The world of literary arts gained a new heavenly ancestress on Monday (August 5) after the passing of Toni Morrison, Pulitzer Prize novelist and Black literary legend.
A powerful voice of Black America through her distinct gift of prose, Morrison’s themes and narratives exploring slavery, racism, colorism, politics, objectification, misogyny and womanhood layered her fictional literature with both imaginative and humanistic realism. The pain, joy, memories and plights of her characters were tentpoles for creative writers in film, television, and theatre. Morrison’s salience and cultivated talents also compelled artistic forces beyond the pages of her books, such is the case for the world of contemporary urban music.
Of the innumerable choices of words that will be used today in venerating her legacy, there isn’t one that quite encompasses her impact. However, there are some relics of her influence and intersection in the boundless spirit of Black music left for us to preserve.
BET.com recognized seven of those profoundest influences in commemoration of the life and legacy of Toni Morrison.
Opening the film with one of Morrison’s most stirring philosophies, Bey employs her words of wisdom to set the tone. “If you can surrender to the air, you can ride it.” It was most fitting among the HBCU-honoring documentary, which chronicled the making of Bey’s history-marking Coachella venture as the festival’s first Black female headliner (and especially considering that Ms. Morrison attended Howard University herself).
In a stellar reminder of the importance for Black education, New Jersey high school English teacher Brian Mooney traversed his students’ love for (and more significantly, understanding of) hip-hop and the teachings of Morrison’s The Bluest Eye.
Mooney employed Compton hip-hop icon Kendrick Lamar’s third studio album To Pimp A Butterfly to draw upon themes of Black American culture and oppression—an overarching keynote of both K-Dot’s platinum-certified project and Morrison’s critically-acclaimed and culturally-renowned debut novel. The end result was Kendrick’s surprise visit to the High Tech High School freshman class, A+ essays and other art works from the students, as well as recognition from Morrison herself.
“Kendrick Lamar understands and employs blues, jazz, and soul in his music, which makes it startling,” she spoke of Kendrick, according to a Vanity Fair feature. “His work is more than merely brilliant; it is magic.”
Neo-soul songstress India.Arie was just a 19-year-old college student straddling her college education and music career pursuit when she cracked open Morrison’s The Bluest Eye. Surely then, she didn’t realize that years later, the novel would inspire her song “Not Afraid of the Dark” and elevate her to a stage right before the Black literature laureate. “I read ‘The Bluest Eye,’ and I’d never read anything that made me feel like that,” she said before performing the record at Virginia Tech during their celebration to honor Morrison in October 2012. “As we all know, Toni Morrison’s writing has that rhythm. It’s like a long, long poem. And so I was done reading it, and I still felt the thing inside. And this song came out, to date, probably the quickest song I’ve ever written.”
Chicago rap favorite Chance the Rapper's recollection of "rememory" happens to be one of the most stirring pieces of Morrison's Beloved. The book's character, Sethe, uses this concept to reconstruct former realities in a journey of self-discovery. Tied intricately into Black trauma and psychology, rememory is a fixture in Beloved that represents vivid understandings of past events that exist in a mental and physical realm, such as slavery.
Roots legend Black Thought took to the MLK Now stage in 2018 to share words from Morrison’s archived speech on Black art. Delivered on May 30, 1975 at Portland State University, her words stood firmly on the foundation of the Philly lyricist, who is also recognized for his voice in the plights and advancement of Black America.
Chicago rap artist Noname first touted her adoration for Morrison in her 2015 Fader interview, citing the Nobel Prize championess as inspiration for her own lyricism.
“I probably got most of my inspiration from writers,” she said. “I’m a big Toni Morrison fan, so a lot of my writing is inspired by her writing, as well as Nina Simone.”
As expected from an artist raised by parents deeply endorsed in the world of literature (her father was a book distributor when he met her mother, who owned a bookstore for 20 years), Noname admittedly hated reading when she was a child. She admits to being a slow reader who struggled through books. Unexpectedly, she developed a heart for words in her teenage years when she finally enjoyed reading. She’s pointed to The Bluest Eye as a “pivotal” and even mind-blowing moment that ultimately shifted her attitude toward literature.
At 27-years-old, she’s now the proud launcher of a digital book club where she’ll update a list of monthly reads and spark a revolution for Black book lovers. The new venture also intends to keep the legacy of her mom’s bookstore alive, which, before closing its doors in 2008, hosted celebrity book signings as well.
Connecticut poet and raptress Akua Naru’s tribute song to the novelist is quite self-explanatory. Released in 2015 on her The Miner’s Canary album, the jazzy live instrumentation and ingenious wordplay is not only the most obvious indicator of her love for Morrison outside of the song’s title, but proves Naru as a devoted student of her tutelage.
(Photo: Brad Barket/Getty Images)