Photo Graphic: Evanka Willamson
From Maya Angelou To "Shameika": The Importance Of Two Black Women in Fiona Apple's Work
“Shameika,” a song based on a candid comment from a Black classmate, is one of the standout tracks on Fiona Apple's newest album, but this isn't the first time a Black woman has played a prominent role in inspiring Apple's work.
Fiona Apple’s recently-released Fetch The Bolt Cutters has earned the widespread praise and acclaim that the musician has always deserved. One of the standout tracks on the remarkable album — her first in eight years — is “Shameika,” a song that boasts a triumphant chorus based on a candid comment a Black classmate said to her in middle school: “Shameika said I had potential.” The celebratory anthem has, for the most part, been well-received by a sect of Black Twitter, sparking commentary in the form of memes, realizations, and other strong reactions, and longtime Black fans that have always resonated with Fiona's work have felt a little more seen through this inclusion.
But Shameika is not the first Black woman that has found herself showing up as an inspirational touchpoint in Apple’s body of work.
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Throughout her career, Apple has constantly credited the late Maya Angelou as one of her biggest influences. Apple found comfort and courage through Angelou's poetry, which her mother introduced her to as a child. Like Apple, Angelou created art that was bold and unflinching, her writing praised and revered to this day. She was also a survivor of sexual assault.
As an adolescent, Apple "worshipped poet Maya Angelou and kept a book of her words under her pillow." She used to sing her poetry aloud, according to 1997 profiles from The Gainesville Sun and The South Florida Sun-Sentinel. A year prior to those profiles, Apple called Angelou her “sole influence” in a Billboardarticle, and said that the author, who died in 2014, “taught me about the power of words, that there’s a real art to putting the right words together.” The artist also acknowledged Angelou in the album credits for her 1996 debut Tidal.
Knowing how integral Angelou is to Apple’s artistry, it’s unsurprising that the latter quoted the former during her iconic acceptance speech after winning the award for Best New Artist at the 1997 MTV VMAs. Opening the speech with a paraphrase of Angelou’s “Vacationing” essay from her 1997 book Even the Stars Look Lonesome, Apple said:
I didn't prepare a speech and I'm sorry but I'm glad I didn't because I'm not gonna do this like everybody else does it. ‘Cause everybody that I should be thanking — I'm really sorry — but I have to use this time. See, Maya Angelou said that we, as human beings, at our best, can only create opportunities. And I'm gonna use this opportunity the way that I want to use it. So, what I want to say is — um, everybody out there that's watching, everybody that's watching this world? This world is bullshit. And you shouldn’t model your life — wait a second — you shouldn’t model your life about what you think that we think is cool and what we’re wearing and what we’re saying and everything. Go with yourself. Go with yourself.
In that same Sun-Sentinel profile, which followed the infamous incident, Apple spoke about Angelou’s imprint.
Even more than an influence, [Angelou] was just kind of inspirational...She was just very honest...I figured that that's what writing was really all about. There's a lot of [expletive] being written, especially in music now.
In the advent of the internet and platforms like YouTube, archival footage of Apple interviews have surfaced, with some showcasing the singer’s admiration for Angelou’s work and why she was drawn to it.
Photo Credit: Moses Robinson/WireImage
“When I came across Maya Angelou, she was just so visibly proud of herself and so strong and so evolved,” she said during an interview that occurred while she was on the 1997 Lilith Fair concert tour. “And she speaks about the times where she has been humiliated or vulnerable or defeated…That was like ‘Oh, I can be like that too. Just because I started out as a weak little victim in a shrink’s office doesn’t mean I have to finish out that way.”
Somewhere around the time Apple was introduced to Angelou's work, she also met a girl named Shameika — and their brief interaction in a cafeteria would go on to become a definitive moment for the rest of Apple's life.
“I don’t remember why she was talking to me,” Apple said of Shameika while breaking down the song of the same name to Vulture. “I just remember being in the cafeteria, a bunch of girls at one end of the table. I came over to sit with them, and they started laughing at me. So I sat one seat away but still tried to be close to them. Shameika came up, and she was like, ‘Why are you trying to sit with those girls? You have potential.’ That was all she said to me.”
When Apple first wrote the song she wasn't sure if Shameika was real or a figment of her imagination. However, a third-grade teacher that Apple has stayed in touch with over the years confirmed to her that Shameika is real, and passed along a photo of her and an essay she wrote after seeing Apple mention her in a recent New Yorkerprofile
"It’s all about how she got put up to do this thing in church, in the service,” Apple said of the essay. “And everybody was laughing because she was so cute and she messed up words or something. And she was so pissed. She was like, ‘They used me to bring the people in there, to think it was cute. They used me.’ I was like, ‘This little kid realized what the fuck was going on.’”
There’s no telling if Shameika has heard the song or if she even remembers crossing paths with Apple. The musician is reportedly “terrified” of Shameika hearing the track that bears her name, mostly because she fears that she might secretly hate her. Although some Black fans have spoken favorably of “Shameika,” others have criticized Apple for using the woman’s name in the first place, questioning the earnestness and intent of the gesture.
The critique does bring with it a valid question though: Would Shameika be honored to have played such a special role in someone else’s work? Until she is — if ever — identified, we will never know her side of the story. Of course, we would all like to know happened to Shameika after that kismet day and how would she narrate it. She’s not just a character in a story or a muse in a song — she’s a real person leading a life of her own.
Still, there’s no denying Shameika’s comment's impact on Apple, regardless of how in passing their only exchange was. On numerous occasions, she has pointed to the significance of her experience in middle school because it marks the turning point when her relationship with women went sour. Apple recently discussed this extensively in an interview with Vulture, detailing how she was profoundly traumatized by the actions of other girls.
I silenced myself because I was afraid of the other girls saying I wasn’t cool...I didn’t try out fashion or anything like that because the other girls would say I look stupid in it. It was all about what other girls thought of me. And knowing that they didn’t think I was cool at that age made me feel like I was never cool to girls after that. Middle school is where my sense of myself started based on what other people thought of me.
In her adulthood, Apple was able to figure out how to repair the damage from those early encounters that left her internally wounded, and the culmination of that healing process is reflected in Fetch The Bolt Cutters. She shows solidarity to women and the #MeToo movement throughout the album with a powerful message of “not letting men pit us against each other or keep us separate from each other so they can control the message.”
“The music is the manifestation of the process of trying to acknowledge things in order to get over them,” she said in the same Vulture interview. “What angers me about so many people, many of them men, is they will not acknowledge the things they’ve done.”
It’s interesting how, despite having a history of narrating the convoluted experiences of women through her music, Apple struggled to bond with them for so much of her life. But there’s something to be said of Angelou and Shameika: two Black women who Apple was about to find parts of herself through. Though the connection is subtle, the greater impact is undeniable.
Sydney Gore is a writer, editor, and journalist based in NYC. She tells stories about life and the culture that enriches it from music and art to wellness and feelings. She has been published at Billboard, MTV, The FADER, VICE, The Strategist, Vulture, Highsnobiety, Byrdie, Crack Magazine, Broccoli, PAPER, and more. You can find her conducting vibe checks via Twitter at @sydegee.