Miss Calypso: Maya Angelou’s Caribbean Roots

May 28, 2014

Words by Iscious—


Maya Angelou, the world-renowned author, poet and activist, died today at the age of 86. She was best known for her landmark 1969 memoir I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, which described in brilliant lyrical fashion her upbringing in the Jim Crow South. Angelou would go on to write six more books about her life, along with dozens of poems and essays. Her vivid prose centered on themes of the African-American family, black women, poverty, and racial discrimination. A perhaps lesser-known chapter in Maya Angelou’s illustrious career is her musical endeavors, which included a brief but notable foray into calypso. Even lesser known are her own Caribbean roots.

While a teenager in San Francisco, Angelou, then known by her birth name, Marguerite Johnson, received a scholarship to study dance and drama at San Francisco’s Labor School. She later dropped out of the school and became the city’s first African-American female cable car conductor. Her love for music and dance, however, persisted and she went on to form a dance team with Alvin Ailey (of later Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater fame), performing at local nightclubs throughout the city.


Angelou moved to New York for one year, studying with the famed Trinidadian dancer Pearl Primus, whose influence led her to begin working as a calypso singer and dancer on her return to San Francisco. Interestingly, it was during this time period that Johnson changed her professional name to “Maya Angelou” in an attempt to better capture the feel of her exotic calypso performances. Her talents earned Angelou a role as a featured dancer in the opera Porgy & Bess, with whom she toured throughout Europe during 1954 and 1955. In 1957, at the height of the Harry Belafonte-inspired calypso craze in America, she recorded her first and only album, Miss Calypso. She composed five of the album’s 14 tracks and is the lead singer on the entire album. Sample that album’s Latin-flavored “Neighbour Neighbour” here.

The LP even inspired Angelou’s first feature film, Calypso Heat Wave, in which she acted and sang. Watch the trailer and a recent clip from OWN TV’s Super Soul Sundays in which Angelou revisits this era of her career with Oprah below:

“Music was my refuge. I could crawl into the space between the notes and curl my back to loneliness,” Angelou later recalled. Maya moved to Accra, Ghana in the early 1960s, where she worked and performed for Ghana’s National Theater, wrote and broadcast for Radio Ghana, and even taught at the University of Ghana’s School of Music and Drama. (It was there that she befriended Malcolm X, with whom she would later help create the Organization of African American Unity in 1964.)

Her own roots, however, could be traced through Trinidad. “My mother’s father jumped off a ship, in Florida, at the turn of the twentieth century, then, he went back to Trinidad, got his father and then they both jumped ship in Tampa,” she recalled in a 2010 interview with the Trinidad Express. “I learned a lot about Trinidad’s culture from my mom. The food and the recipes. I learned to cook the codfish, the ochroes, and the greens. And my best friend, the famous writer Paule Marshall, is also West Indian.”

Angelou’s music career would also include song-writing credits for legendary musicians like BB King (“You Put it On Me,” co-written with Quincy Jones) and Roberta Flack (“And So It Goes”).