With a career in the performing arts that has spanned a lifetime the acclaimed singer, actress, poet, activist, television producer and author, Camille Yarbrough is an influential figure still producing. Not long ago, Yarbrough had a re-release of her album The Iron Pot Cooker, made into CD, for a new generation of fans anxious to get some of Yarbrough’s music and wisdom in their souls. Along with release of her new CD came the title from Spin Magazine that Camille Yarbrough is “the foremother of hip hop” and rightfully so, for she’s inspired a generation of poets and musicians through her lyrics and passion as a dramatic and poetic performer. Looking at Camille Yarbrough it’s hard to see the span of her history on her face or feel it in her presence. Time doesn’t show on Camille Yarbrough. She is smooth skin, graceful walk, deliberate speech and feminine grace. You know that she is a legend. You know that her presence is all grace, power, laughter and seriousness. Looking at Camille Yarbrough you think she could have been a dean in academia, she looks that regal. You think that maybe she was one of the characters on an episode of The Cosby Show, you know, one of Claire Huxtable’s friends. She is that well coiffed and classy. Looking at Camille Yarbrough you see your mother, your grandmother, the auntie you never had, you see a teacher and leader, all in one woman. A lover and practitioner of dance, poetry, dramatic theater, the written word as well as song and protest for progress in the African American community, you wonder, “How did this woman get to be so many things and so good at so many things?” And thus, the answer, is her journey, from past to present. Camille Yarbrough, a renaissance woman in her lifetime.
Her Hometown of Chicago
Camille Yarbrough was born in Chicago, Illinois to a father from Alabama and a mother from Chicago. Yarbrough was the seventh child of a family of four girls and four boys. Raised on the Southside of Chicago Yarbrough has found memories of the people and community which surrounded her. “When you walked down the street, the men selling their vegetables, fruits and wares would be singing. They sung to you about what they were selling. It was blues music. All around us was blues music.” She used to hear drums in a park, at fifteen years old; Yarbrough followed the drums and found that the music was coming from a community center. She knew she wanted to be a part of that music. Yarbrough started dancing and studying dance at the community center. At the age of seventeen, frequenting downtown Chicago in an area called The Loop, Camille Yarbrough was taught primitive dance, a modified Katherine Dunham Technique, taught by Jimmy Payne. She also studied Martha Graham Technique, had a dance partner who danced mambo and cha-cha with her, and began to do local dance performances. Yarbrough often went to The Tivoli in Chicago, to see famous performers such as Moms Mabley, Butter Beans and Susie, Coles and Atkins, Billy Ekstein, Ella Fitzgerald, Duke Ellington and Lena Horne. When Camille Yarbrough saw singer, dancer Josephine Baker, for the first time, in the 1950’s during one of Baker’s returns to the U.S., she was stunned; “I had never seen a performer who performed like her. Baker talked about how she witnessed a race riot in East St. Louis when she was a little girl. I was admiring of her and other artists who spoke out. Baker stood up to the racism, she was outspoken, “ says Yarbrough. In the summertime Camille Yarbrough saw her favorite performers in the park and also attended film showings featuring Black actors. The blues of Chicago wouldn’t hold Yarbrough for too long. After getting out of school Yarbrough started working at the Blue Angel, a Calypso club in Chicago. It was at the Blue Angel that Yarbrough met dancers from New York who were in The Katherine Dunham Dance Company. Feeling inspired by meeting the dancers who gave her leads on jobs in dancing in Canada and New York, at the age of twenty, Yarbrough left to train in dance in Canada and New York to see where her talents would lead her. First going to New York, Yarbrough stayed with the family of a Puerto Rican dancer she had met. It was a humbling beginning. Yarbrough was looking for work, striving to pay rent and make sense of the new world she found herself a part of.
After a short time in New York, Yarbrough returned to Chicago, made connection with John Pratt in Chicago, husband of Katherine Dunham and auditioned for Pratt and was accepted into The Company in 1955. The Katherine Dunham Company at the time was based in Los Angeles. “It was with Dunham that I had a high level of Dance training. We were constantly rehearsing. When we didn’t get work in theaters, we danced in clubs,” says Yarbrough. The Company had 35 dancers and all the dances performed were involved with showcasing culture, African culture in Diaspora. Katherine Dunham’s study, her research as an anthropologist in African culture in America, the Caribbean, mainly Haiti, Cuba, South American and Central America was the fuel for much of the dances choreographed by Dunham for the Company. “We did dances from various regions. One of our opening dances was Afrique. A Black woman dressed in Egyptian garb, was carried on stage by muscular Black men. It was bits and pieces of African dance with modern adaptation. Dunham later announced Afrique was being dedicated to the newly freed country of Ghana,” says Yarbrough. As a dance company member Yarbrough and The Company did dances from Brazil, Africa, The Americas, Yarbrough admits, “it was a cultural lesson to perform these dances.” Yarbrough had to get used to the various lifestyles and personalities she would encounter as a dancer traveling the world. Her close family upbringing from Chicago did not completely prepare her for the worldly lifestyle of the artists she worked and socialized with. The Company toured America, Australia, Korea, Japan, Europe, New Zealand and Vietnam, for a total of eighteen months before Yarbrough returned to Chicago to work at The Blue Angel again. Katherine Dunham called again after the company’s hiatus. In 1960 Yarbrough would travel with the company to Paris for a brief tour , shortly after the company broke up and went bankrupt. Yarbrough reveals, ”I learned so much about myself being in the company and about the frailty of human nature and also the strength.” After dancing with Dunham for five years, Yarbrough moved to New York, 1961.
Camille hadn’t been in New York six months before she received her first show. In 1961, her first Broadway show was “Kwamina”, entailed a lot of dancing. It was the story of an African man who was educated in Europe and fell in love with a white woman missionary.
Camille Yarbrough later performed in plays such as: ”God’s Trombone”/Trumpets (1969); “To Be Young, Gifted and Black” (1970) and “The Beast Story” and “Sambo” staged at The Public Theater, a theater which staged avant garde work and the work of playwright’s of color. Yarbrough also had a small part in the original “Shaft” movie, as Shaft’s sister. The tour of Lorraine Hansberry’s “To Be Young, Gifted and Black”, started at the Cherry Lane Theater, afterwards the company did a tour of 56 cities, showcasing the critically acclaimed play in college campuses big theaters around the country. “ It was an amazing tour,” says Yarbrough. During the tour Yarbrough chronicled her days as an actress on tour with To Be Young, in a personal journal. An excerpt of Yarbrough’s journal, titled “Today I Feel Like I am Somebody”, was published in The New York Times, April 18, 1971. In addition to her theater work, from 1972-1973, Camille Yarbrough was also an actress on daytime television soap operas such as “Search for Tomorrow” and “Where the Heart Is.” When asked why she didn’t pursue acting in Hollywood as a means to further her career, Yarbrough answers, “I was reading about Black people, about Paul Robeson, and 250 Slave Rebellions. I listened to Black activists on the radio, my work changed. I found that in this society, you get paid for not having values, you get paid to keep this system going.” Camille, not desiring to keep the system of racism and degradation towards Black people going, on and off the stage and silver screen, set her goals on acting parts that would tell the stories of Black people without the added destructive Black images and perpetual stereotypes. Yarbrough asserts that “Black folk, Black artists used to be concerned with freedom, but now, it (acting) seems to be solely about money.” As a working actress, Yarbrough looked up to writers such as Lorraine Hansberry and Alice Childress, for their ”thinking in terms of the the truth of what Black people were going through.” Sharing what it was like to be a Black actress in the sixties and seventies, and a conscious Black actress at that, Yarbrough adds, ”If you’re going to be an artist, it is a difficult life. I was running from racism, where the people were oppressed, where the police oppressed us. We were discriminated against as actors and performers. Even the shows you did, some directors would direct you gearing towards racial stereotypes. I was always in trouble for resenting those behaviors, so I would be out of work for a little while.” Not only did Camille Yarbrough learn the ins and outs of her craft as a performer, she also learned some ugly things about the business in terms of the people who hired you and could fire you.
”I knew of plagiarism and how people were exploited. During an open call audition this woman director took myself and three other dancers aside, we had all been with Dunham, she had intentions on stealing our Dunham moves, Dunham choreography. She told us that we would get solo dances or an understudy with Ethel Ayler, a known actress here in New York City, if we showed her some Dunham moves. I began to see that these people were stealing everything.” Yarbrough learned how to be in the business but not “of it.” She did as she was told, but only to the extent that she would always have her dignity and integrity as an artist and as a Black artist who cares to preserve the culture of her people, not exploit it.
Camille Yarbrough became ill from an encounter with toxic chemicals. She began connecting spiritually to her ancestors through prayer and changing her diet. After the illness and time spent in the hospital, Camille Yarbrough began writing the poetry and songs, which would become her first album, The Iron Pot Cooker. The album was a culmination of her performance show, Tales and Tunes of an African American Griot, which Yarbrough performed for two years. When asked why she named her album, The Iron Poet Cooker, Yarbrough replies, “Doing research and thinking in terms of using the art for the people, I found there were Nigerian female doctors who would travel, they would have their iron pots, they cooked herbs, healing mixtures in their iron pot. I consider myself a healer, and thus I too, am the iron pot cooker.” Of the songs on The Iron Pot Cooker, “But It Comes Out Mad”, “Dream/Panic/Sonny Boy the Rip-Off Man/Little Sally the Super Sex Star were all original spoken word poems, before being set to music. Camille Yarbrough wrote religiously and kept her focus on creating original works. She no longer had a desire to only do Broadway shows. Yarbrough gave producer, Bob Nemirov, Lorraine Hansberry’s husband, a recording of songs and monologues, on a flat disc. Nemirov hearing Yarbrough songs resulted in a friend of his listening to her disc and the disc being given to Vanguard Recordings. Yarbrough originally desired to use the songs for an upcoming play, but Vanguard Recordings wanted to make it an album. Camille Yarbrough’s album, The Iron Pot Cooker, came out in 1975. Yarbrough made her singing performances a full and fantastic production. Iron Pot Cooker was a small part of the concerts she used to do. Coming from a background in Dunham and theater, Yarbrough fit her song-storytelling performances into Black History monologues. “When you start your performance, if it’s spiritual, you use a high pitch, I would ululate, a traditional healing way of using the voice, for the listeners. Ululation is also to clear the air, to set the tone for spirituality. I’m reaching back into our old culture and bringing it back to us now. When I did the shows, I had a projection of a Nigerian door.
The stage was black, the music started in darkness and then came my spotlight. I would come on stage with long African earrings and a huge kente cloth gown. I would sing to them in Hausa, African language. I also had African stools on the stage,” says Yarbrough. When asked about the value of today’s music Yarbrough comments, “The music now, the vibrations are very destructive, not healing.” Camille Yarbrough is a griot within her songs. She tells a story of her people, she has always told a story which her audiences can relate and take value from. Camille gives you life experiences and praise and storytelling for African ancestors, in her songs. In recent years, Camille Yarbrough has been in concert at places such as Harlem’s Oberia Dempsey Multicultural Center, drawing a packed house of audiences ranging from school age to senior citizens and noted activists and entertainers, all coming to hear and witness the superior talents of Yarbrough and her band. Her concerts have been called, “thought provoking...soul stirring...culturally uplifting...and African-centered.” Just recently on August 25, 2002, Yarbrough hosted and sang for the annual African Voices Rhymes, Rhythms and Rituals Music and Poetry Concert in Marcus Garvey Park, in Harlem. There at Marcus Garvey, Yarbrough sang her songs of reverence to African spirit and ancestors, for the hundreds of audience members. Dressed in one of her trademark, flowing African wrap gowns, Yarbrough sang with a holy deliverance and uplifted all in earshot in attendance, on a stage under the early evening sky and the tall, sloping trees. It was a wave of energy you could feel, while Yarbrough sang, coming from her being and reaching out to touch the audience, starting from the left of her and all the way over to the other side of the amphitheater. Yarbrough’s performance was a sheer uplift. She set a standard for all the other artists to hope they could follow, in their own special way.
The Poet and Writer
Spin Magazine named Yarbrough “the foremother of rap.” Journalist Kevin Powell states in the liner notes of the CD, The Iron Pot Cooker, “There is no question that Camille Yarbrough ’raps’ on this album, be it the tender ode to Black men ’But It Comes Out Mad’, or the panic sequence on ’Dream.’ “ Asked to reflect upon her foremother of rap title, Yarbrough answers, “When you go to the old, you see where the new comes from. Everything I did on stage, without music, was spoken word, it was rap.”
Camille Yarbrough worked with Jazz Mobile, a program that utilized poets in the public schools. Yarbrough taught drama and poetry to young students. During a brief stint as a student at Hunter College, Yarbrough began to write stories for Black children, which would later become published books. This experience led Yarbrough to write her acclaimed book, The Shimmershine Queens. Other books by Yarbrough are: Cornrows; Tamika and the Wisdom Ring and The Little Tree Growing in the Shade. The Shimmershine Queens gives a message to African American youth to respect themselves and others, achieve success and confidence through knowing and connecting with their culture and heritage and reversing negative self images through artistic performance. The Shimmershine Queens is a Parent’s Choice Award in Story Winner. In Cornrows, Yarbrough reinforces the beauty of Black culture and African beauty for young readers and families. Cornrows is A Coretta Scott King Award Winner. The Little Tree Growin’ in the Shade is a story which reveals an African family, and it’s three generations in the midst of a history telling, by Yarbrough, weaving African proverbs and spirituality with song, music and relation to the Diaspora experience. Tamika and the Wisdom Ring tells the story of a young girl, Tamika, striving to realize her cultural heritage in the midst of such destructive community ills as drugs and violence. Camille Yarbrough found a way to mix her love of African heritage with her messages of hope, beauty, self-esteem, triumph and discovery for Black youth in all of her books. For years Yarbrough has conducted workshops which entail her singing, dancing and storytelling in conjunction with introducing her storybooks to the youth. It is with Yarbrough’s African American Traditions Workshop that she has conducted such diverse performance storytelling for young audiences.
Teaching Dance and Bringing Africa to City College
Yarbrough was a professor of African Dance at New York’s City College for twelve years. The first year Yarbrough taught at City College, she traveled to Ghana and became in touch with a greater spirituality towards her cultural connections. Going to Ghana was a spiritual awakening and long overdue journey for Camille Yarbrough. Ghana is made up of people of different cultural groups. While in Ghana Yarbrough met the acquaintances of the Ashanti Hene group. Yarbrough says, “When I was at City College, some African people from various nations, including Ghana, were brought to City College, to invite them to have their cultural celebrations with us.” Dr. Leonard Jeffries was at the center of the faculty at City College who initiated bringing Africans and cultural traditions to City College and also worked with Camille Yarbrough on cultural programming. Before these African traditional ceremonies, Camille Yarbrough often dressed the stages and venues for the gatherings in traditional African cloth and other traditional designs. Yarbrough was among the few persons who was instooled by the Ga people, as renowned African holistic historian, John Henrik Clarke’s Queen Mother. Yarbrough’s stool was the stool of Harriet Tubman, the legendary former slave who helped to free hundreds of slaves. The Ga people who instooled Yarbrough, are the first people to have reached the Coast, where Ghana is now located, in their migration from the Northeast of Africa.
During the sixties and seventies, there were marches, and riots and protests. Black Panthers were being jailed and killed. Black people were outraged and fighting back. Camille Yarbrough was always right there to support her brothers and sisters. Being a performer on the stage Yarbrough took her outspoken perspective of the civil rights movement and intertwined it with her performances. “I would always lend my support. Every march there was, every protest there was I was there, as a poet. I would perform my song “All Hid, “ says Yarbrough. She often spoke at rallies and marches and joined organizations such as Al Sharpton’s National Action Network. She also lectured with First World. As a talk show host Yarbrough was host of Bob Law’s Night Talk, a conscious Black radio show format, airing from 12 midnight to 5 am on WWRL-AM. The goal of the show was to give factual and inspirational information about Black people, for Black people. ”I’d say ’Good Morning Africans’ at the beginning of the show. People would call in and talk and debate with our guests and we loved it, “ says Yarbrough. During the show Yarbrough talked with some of the most intriguing, motivated and conscious Black activists and scholars of the time, such as Dr. Leonard Jeffries, Dr. Manning Marable, Dr. Betty Shabazz, Rev. Jesse Jackson, Abiola Sinclair and Dr. Adelaide Sanford. The station has since changed its talk format. Camille Yarbrough continues to lend her voice and passion towards progressive action for the Black community, most recently working with a panel of educators and activists to form a new leadership summit.
Although it may not have always been pretty, easy or glamorous, Camille Yarbrough has journeyed on a particular path, a spiritual and cultural path, leading her into the positions of: griot woman; songstress; poet; author; actress; teacher; dancer; lecturer; activist and broadcaster. She took and continues to take her positions seriously, with grace and humility. Camille Yarbrough, renaissance woman in her lifetime. For all these things, are the reasons why we love and appreciate her.