Maya Angelou’s Son, Grandson Fight Over Poet’s Legacy

OAKLAND, Calif. (CN) – The grandson of Maya Angelou is trying to wrest control of the late poet’s intellectual property from his father and has bankrupted a company the two set up to manage her legacy, the father claims in a state court lawsuit filed Monday.

Guy Bailey Johnson, Angelou’s son, accused Angelou’s grandson Colin Ashanti Murphy-Johnson in Alameda County Superior Court of attempting to cut him out of a 75 percent stake in the celebrated poet’s intellectual property, including copyrights to her works. Johnson claims his son manipulated him into giving up control of Caged Bird Legacy, a company they created to manage Angelou’s intellectual property, and diverted income from Caged Bird by setting up his own company to manage the intellectual property without his father’s consent.

Moreover, Johnson says, his son “raided” Caged Bird’s coffers to fund his “extravagant” lifestyle.

Murphy-Johnson has a 25 percent stake in Angelou’s intellectual property, gifted to him by Angelou upon her death in 2014, according to the complaint.

“Colin Johnson abused his father by foisting upon him a series of transactions to gain an upper hand and ultimately sole control over his father’s entitlements to Dr. Angelou’s intellectual property,” the complaint states. “Over time, Colin Johnson has excluded his father from any meaningful participation in Caged Bird and has used Caged Bird as a vehicle to fund his own extravagant lifestyle.”

According to the father, Murphy-Johnson spends “tens of thousands” of dollars of Caged Bird’s money every month, has borrowed $150,000 from the company and has had it pay him $300,000. The company can no longer pay its bills, Johnson says.

During contract negotiations in June between Caged Bird and a third party, in which the third party required Johnson’s participation, Murphy-Johnson sent his father threatening text messages stating that he was “prepared to finish [his father] off,” Johnson claims. The son also told his father he would “feel the pain of losing money and all he has,” and that if he didn’t sign the contract, he would declare “war” against his father, according to the complaint.

Alameda County Superior Court issued an elder abuse restraining order against Murphy-Johnson on Oct. 30, according to the complaint.

Johnson’s claims against his son include breach of contract, breach of fiduciary duty, involuntary dissolution of Caged Bird Legacy and elder financial abuse.

He seeks preliminary and permanent injunctions barring Murphy-Johnson from serving as manager of Caged Bird Legacy or accessing Caged Bird’s bank accounts, compensatory and punitive damages, and for restitution or disgorgement.

A poet and memoirist, Angelou’s work centered around the themes of racism and identity. She is best known for her 1969 autobiography “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,” and her book of poetry, “Just Give Me a Cool Drink of Water ‘fore I Diiie,” was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize.

She was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2011.

David Given of Phillips Erlewine Given & Carlin in San Francisco represents Johnson. He could not immediately be reached for comment Monday evening.


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