K’Valentine cites Maya Angelou as key ‘Reason’ for her music career

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K’Valentine | SHAUN ANDRU

It’s safe to surmise that there aren’t too many emergent rappers who can count a personal meeting with the legendary Maya Angelou as being among their seminal influences. But homegrown hip-hop artist K’Valentine, who grew up “all over the South Side and the south suburbs,” as she puts it, is a member of that (presumably select) group.

TALIB KWELI With: K’Valentine When: 7 and 10 p.m. Jan. 6 Where: City Winery Chicago, 1200 W. Randolph Tickets: Sold out (wait list available on venue website) Info: www.citywinery.com

K’Valentine next performs locally Jan. 6 at City Winery Chicago, billed alongside headliner Talib Kweli, a significant mentor of hers. She’ll be performing songs from her inaugural album, “Here for a Reason,” which Kweli’s own independent label, Javotti Media, released last April. The seasoned New York rapper and social-justice warrior has helped shape her career for several years, and lauded K’Valentine’s skills in a 2015 interview with this writer, stating, “She’s just an excellent rapper, regardless of subject matter, [but] the music with a message is what’s gonna give her longevity.”

Long before K’Valentine had had any musical aspirations, however, she’d been writing poems. As a high-school freshman, she finessed her own meeting with Maya Angelou, talking her way backstage after an appearance by the world-renowned poet, author, dramatist, actor, educator, filmmaker, historian and Civil Rights activist.

“My hope,” K’Valentine related in a recent phone call, “was to read her my poetry and get her feedback.

“And I didn’t get that,” she laughed, while remembering that, in her “naive excitement,” she’d initially failed to address the multiple-Ph.D. honoree as “doctor,” and was “lightly chastised” for it. But as K’Valentine tells it, her undeterred teenage self pressed on. “I continued, ‘Dr. Maya Angelou, can I please – I’m a poet, and I would love to read you my poetry and be critiqued by you. That’s all I want.’ And she looked me in my eye and said no. I was shocked, but it wasn’t enough to keep me from asking her, why not?

“And then she broke it down. She turned and, like, looked around the room – we were in a small room with a lot of things going on simultaneously. A photo shoot, an autograph line, many conversations at once; it was very loud. ‘You wouldn’t be getting my full attention,’ Dr. Angelou said. ‘If you read your poetry now, you wouldn’t be showing any respect for yourself, or me, or your art.’.

“I’d never heard anyone put it that way,” K’Valentine mused, remarking, “I’ve still got the business card Dr. Angelou had her assistant give me.” And the eminent poet’s parting pair of words have reverberated for her ever since: “She told me to keep going. That’s what she said – ‘Keep going.’”

While K’Valentine said she’d long been a devotee of hip-hop, enraptured by a cross-section of the genre’s leading lights – Jay-Z, Eminem, Nas, Lauryn Hill, Tupac and, more recently, Kendrick Lamar and Drake – she was content with listening. “I didn’t think I could be a hip-hop artist [myself] – I was more comfortable with poetry,” she recalled. “But one day I was just, ‘Rap is nothing but rhythm and poetry. You know what? I’m gonna try it.’” She proceeded to dive right in, recording a response to “I’m Single,” a (what else) single by one more of her favorite formative-years rappers – irrepressible superstar Lil Wayne.

Her particular catalyst had been the oeuvre of Drake, rap’s serial chart-topper from Toronto. “It was Drake,” K’Valentine said, “who made me feel like I could actually become a hip-hop artist. He was the first one who I’d noticed was really good at rapping from a woman’s perspective [as on] practically his entire ‘Thank Me Later’ album. Not to take anything away from his masculinity, but Drake said things that [made me think], ‘Man, I’ve felt that way before; I’ve thought that way before.’”

K’Valentine’s own incisive perspective suffuses “Here for a Reason,” which features guest appearances from veteran Chicago MC Twista (another hip-hop hero), Motown recording artist BJ the Chicago Kid, resilient singer-songwriter Tweet, and rapper Styles P.

There’s a sobering story, she noted, behind the title of this impressively accomplished-yet-raw, multifaceted album debut. “Here for a Reason” refers to a near-fatal 2015 auto wreck, when her car was rear-ended at full speed by a drunk driver.

“Though I was dealing with PTSD, depression and heartbreak,” K’Valentine told her Instagram followers after recovery, “I was grateful to still have my life.”

Moira McCormick is a local freelance writer.

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