One of Nikki Giovanni’s earliest poems blends the roots of American history with the violence and racism of the late ‘60s. The proclamation looks startling on paper; the country — trying with all its might to distance itself from its origins — was founded on principles that didn’t prioritize Black people. When recited against the delicate hum-and-clap of the New York Community Choir, the message rings louder. The gospel here is traditional Baptist, the kind typically reserved for humid Southern spaces with weathered, rickety church pews. It’s the feeling of Blackness in all its rapture and celebration. The voice here is Giovanni’s, the transcendent writer and orator whose prose can be a balm and a splash of cold water to the face, a masterful blend of past and present unfurling through razor-sharp wit. The song, “Great Pax Whitey,” opens Giovanni’s 1971 debut album, Truth Is On Its Way, a collaborative project with the choir, as a tone-setter for the topics that follow.
Throughout the LP, on which Giovanni recites poetry from her first two books, she unpacks a litany of topics — including the burdens of womanhood and the creative peril of R&B queen Aretha Franklin — over gospel standards like “Peace Be Still,” “Amazing Grace” and “This Little Light of Mine.” Across Truth, both the choir and poet are given ample space in the spotlight. In the case of “Great Pax Whitey,” the choir’s thunderous praise shouts and rousing solo by Isaac Douglas strengthens Giovanni’s already strong narrative. It’s as if they’re opening the gates for her, the sound of ardent truth ascending.
If there is a single on the album, it’s “Ego Tripping,” the concluding Side One cut full of good-natured trash talking. But where the generation after her would use this sort of lyrical stunting to form the tenets of rap music, here, against looping drums, tambourines and vocal prodding, it’s a fierce proclamation of Black womanhood in all its infinite prowess. “I sat on the throne drinking nectar with Allah,” she proclaims one moment. “I am so hip, even my errors are correct,” she says the next. Therein lies the power of this album and Giovanni overall: She’s a confident voice, a vessel of divine fearlessness. It’s one thing to be that brave today, but to be so as a Black woman in the early ‘70s — in the shadow of the Civil Rights Movement and with war raging out of control — is trailblazing at its core. The impact is still being felt. “Nikki Giovanni is a poet not shutting anyone out but shutting everything down and that’s something I can get behind,” wrote the poet Moor Mother for the reissued album’s liner notes. “You can feel her passion for humanity … [she] has the power to move the word forward in the hope that we can achieve the creative futures we want.”
Giovanni would become a pillar in creative writing; music was but a small piece of the puzzle. Her poetry collections, essays and children’s books traverse the vast spectrum of Blackness, and are required readings for historians, aspiring scribes and bibliophiles everywhere. And that's not to negate her other musical projects: Like a Ripple on a Pond blended poetry and gospel once more, and The Way I Feel dabbled in funk and soul with great results. But on Truth Is On Its Way, with Giovanni’s star just beginning to brighten, she delivered a masterpiece that’s only gotten better over time. A poetic gospel album of the highest order, it’s a staggering mix of honesty and righteousness, a crowning achievement in any era.