Talk show host Tavis Smiley is author of the new book My Journey With Maya about his friendship with Maya Angelou. In this video interview, Smiley recounts a conversation he had with the late poet about her involvement in a Tyler Perry “Madea” movie. It wasn’t high art, said Angelou, but it afforded her an opportunity to be in a film where she could speak to a generation of young people that she otherwise might never have reached. Angelou taught Smiley to approach the Art vs. Entertainment dilemma with new eyes. Smiley also touches on the topic of hip-hop and why it’s important not to judge and demonize an entire genre or subculture based on predilections against individuals.
Tavis Smiley: Maya and I had a wonderful relationship but we didn't always agree on everything. And one of the things that we had a conversation about was her being in one of these Tyler Perry Madea movies. And Maya had always stayed on me to be careful about my choices and to make sure that I was doing work in that mattered and that I wouldn't connect myself to projects that didn't deserve my participation for whatever the reason might be. So we had these conversations all the time about valuing, she would never put it this way but about respecting my brand and valuing my brand. And so when I heard and learned that she was going to be in one of these Madea movies we had a chat about it one day. And I wanted to know why she would agree to be in one of these Madea films.
The short end of the story is that she made a distinction for me that I had never really thought about. There is some very beautiful and brilliant powerful high art that we should not deny ourselves and there is some run of the mill entertainment that makes us feel good, that makes us laugh, that brings us joy that we should not deny ourselves.
And she acknowledged that the Tyler Perry movie wasn't high art, it was entertainment, but should I deny myself an opportunity to be in a film where I can speak to a generation of young people and share a poem as a grandmother in this film that might help some of these young people even though it's coming through an entertainment vehicle, in a movie with Madea in it I should not do that? But it became a serious conversation, that again, allowed me to see this critical distinction between what I viewed as art and what I viewed as entertainment.
That conundrum, that dilemma came full circle for me after she passed away when I had to make a decision about whether or not to appear on Dancing with the Stars. And I found myself in this same space, art versus entertainment. Ultimately I decided to do Dancing with the Stars and I could kind of here Maya in the back of my head saying okay you get it now.
I feel sometimes for those in the broader hip-hop community who seem to bear the brunt of every critique and every criticism that people feel comfortable leveling at it. Hip-hop music is like any other form of music or any other form of entertainment. There's some good and there's some bad. And when people paint hip-hop, whether it's Ben Carson or my friend Geraldo Rivera where they paint hip-hop with a broad brush they get themselves in trouble again. It's about respecting people's individuality. And if you want to talk about a particular person or a particular song then let's have that conversation. But you cannot lump everybody into one broad category and demonize the entire art form.