How Maya Angelou Inspired Me to Rise

Kaitlin McGaw of the Alphabet Rockers on stage with fans (Steve Jennings)

Last June, my band the Alphabet Rockers set out to produce a series of videos for our kids and families to entertain them through the summer. My songwriting partner Tommy Shepherd and I had been writing from a place of racial justice for over a year, and just wrapped a six-month tour that made talking about skin color fun and permissive for whole families. During that time, parents kept asking us how to talk to their kids about the harder topics, such as:

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How do I teach my daughter to have self-confidence?
How do I talk to my 6-year-old about police brutality without scaring him?

One week later, Philando Castile was shot in front of his girlfriend and her 4-year old daughter. Tommy and I stopped our video project. We had to write new songs that made racial justice a part of how children framed the world. It would not be comfortable and it would not be easy -- we might puncture the bubble that protects some children’s innocence.

But hip-hop is truth and it’s our time for us to tell these truths. We would find a way to keep our work positive while making the conversation around social justice for our children both honest and joyous. It was our responsibility as children’s artists to give us all a shared language about these complex topics, so we can activate and countering them with our children.

Kaitlin McGaw
Kaitlin McGaw (Photo: Andria Lo)

To find the words for these new songs, we turned to poets, leaders, and visionaries who had shifted our thinking for inspiration. James Baldwin, Martin Luther King, Jr., President Barack and Michelle Obama, Mahatma Gandhi, Alicia Garza & Opal Tometi, Tupac Shakur, Tatyana Fazlalizadeh, Harriet Tubman, and especially Maya Angelou, whom I can honestly say changed my life for the better.

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I first heard Angelou’s words in “Still I Rise” read by a fellow high schooler at a talent show -- the words in her voice as real and powerful as if she had penned them herself, the smile in the corner of her mouth revealing the power they held to her core. I had never heard this black girl magic, this powerful legacy and declaration of resilience. Phrase by phrase, I was transformed. Her poem revealed to me how silent the truth had been in my life. The history I knew, books I had been assigned, novels I had chosen -- everything needed to be reframed. I was 14, and I knew I’d been lied to by well-meaning liberal parents, a school district buried in whiteness, and a community breeding assimilation.

Maya’s poetry reshaped my sense of identity and began a lifelong conversation to counter the cultural sweep we live in. But for me, 14 was too late to start this conversation. What if we started at four months, like my little baby is now? What if, in our work as Alphabet Rockers, we decided that this conversation, this poem, these words of truth would not ruin childhood, but rather start our little rockers on a journey to fight injustice? Just as Angelou’s words had taught me to understand the flaws of the system, our words and songs could develop within children an understanding of justice and logic in tandem with learning to walk, speak and write.

Crowd at an Alphabet Rockers show
Crowd at an Alphabet Rockers show. (Photo: Marcus Salinas)

Our children need to understand our world’s failures and see its ugliness. To cry with us, and to love and innovate and live boldly beyond any walls or rules set in place by the past. And in that process, let them know how much we believe in them and their brilliance.

Last week in Daly City, the band and I asked a school assembly what they wanted to change in the world right now to make it better after we performed our song, “Change the World.” An eight-year-old answered, “All families need to feel safe, that they can stay here. It’s not fair to make people leave. This is their home.” This showed me that kids feel it all. They know what justice feels like, and they know that they -- and all of us -- are living in a time of great injustices.

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