LaGrange educator channels Maya Angelou through TikToks

Emmanuel Reddish, an administrator in LaGrange, has garnered a following on TikTok with his impersonations of Maya Angelou. Video by Ben Gray and Ryon Horne

When Troup County administrator Emmanuel Reddish switched his major to English in college, the poetry of Maya Angelou resonated with him in a way that no other works had done. It was the honesty and vulnerability with which she wrote about her life experiences that struck a chord. Her words felt like magic.

Cooped up during the pandemic, Reddish began uploading impressions of Angelou reading modern song lyrics onto TikTok. There was Snoop Dogg’s “Gin and Juice,” as read by Angelou. Tupac’s “Dear Mama,” as read by Angelou. TLC’s “No Scrubs,” as read by Angelou.

It was a casual thing until a friend mentioned that his reading of Rihanna’s “Take A Bow” received over 4,000 views, a figure that has since increased to 143,000.

Reddish realized that he could put his following to good use: Restore interest into Angelou’s work for a younger generation of students, many of whom are not exposed to her poetry in school.

And it’s working. Since posting his first videos in February, students have giddily approached Reddish to tell him that they’ve read “Caged Bird” or Googled Angelou’s name to learn more about her work. Each time this happens, a feeling of pride washes over him.

“It’s overwhelming joy to see the people that have connected from a funny thing that started around my family and friends and now it’s starting to spread,” said Reddish, 36.

Finding it easy to imitate her distinct tone and cadence, Reddish started doing impressions of Angelou for friends and family around 10 years ago. He never thought of recording himself until he began using the TikTok app during the pandemic — and once you start, you become addicted, he said.

TikTok was the ideal platform to upload the videos, said Reddish, who previously worked as an English teacher for 12 years. It’s not only new and in vogue, but the largest chunk of its user base is between the ages of 10 and 19. Reddish’s videos could simultaneously reach teenagers who have never heard of Angelou and adults familiar with her work.

With the TikTok user base exploding during the pandemic, educators are now viewing the video creation and sharing app as a tool to engage students inside and outside of the classroom. There’s even a “#teacherlife” hashtag on TikTok, where creators share tips about online learning tools, give tours of their classroom spaces or poke fun at some of their students.

Reddish’s videos are helping students make connections between the works they’re studying in class and the content they’d consume on their own terms, said Keren Parks, a close friend and an English language arts teacher at Callaway Middle School where Reddish works. It’s putting a modern spin on the traditional curriculum and making students feel excited to learn.

“He has a heart for education and for helping students make connections with what is being taught,” Parks said. “I know my students are into TikTok. It’s taking something they’re currently interested in and relating it to where we need to be educationally. It lets you know what you need to do to be the attention grabber.”

Reddish carefully chooses the song lyrics he reads in each video. He focuses on selecting the most positive and uplifting excerpts from songs to highlight a new meaning or message within the lyrics. It’s not about shock value. It’s viewing song lyrics as a form of poetry. If read in a dramatized setting, he said, songs like “Knuck If You Buck” by Crime Mob can take on a new life.

He avoids lyrics with profanity and sexual themes because he knows Angelou wouldn’t incorporate these elements into her own writing. He bends the rules sometimes to satisfy user requests — hence readings of “Baby Got Back” by Sir Mix-A-Lot and “Act Up” by City Girls.

Reddish also records serious readings of her poetry, but users seem to gravitate more towards his song lyrics.

The feedback he’s received from colleagues, students and users from around the country has been overwhelming, Reddish said. He’s become a bit of a micro-celebrity at their school, Parks said.

Reddish’s end goal is to reach the family of Angelou, who died in 2014.

“I hope they take it as an honor, because my goal is to honor her and to push to make a difference in other peoples’ lives,” he said.