Q&A with Nana Camille Yarbrough, Renaissance Woman, Griot Artist

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“Being a griot or storyteller is what I was born to do. I come from a kinship line that was reborn to retell our story. We must tell it to the young, tell it to the old...everyone grows when our family story is told!"

By Robert Walker

Chicago native, world-class artist Nana Camille Yarbrough has done it all.  She is a performer, singer-musician, actress on the stage, television and film. She is an acclaimed author and poet, and as a dancer. 

Nana Camille is a living legend, a Renaissance woman whose timeless works have seeped into the fabric of American pop culture:  a recent national TV commercial featured her iconic song, “Take Yo’ Praise,” released in 1975.

Her art centers around telling of the struggles and celebrations about the profoundness of a people whose very journey to this country was different from any other culture of people who came here looking for a promise.

I had the opportunity to interview Ms. Yarbrough before her recent performance at the Schomburg Center in Harlem. -RW

RW:  Tell us which of your many passions came first, and who inspired you the most?
Nana: My first impulse was to tell the human story, and dance was my gateway — the path I took to the stage. Chicago’s Regal Theater was the place where our great artists performed in Chicago. I watched all of them carefully, but it was Josephine Baker, her excellence and commitment to justice, that gave me the courage to train, study and step on the stage as a performer representing the People of African Ancestry.  (And later) Bill Withers; Earth, Wind and Fire, Stevie Wonder, Aretha, Whitney, Alicia Keys, Ethel Waters, so many. In dance: Katherine Dunham, Dyane Harvey, The Nicholas Brothers. The poetry of the Negro Spirituals, Langston Hughes, Walt Whitman, Zora Neal, Alice Childress.

RW: Your classic song, “Take Yo’ Praise,” was sampled on Fatboy Slim’s track, “Praise You,” in 1998, and was a feature in your one-woman stage tour.

Nana: The name of my one-woman show was Tales and Tunes of An African-American Griot. It was received very well and when Fat Boy Slim put rhythm to it, it became an international hit. But the important last verse was left out.

RW: Your 1979 children’s book, “Cornrows,” has been called “ground-breaking.” 

Nana: CORNROWS was my first book for children. It was ground-breaking. But, more importantly, it shared the African tradition of attaching adornment to value systems by naming the braided hair for loved ones, respected ones and important events.

RW:  I am delighted to hear that while you have touched many lives over the years through your works, so many more will now come to know you from a new documentary being done. 

Nana: I write mostly about others, but I have been asked to tell more about myself. The documentary does that.

RW: Because you create in so many different mediums, do you get a vision of something you want to share and then say, that’s a poem or a book? What’s the creative process like for you when deciding on how to present it? 

Nana: I have a poem (“This is What I Do”) that answers your question:

If there is animosity in our family or community

I say or sing loving songs of satire or ridicule

As a purge

To ease family pain and sorrow

It is my place, my honor to speak, compose or borrow

A blues lament or

Even a whaling dirge.

In addition to the historical, personal and topical

I say words and sing songs of the religious, the cosmic, the philosophical to rhythms and melodies we all know.

And if a situation calls for a story or a song of praise and glory, with your permission

I will recall the past

and tell and sing your heroic

family story.

I am

Nana Camille Yarbrough

I am a storyteller

I am a griot

I am a poet

That is what I do.

RW: An African-American presided over this country’s affairs very successfully considering what he had inherited when he became president. How did Barack Obama’s election into office affect you personally?

Nana: I always believed we would have a Black president. He did not disappoint me. Barack Obama was outstanding. But what we have in the White House now is a danger to us and to the world. I believe we will have another African-American president and a female president. Why not?

RW:  If you were giving commencement speeches to graduating classes of 2019 at any university or college in America, what would your message be?

Nana: “Your power, your strong foundation is in your ancestry. It is lit. Your genes are womb-woke. Respect and use them.”