The idea of weaving the street-soul poetry of Nikki Giovanni with traditional black gospel was out-the-box in 1971. Half a decade later, in this 50th-anniversary edition, it remains a marvelous, often powerful combination.
Giovanni rose to national prominence during the Black Arts Movement of the late '60s, when poets like Sonia Sanchez, Haki Madhubuti (then known as Don L. Lee), Etheridge Knight and others extended the free-flowing blues aesthetic of Langston Hughes. As he had done during the Harlem Renaissance, Giovanni and her contemporaries infused their poetry with the rhythms and uncompromising language of the street. Their poems, especially in the early days, were often flaming arrows directed toward oppressive political systems.
By 1971, Giovanni had published three books of poems, including her 1968 best-seller, Black Judgment. Her national speaking engagements were packed. At age 28, she had become one of the most visible Black literary figures of her generation.
The move to record an album seemed like a logical one. But she sidestepped the trend of reciting her work over conga drums or backed by a jazz trio. Instead, she enlisted the help of the New York Community Choir under the direction of Benny Diggs. The result, Truth Is On Its Way, released by Right On Records, became a surprise hit.
This was during the days when urban DJs were adventurous, especially in New York, where the album received generous airplay. The soaring choir, the gurgling organ and the muscular piano chords bolster the searing, plain-spoken beauty of Giovanni's poetry.
Perhaps the album's best-known cut is "Ego-Tripping," featuring Giovanni's bell-clear voice backed by a syncopated beat, handclaps and joyful noises from the choir. The poem, with lines such as "I'm so hip/even my errors are correct," pulls from The Dozens and presages the braggadocio of hip-hop.
"Poem for Aretha" is another moving selection. As the choir sings "Nobody Knows the Trouble I've Seen," Giovanni explores the pitfalls and loneliness of fame: "Nobody mentions how it feels/To become a freak because you have talent."
The year after Truth Is On Its Way hit the streets, Aretha Franklin released her landmark return to church, 1972's Amazing Grace. Beyond being a once-in-a-lifetime singer, Aretha, like Giovanni, is a soul poet. (Check her lyrics to "Spirit In the Dark," "Without the One You Love" or "One Way Ticket" for proof of that.) It's interesting that during this period these two women, stars in the secular realm with deep roots in the Black church, made powerful artistic statements braiding the traditional with the progressive. It was all in the pursuit of remembering and lifting The Spirit, and both albums crackle with a tambourine-shaking, transcendent energy.
Truth Is On Its Way peaked at No. 15 on the R&B charts and sold gold. Giovanni would release other albums during the '70s. Her 1975 effort, the excellent The Way I Feel, featured brilliantly funky arrangements by the legendary Arif Mardin, one of Aretha's producers.
But Truth Is On Its Way remains Giovanni's musical masterpiece.