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Big Ups to Cindy

Ebony Payne-English and the herstory of hip hop

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"We should know the name Cindy Campbell and say it often because hip hop has changed the world,” says poet Ebony Payne-English. We’re sitting at a picnic table in Stockton Park and she is ostensibly talking to me about her work, but there is so much more to her entire practice than just one art form. At her core, Payne-English says she is an educator who is intentionally making her work and life in Jacksonville.

“This is my home, this is where I’m from.”

But back to Cindy Campbell: She is sister to Clive Campbell, better known as DJ Kool Herc, the man who invented the break beat and opened the door to rap and hip hop as art forms. To answer the still-lingering question of Cindy in this narrative, she was the organizer, brains and promoter behind the famous back-to-school block party where Herc performed and changed the world in 1973.

Campbell was home in the Bronx, on a break from college, when she decided to throw the party to raise funds. She wrote invitations on index cards, she sold drinks and snacks for 25 to 50 cents each, and she arguably threw one of the most legendary parties ever.

This anecdote is no mere footnote in pop history. It’s important, not just because it helps complete a wider story of the beginnings of hip hop, but because its omission demonstrates how women—and especially women of color—are marginalized and erased from all forms of history.

That’s not acceptable for Payne-English, who says, “When people write the hip hop textbooks, I want them to get it right.”

Hence the poet’s upcoming show, The God MC, a herstory of hip hop. It’s the second installation in an autobiographical five-part series. The first, God Is Experience, debuted in January and explored sisterhood, family, dysfunction and forgiveness.

Scholar Derrick P. Aldridge draws a connection between the Civil Rights Movement and the hip hop generation—those born between 1965 and 1985. At almost 35, Payne-English is on the outer edge of the generation, but she’s fully embedded, indebted to the artform that she credits with helping her “feel less alone in the world” at a time when she was struggling with severe depression and didn’t have the tools to cope.

Our conversation about hip hop inevitably leads to the manner in which women are too often depicted. From video vixens to sexual sidekicks or trophy objects, the roles assigned to women are misogynistically restrictive.

“It’s the lopsided presentation of history that got us here,” she explains. “Ride or die, chick. Riding or death, that’s abusive in presentation,” she says of the trope that is often presented as a badge of honor. She also makes the point that when artists flaunt women in the same manner as say, houses or cars, they’re removing the woman’s “right of choice” to be there with them. The message: “Shame on her, big ups to me.”

Payne-English points out another inconsistency. “Because hip hop has removed the matriarchal figures, and used only patriarchal figures, they now expect their partners to be their mommies.”

Payne-English is herself a mother, and the radical vulnerability that she is willing to show in her work and in our conversation is humbling. She speaks openly and honestly about the struggles and rewards of working as an artist—and of being a single mom. Perhaps it is her rapturous joy over her daughter, Mahogany Rose, that continues to catalyze her personal work and reinforce her dedication to the young people in Jacksonville.

As a former instructor at The Performers Academy, Payne-English developed a curriculum, the “Product Of My Environment” (POME) that exhorted her students to use both the situation and locale of their lives for art and self-actualization. It’s a path that isn’t easily walked, and we talk about what it means to be called to art, called to witness.

Writer Tommy Orange observed, “Assimilation means erasure.” And though he’s writing about Native communities in America, he could be writing about almost any non-majority group. Payne-English addresses this same idea, albeit more obliquely. “Comfort is never conducive to intentional evolution,” she says. “I don’t want to be the person I was five years ago. I love her and forgive her, but I don’t want to be her.”

Though things aren’t always easy or straightforward or fair, the poet is sure of her path, and certain of her role in the life of her family and community.

“The society that I currently live in values art but not monetarily,” she says. “I put integrity above money.”

Perhaps it’s because she comes from a long line of strong women (and is the youngest of four sisters). Her grandmother, who was present at her birth, named her. One gets the sense that when she talks in terms of “blessing, honor and privilege,” matriarchy and sisterhood form the lens through which she views her entire life. Or perhaps it’s because she knows that a bought-and-paid-for legacy is quite thin. Honor and integrity, paired with the power of words, can help empower our community.

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