Nikki Giovanni isn’t just an activist. She’s a reactivist.
Herald as one of the greatest poets and voices that emerged from the Civil Rights and Black Power movement, Giovanni continues to evolve with new ideas on how to be a tool to help improve our world through words.
Currently a distinguished professor of English at Virginia Tech, Giovanni continues to write and create. From a full bookshelf worth of poetry collections to Grammy-nominated spoken word albums, Giovanni found time to speak to Mo’ Betta Soul about the Civil Rights movement then and now, hip-hop, Hollywood, NBA basketball and Vietnam.
PJ: When Donald Sterling from the Los Angeles Clippers made those racist comments, it was created this cloud over the NBA and the team. It was one of those moments when black players were decided whether or not to boycott the game. I immediately thought about Muhammad Ali when he left boxing in 1967 to protest the Vietnam War. That was a time during the heart of the Civil Rights Movement. Have you seen things change in things like sports and society since the movement?
NG: Not a lot. I’m proud of the Clippers players. I want to say, that it wasn’t the players’ job to not play. It was a franchise, not a business. It remains the NBA’s responsibility to take care of this. The players would ruin their own livelihoods, affect their families and mess up a league and have their careers affected. It’s not even an individual sport! If anything I would place blame of the coach [Doc Rivers]. He is the one that these young players were following. I was disappointed when he said that he didn’t think Mrs. Racist [Sterling’s wife] off the hook. The NBA needed to step up. Remember when Reds owner [Marge Schott] was ousted by Major League Baseball? Nobody was expecting players on the Reds not to play. I think it was unfair. I’m proud of people like LeBron James for stepping up saying what he said. That’s the way to be stand up in this situation.
PJ: The Civil Rights Movement has inspired so many things. Hip-hop culture can be seen as something that’s directly connected with that. Now, places like Harvard are teaching hip-hop as a discipline. You’ve always been one of the heroes for hip-hop culture when other people from the movement may shy away. Why do you support that culture? What is it about the music and culture that you love?
NG: I think it’s wonderful for Harvard. Hip-hop is important but you (pointing at me) and hip-hop shouldn’t be seduced. I’m glad it’s at Harvard but they should be seduced by hip-hop. You look at a song like “Clap Your Hands If You’re Happy” —- that’s a spiritual. It was telling our story. Same as with jazz, blues, spoken word. We’re still doing it now.
PJ: How do you feel, being apart of the movement during the ‘60s, about how Hollywood portrays things from that era? Movies that are immersed in the movement like Lee Daniels’ The Butler or even your thoughts on Hollywood crowning 12 Years A Slave best picture.
NG: I hate what Hollywood did. I think 12 Years A Slave sucks. It’s soft-core porn. You see him [Solomon Northup] just walk away and leave her [Patsey] as if to say, “Bye! I’m free now. Have a good life!” The Butler was horrible because it was inaccurate. These people in real life belonged to a church, apart of the NAACP, were in the heart of the black middle class. But in the movie Oprah is playing the wife cheating on her husband with a man with his tooth missing. And it just showed the sons, one fighting and being a Black Panther. The butler worked in the White House for 50 years. That’s the man that should have his son fighting to go to Harvard, Brown and Yale. All you have to do is have the president send a letter to those schools. I’m angry at Hollywood at hos they are depicting us.
PJ: How was it balancing the Civil Rights Movement here in America, with something like Vietnam War? How did that affect you here during that period? How did the black power movement respond to Vietnam? How did you as a spoken word artist and musician see the sound change?
NG: You could hear it in the music. Someone like Marvin [Gaye] when he recorded What’s Going On wouldn’t stop until he made Barry [Gordy] (founder of Motown records) release it. People like Stokely [Carmichael] and H Rap Brown all recognized that the war was a distraction to us. I’m really disappointed with Obama because Rap Brown is still in prison and disappointed that Obama didn’t pardon him. But you can see how the country was affected. They killed Kennedy and Martin Luther King when they spoke out against things like the war. You can also see places like Motown change. Motown became more militant. You can hear the beats in the music change. Stuff like Edwin Star doing “War, What Is It Good For”. Even people like the Temptations and The Beatles all had a sound that changed. And I hear that same energy through hip-hop. It proves that no matter what happens to our people, that we don’t survive, we thrive.