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.