Nikki Giovanni Nominated For Grammy     

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2/5/2004 8:21:15 PM
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Nikki Giovanni Nominated For Grammy
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The Tuesday that Nikki Giovanni rolled into Alex's New Tattoos in Roanoke, jazzed by an epiphany, she embraced the thug she knew she was.

The tattoo parlor's owner, however, met the internationally known poet, writer, activist and educator with skepticism.

"He said, 'You don't look like a thug,' and I said, 'Oh, yeah. I am. As long as they're killing thugs, that's who I want to be,'" she said. "I've always said I'd rather be with the guy running than the guys chasing him."

Convinced, the tattoo parlor owner spent an hour with Giovanni creating the perfect, feminine-edged design for "Thug Life." The black tattoo with curlicue letters on Giovanni's left forearm gives permanent props to rapper Tupac Shakur, who had the words tattooed across his abdomen.

Giovanni got her version in 1996, four days after Shakur was gunned down near the Las Vegas strip in what she described as the silencing of "a great voice of a generation." The impact was akin to the loss of other greats, including Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr., she said.

"I was trying to say that I mourn with the next generation. But the only people who know how I feel are the people who know my work," said the poet who also wrote "All Eyez on U (For 2Pac Shakur)."

"I wanted to make a statement that was bigger."

The wearable epiphany is the only tattoo the 60-year-old sports on a body able to produce commanding poetry textured by the storytelling muse of the blues and the complexities of love and life unscripted.

Come Sunday, the combination found on the double CD version of "The Nikki Giovanni Poetry Collection" could garner the University Distinguished Professor of English at Virginia Tech a spoken-word Grammy. It's Giovanni's first and, she says, her only nomination in a category rounded out by U.S. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, comedian Al Franken, actor Don Cheadle and comedian Bill Maher.

"What I'm trying to do is tell a story and make a point, too. Songwriters do that, especially with the blues," she said of her accessible work.

"I like people and anytime you hear me, you hear someone who loves you."

While Giovanni found the nomination "cool," she doubts she'll prevail given the odds: 1-5 to win vs. 4-5 to lose. More importantly, she doesn't believe in ego tripping. It's dangerous.

"I'm not stuck on that. I know who I am," said Giovanni, who asks people - including her students - to do things.

"I don't tell my dog. I ask my dog," she said. "It's important. It keeps me sane. It keeps me liking the people I encounter. I don't want to use authority" as a weapon.

"The Nikki Giovanni Poetry Collection" spans the nearly 40-year career of Yolande Cornelia "Nikki" Giovanni Jr. that began during the civil rights, black power and black arts movements in the 1960s. Topics range from space travel to Mars, black women's impact on the world's creation and evolution.

"I'm just trying to snap a picture as I see it," with no electronic manipulation, she said. "I'm a Kodak. I'm not a digital."

The swipe at widespread manipulation of photos was punctuated by Giovanni's infectious laugh, which comes easily and often be it during a phone interview from her office at Tech or during the CDs' biting, humor-infused commentaries.

Giovanni, who has recorded her work before, asked that this project be different because she wasn't interested in sitting down and reading her poetry when Caedmon could hire someone to do it better. Coffee and a podium later, the perpetual thinker who's at her best on her feet spoke as if she were in front of an audience.

"That's what makes it fresh," Giovanni said.

These days, teaching helps keep the writer fresh. It's an informal classroom atmosphere filled with give and take and no titles. Giovanni has received 19 honorary doctorates, but all of her students call her Nikki. It's a nickname she received courtesy

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