Vibe Magazine

Posted June 15, 2011



Camille 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.