my fav tracks of all time and Rene’s raw emotion is compelling to the nth degree.
12. Latyrx – Lady Don’t Tek No Look back at her life and you can really only come to to one conclusion: Maya Angelou was a superhero. Sure, she suffered, she knew loss, and she battled doubt…but so did Peter Parker. To overcome everything she experienced in her long life while never retreating, while never pitying herself in the face of steady racism, sexism, and tragedy took someone with undeniably singular character and resolve. The fact that she had the talent to share her experience so effectively with the rest of us, well…we’ll just have to be eternally thankful for that. If there were a movie about Dr. Angelou as a superhero this just might be in the opening credits sequence.