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Posted June 15, 2011
VIBE SALUTES HIP-HOP FOREMOTHER CAMILLE YARBROUGHCamille Yarbrough is hip-hop’s original triple threat. Without her, there may not have been an MC Lyte, Queen Latifah or even Nicki Minaj. Yarbrough, affectionately and appropriately known as “Nana” Camille, is an award-winning performance artist, author and cultural activist. With a career that spans over fifty years she continues to inspire audiences today via her local, long running television show, Ancestor House, via her popular musical CD (also entitled Ancestor House), and via performances and lectures around the world, about poetry, music, Black art and culture.
Her legendary book, Cornrows, which teaches little girls to love their hair, was line dropped in Talib Kweli’s “Black Girl Pain;” her iconic song, “Praise You,” was sampled by Fatboy Slim and former VIBE magazine writer and activist Kevin Powell, regarded her iconic 1975 debut album,Iron Pot Cooker, as the precursor to Lauryn Hill’s best-seller The Mis-Education of Lauryn Hill.
Nana Camille has also served as an educator at City College of New York, taught African dance, co-starred in Lorraine Hansberry’s To Be Young, Gifted, and Black, as well as James Weldon Johnson’s God’s Trombones and Kwamina and appeared in various network specials, soap operas, and the original movie Shaft. In other words, she’s a legend. Read and learn. ⎯Starrene Rhett
You’ve talked about how the younger generation have picked up what we know as hip-hop from people like yourself, Gil Scott-Heron and The Last Poets. It has definitely evolved and changed over the years, so how do you feel about where it is right now?
When I first became aware of these young people creating this form called hip-hop I was so happy so pleased because it was just a tradition. But I think because of the struggle that our people have been through today, we look on television and we see so many of us there doing a variety of things. We go to the movies and we see many movies by black producers, that’s great. It didn’t used to be that way. So, when hip-hop was coming into being I was pleased to see that we would have another medium from which to tell our story, but we have been in the Civil Rights movement. We have changed this country and I don’t think many people have acknowledged that the greatness of people of African ancestry is our struggle. I don’t think people see how we made it better for everybody. We opened doors and took down “don’t come in signs,” “no black” signs, we forced them down, and so we affected (offended) some people in doing that. There are some people right now in the political world talking about, “We want our country back.” That means that they want the negative stuff back again and I think some of them decided to take power over hip-hop because hip-hop was so strong and so pervasive and positive. I think they wanted it not to be so powerful and so they introduce things into it like pornography.
There was a VH1 episode where on one of their programs⎯somebody went to directors in the porno world and brought them over to direct hip-hop videos, and then came the tits and ass thing, so that our story wasn’t told as much in hip-hop as it was in music in the 70’s and during the movement, when we had music that was inspiring all of us, not just the young, but all of us. So right now, I am not too pleased about it, I am glad that we have Common. He’s been under attack for saying something that was true. They don’t want that to become popular again, there are not many others who are really doing the kind of music that inspires young people. There is too much of the vulgarity and name calling and demeaning. Years ago we were referring to each others as kings and queens. Now we’re hoes and bitches. I hope⎯I think that it’s changing. I think consciousness is coming back because that’s our spirit, we always bring goodness into the world. So that’s where I am at, I love our young people. We will always do this, they are not the first generation to bring their goodness, enlightenment, or their genius into the world. And if there is anything I can do to be of assistance by my example, then I will do that.
Speaking of rappers, Common and Talib Kweli definitely embrace you. How do you feel about that?
It is rewarding, it is pleasing, but I know and they know probably, it is very difficult because those who do not want our stories told actually control the media so when I hear Kweli put the name of my song in one of his songs it is like, “Thank You,” I really appreciate it and I know that he is from the land [Africa] because he is trying to bring enlightenment to a world that is going in a different direction. So I always give them praise. I can praise anybody who is standing up and trying, even John Legend who took some of that old music and brought it back up to date and put some of today’s artists in it. He is trying to bring that goodness back, bring that love, soul and family back. So I praise and admire anybody who is doing that.
What are your thoughts about women like Beyonce and Rihanna and their impact on pop culture?
I think that Beyonce has had a great impact on pop culture. I like her. She’s a tremendous performer. I also think that we’ve always had sisters who danced in a sexual way⎯always. Going back further in the culture, we have always used our complete body. We have not been afraid to use our pelvic girdle because that’s part of our culture, that’s part of our life. But it was done in such a way that it had other elements in it. But now I am a little weary of us just being represented as sexual figures. Beyonce has made a lot of money and so has her man.The had a show they produced, Fela, which was an extraordinary show in the depths of its cultural input and expression but that’s not enough. Image is worth a thousand words. Beyonce carries herself well but all around you see the ass and the thighs and the sexuality and that has its place but right now it is too prominent in our lives. It is really hurting us very badly. I think she’s a smart woman but we’re at a time where that part of us is overemphasized rather than our charm, our grace, our spirituality and our sensitivity.
How about Rihanna?
I don’t like Rihanna. I don’t like what she does. To me the sounds are not human sounds. The messages are not really inspirational. When I say inspirational, I say things that help you really stay alive and help you understand the world that’s around you.
On that note, what do you think the future is of black music?
The spiritual part of it has shaped up. When we were brought over here, we were not allowed to bring instruments. We were stripped of all clothing, jewelry and culture. And with nothing, we created the greatest music this world has known. Our music, our spirituals, helped to liberate, helped to free us. Not only did we use it to encourage each other, to soothe the pain, to heal the wounds, but it was taken by others who imitated it until we were free, after the civil war. That’s when most any of us were allowed to go on the stage for the first time. In the church, some of our spiritual power survived and was evident there. There are those who were raised singing. In sound, in pitch, in rhythm, if you hear certain sounds, they resonate in the body. Some of them will bring you peace, some of them will disturb you, so you have to choose. The antiquity of our people allows them to develop over those centuries, wisdom relating to the kind of music they play. We kept that, all during slavery. We kept that in the blues and the blues used to be story telling. It used to be what hip-hop started out doing. Today it’s ‘what are the police doing to us. Then it was, what was the KKK and what were the police doing to us. So, the message was there in the 60s. And the sounds were there. The sounds have been almost eliminated now. The music is mostly techno. And a lot of our young people did not come through the church. They did not get the sound of the music, so they’re left out there trying to find something of their own. So my belief, though, is that that ancient spirit that came with us from the motherland is never going to leave us. And we are then going to create music that supports our community. Not just the young people, not just the old people, but our whole community. That will happen. But it’s not going to happen on its own. We have to really begin to support artists who do positive work, who use pitch and sound and rhymes that are nourishing to our hearts, to our body, to our minds. And that’s what music does. It’s spirit sound, spirit words, spirit pictures. I’m on my last leg, I’ve been out here for quite a while and my poor knees are about to give out. But my spirit is not going to give out. As long as I’m here, I’m going to try to share with our people, and in particular, our young people, the power and the beauty of our culture.
“Poetess-soul singer Camille Yarbrough has stylish traces of Nina Simone and Gil Scot Heron.
Her songs are all thought provoking and the instrumental work of aids and abets.”
The Washington Post
“Yarbrough bares her soul in The Iron Pot Cooker and makes no attempt
to give the ghetto mass-audience appeal.”
“…a hip hop foremother, Yarbrough testifies…in the spirit of Gil Scott-Heron and the Last Poets”
Our Time Press
“Her shoulders…are the strong supports for such artists as Lauryn Hill, Erykah Badu and others. Although exceedingly complimentary, the appellations, comparisons and string of adjectives miss by a mile the monument that is Camille Yarbrough. Miss Yarbrough is beyond category.
To Be Young Gifted and Black
“Camille Yarbrough deserves special praise for her portrayal of the mind and soul of Miss Hansberry. The accomplished actress presented a total characterization of a rare human being”
“Her acting was superb…enveloping and stimulating, reflecting the strong soul of Black people…real, starkly real with guts.”
“A Superb Performer”
“She is a joy to watch”
“The cast is virtually flawless. Special mention should be made of Camille Yarbrough. Her interpretation of the young Miss Hansberry as a new college student suddenly aware of the black African culture is superbly done. I can recall this scene as played by Diana Sands in the movie “A Raisin in the Sun” and found Miss Yarbrough’s version to be superb.”
“Her acting was just as fine as the writing.”
“The acting is generally first-rate and particularly noteworthy is Camille Yarbrough, who consistently represents Miss Hansberry.”
Black Spirits Moving: A Love Letter
Pennsylvania State University
Sometimes we mistake sophistication for wisdom calculated selflessneess for compassion, and pity or tolerance for love. On Wednesday, April 24, Schwab Auditorium held real wisdom, compassion and love: Camille Yarbrough and her “Tales and Tunes of an African American Griot”.
Quarterly Black Review of Books:
“Yarbrough gives voice to …ghetto archetypes in all their twisted pathologies.
She is so accurate that there is no question this is a sharp-eyed witness who is telling it like
it is rather than a youthful entertainer Masking his hustle for dead presidents.”
Translation of Swedish Review:
Billie Holliday in the 30′s and
40′s could communicate this message. Camille Yarbrough makes us
understand the music and language of the 70′s and it is a
Trumpets of the Lord
The narratives are less than exciting but the relationship of Adam and Eve is invested with a bit of warm humor and a lot of charm by serious minded female preacher Camille Yarbrough.
But it remains for Miss Yarbrough to stir the soul to the depths. Seated downstage, close to her breathless listeners, she lives the agony, pity and terror of “Crucifixion.” It is a miracle of mystery made manifest. The company serves notice that God is alive, and nowhere more than in Miss Yarbrough’s recital of His death.
Sobriety is sketched in warm, full tones as when Camille Yarbrough mourn Christ’s crucifixion, and one cannot help but be touched by her emotional ferver or moved by her tears.
Miss Yarbrough’s sermons, whether delivered humorously of completely somber, were always of the highest quality.
Kevin Powell (poet/author/activist)
“Everything we love Lauryn for – her independence, her womanism, her daring voice, her willingness to tackle unpopular topics, her effortless shift from rap to song, and back again, and her limitless musical explorations – Camille Yarbrough did a generation ago. Who told her she could be a renaissance woman? She empowered herself.
Buffalo Evening News – Weekend Pause (Jan. 31, 1976)
“Camille Yarbrough is one of those rare talents who rips straight to the heart with her music. Her first – and to my knowledge only – album was reviewed in this column earlier. Unfortunately, through a grievous oversight, I neglected to choose The Iron Pot Cooker as one of the finer albums of 1975.
I know correct that state of affairs, urging you to check into the album if you want to hear some excellent poetry and song in searing style. You’ll be wiser for the experience. The album is a heavy black experience piece. It’s not for the feint of heart or for those who’d like to drift through life with rose-colored shades over their eyes.
And I throw out a challenge to all music programmers of appropriate local radio stations: show some courage…give the public a chance to hear this sister do her thing.
Tamika and the Wisdom Rings
by Edward Tait
Nana Camille Yarbrough is an ambassador for culture, an advocate for familyhood, and an artist of truth. In fact, it is as if she has cultivated her name Camille as an acronoym for Cultural Activism Manifesting Into a Legacy of Liberation and Education. With this fertile and functional foundation, she perpetually plants the seeds of sagacity in the soil of storytelling scholarship. Watered with words of wisdom the seeds sprout into crops of consciousness as readers are rewarded by reaping her holistic harvest.
The children’s book, Tamika and the Wisdom Rings by Nana Camille Yarbrough, is a masterpiece of meticulous insight and meaningful instruction that simultaneously serves as a mirror of children and a magnifying glass for adults. Chapter by chapter, the challenges of childhood are charted with seamless sequences and seasoned skill. While children are presented as pawns of the environment and victims of each other, adults are depicted as disciples of denial. The book deftly delineates how, through fear and forfeiture, adults have abdicated the gegality and responsibility of their role and have allowed the children to be abandoned to an age of anarchy. In lucid language, Nana Yarbrough presents Tamika as an affirmation of Afrikan tradition assaulted by the times – juxatposed and jarred between family values and foreign vicissitudes.
Tamika is, furthermore, a child of wonder – representing the world of wonder within all children. Wondering is, intrinsically, the inspiration of inquiry and the inquiry of inspiration. It is not only the bridge from ignorance to information, but also the beacon from information to enlightenment. Drugs destroy the world of wonder in children giving artificial answers and superficial solutions. Addicts are the ambassadors of arrested development. Drugs evict them from the world of wonder and entrench them in a wasteland of weakness and wickedness. When their wasteland of wickedness encroaches upon Tamika’s world of wonder, a price is paid with her father’s fatality. Tamika internalizes her wondering until it becomes her will and then externalizes her will until it becomes her way.
But Tamika had some help. A plethora of plaudits must go to Tamika’s parents. Part of a parent’s purpose is to provide protection for their progeny. But a parent’s protection is not enough; the proverbial village must protect. However, Tamika’s village has been vanquished and replaced by a concentration camp camouflaged as a community. The wisdom rings offer protection by providing Tamika with touchstones of truth and transcendence. The rings represent reference points of reality; they arm and advise Tamika with three hundred sixty degrees of decision-making skills and direction. They are, consequently, her collective compass of clarity. Without wisdom, children are confused and cannot crossover into the age of adulthood. It is through the tenacious teachings of parents that children receive the gift of guidance. Tamika’s parents prepared her by supplying her with wisdom rings. Because Tamika revered her parents, she respected the rings. In a sadistic society, most children are clueless because they are “ringless.” Either they reject the rings that the parents provide or the parents fail to provide the rings. Tamika activated the worth of the wisdom rings through her acceptance of them.
Moreover, because she had been socialized into self-awareness through the pragmatic pedagogy of her parents, Tamika had a formidable family foundation that connected her to the cornerstone of culture. This foundation made itself manifest in the membership of the Sweet Fruit of the African Family Tree culture club in which the mantra of the group became her motto of guidance until she was ready and willing to receive the wisdom rings. When children chant that they are sweet fruit from an old seed, a deep root, and a strong branch, they are fortified; sweet fruit as opposed to spoiled fruit; sweet fruit as opposed to sour fruit; blessed fruit as opposed to bitter fruit; fresh fruit as opposed to rancid and rotten fruit; fruit from an old seed as opposed to seedless fruit or genetically altered fruit; sweet fruit from a deep root as opposed to plastic fruit; sweet fruit on a strong branch as opposed to dying fruit on a potted plant. Ultimately, children have the choice and challenge of either being sweet fruit harvested from the Afrikan family tree or becoming strange fruit hanging from the Amerikkkan foreign tree. Tamika’s mantra initiated her into a harvest of history and heritage; her wisdom rings insulated her against a community of crime and compromise.
Nana Camille Yarbrough’s Tamika and the Wisdom Rings is a compelling coming-of-age compendium of culture. It is tantamount to a timely textbook on the trials and tribulations of children in the inner-city who find themselves fighting against enveloping forces of evil. For children in such a stifling and suffocating setting, defeat is often determined to be the synonym of destiny. Only with weapons of wisdom can one win against what appears to be the overwhelming odds of omnipresent opposition. Not only should this masterpiece be required reading both the mantra should be a required ritual. With such a reading and ritual regimen, children have the same chance as Tamika to triumphantly traverse toxic terrain.
Tamika and the Wisdom Rings is a holistic handbook for the hood and home that returns the neighbor to hood and the nucleus to home. It is a compact cultural curriculum that closes the glaring gap between parents and progeny. As such, it is family friendly and family functional. In addition to this breakthrough book being applauded by assemblies of appreciative adults, the author has been adopted by aggregates of admiring adolescents.
Finally, Tamika and the Wisdom Rings is a testament which warns that without wisdom, children are sacrificed as chattel slaves in a charlatan society. By being fashioned into folly and formulized into fatality, the children are defenseless and doomed. Nana Camille Yarbrough has comprehensively penned a panacea that provides armor and affirmation to make worlds respond – with wisdom rings.
Gwen Akua Gilyard
Sojourner Truth Adolescent Rites Society
“Every group leader should share with their youngsters the rich experience of Tamika’s rites of passage–for in essence, the book is about the reality of life for young girls in our communities today. In Tamika’s story, wholesome cultural heritage struggles to subsist in the midst of drugs and violence.”
“Every sensitive, caring single mother will empathize with the tragedy and struggles of Tamika’s mother. Hopefully, they will be guided to use her wisdom and strength in relating to, caring for and teaching their own children.”
Cornrows Book Reviews
Winner of the Coretta Scott King Book Award
“Camille Yarbrough’s stirring, poetic tale provides insight into this distinctive facet of African style, and Carole Byard’s illustrations have brought the words to life in magnificent fashion.”
“This book is a gem.”
Shimmershine Queens Book Reviews
Publishers Weekly . Booklist . Parent’s Choice
The Shimmershine Queens
by Camille Yarbrough
“A remarkable story about self-esteem and achievement”
Angie, a 10 year old inner-city kid, discovers “Shimmershine”-the feeling you get when you believe in yourself and do your very best. “A brave book.”
Parent’s Choice – January 1990
c/o G.P. Putnam’s Sons
200 Madison Ave., 16th Fl.
New York, NY 10016
Dear Ms. Yarbrough:
On behalf of the board I am pleased and honored to tell you that the THE SHIMMERSHINE QUEENS has won a Parents Choice Award in Story. Your work is a fine contribution to the lives of children.
Diana Huss Green
Parent’s Choice Foundation.
Oxford Companion to African American Literature
Yarbrough, Camille (b. 1938), actress, composer, singer, teacher, and writer. Children tease and taunt each other wherever they gather. Some children’s teasing is humorous. Occasionally, the taunting leads to hurt, anger, and confusion. Epithets such as “nappy headed,” “ole black thing,” and “African monkey” are a few of the insults that sting many African American children. Camille Yarbrough explores these taunts and the circumstances and feelings that engender them. Yarbrough’s books illuminate intragroup disharmony and offer possible solutions for resolving this complex issue.
Yarbrough appeared on the children’s book scene in 1979, with the publication of a picture book, Cornrows (1979). A multifaceted artist who danced with Katherine Dunham and taught Dunham’s technique, she has worked with children in various artistic programs performed in plays, and written and recorded music. During the 1980s she served as Professor of African Dance and Diaspora in the African Studies Department of New York’s City College.
Children’s literature depicting African Americans entered a new phase in the late 1960s and 1970s. A body of literature that reflected African American life and cultures in an authentic manner appeared and was labeled “culturally conscious” by scholar Rudine Sims Bishop. Camille Yarbrough’s children’s books, Cornrows and The Shimmershine Queens (1989), a novel, fit squarely within the culturally conscious category of children’s and young adult literature. Yarbrough attempts to inform readers about the African and African American pasts and their current connections to these ongoing histories.
The Little Tree Growin’ in the Shade
ISBN 0-399-21204-2 18.95
Illustrated by Tyrone Geter. With the skill of a weaver, Yarbrough has woven the variegated threads of African-american history into a memorable story for young readers that speaks of the rich culture of the Africans brought in captivity to America. It tells of a people who “refused to die small,” symbolized by the shade covered small tree that grew against all odds. Then there is the story of the negro spirituals, the sounds of praise and solace and clevery disguised coded messages of plans from escape – the music form academically called the root of rhythm and blues. The narration further describes the unbroken thread of civil rights leaders across the years and their tireless quest for freedom. Selecting a warm family gathering at a concert in the parks as the background, Yarbrough’s informative text is filled with a rhythmic use of language – poetic, alliterative, onomatopoeic – that begs to be read aloud. Geter’s black-and-white sketches capture the many moods of the text-celebration, religious fervor, and family love.
~ Henrietta M. Smith