According to the famed music artist-activist, the effort is “important” in taking a stand against those who work to disrespect and belittle people of color.
“I am an artist. That means if you like great musicians or a great painter, when they look at something, they see more than what people who don’t have that inborn grace see. And so that’s my approach. My music speaks of not rebellion, but insisting upon the dignity of our people, Yarbrough told EURweb’s Lee Bailey. “Black Lives Matter is important. Now there’s always been an effort to separate the old from the young. The light-skinned from the dark-skinned. There’s always an energy there to separate us and have us fighting each other.”
“I know that every organization that’s working to make things better to get rid of racism has people in it who are put there to turn it into a fight against one another. It always comes up. So black lives matter. Of course they matter. All lives matter,” she added. “Yeah, that’s y’all, but you’re not being shot down in the street. The prisons are not being filled with your youth. And not just youth. With older people too. Your unemployment is not the way ours is.”
As a supporter of Black Lives Matter, Yarbrough, 78, gives respect to young activists while some insist on criticizing the movement. In her eyes, it’s the job of seasoned activists to not only support, but also provide guidance for those coming after them to effect change in the best way possible.
“It’s not the job of the elders to tell our youth which road to take. It is our job to show them the light of knowledge and they will find their own way. That’s what we have to do,” Yarbrough voiced while quoting late Africana studies pioneer John Henrik Clarke.
An award-winning performance artist, author, and cultural activist, Yarbrough is no stranger to standing up against social injustice. The Chicago native, a product of the city’s south side, has utilized various outlets to highlight the contributions of people of African ancestry. From her first children’s book “Cornrows” to her classic first album, “The Iron Pot Cooker” to her long-running television show “Ancestor House,” Yarbrough has made it her mission to let the world know how beautiful, intelligent and important people of color are to the world at large with each performance and appearance.
“The other day, they had a great parade here in New York City for the Irish Americans and the streets were full of thousands of people having a ball and wearing badges saying ‘Kiss me I’m Irish.’ And not too long from now, there’s gonna be another big celebration, Columbus Day, which the Italian people will fill the streets and parade and do all kinds of things. And they’re asking you to love them too because they are Italian Americans,” she said as she noted the love other nationalities have shown each other as opposed to African-Americans.
“It just hurt my heart a little bit to see people today dividing themselves, saying ‘I’m not African-American. I’m an American.’ That link, that hyphen, is a connecting tissue. If you’re American, all of us, they’re talking about immigrants now; everybody here came from some place else. We didn’t come voluntarily, but we are still Africans in America. Just as the Italians, no matter who, if they married out of their group or whoever, they still claim that.”
“I think that that’s our honor,” continued Yarbrough. “There’s so much pride, so much to be proud of, to celebrate. Everybody else loves our culture. They don’t say it. They just take it. and so what I do, as it develops on the south side of Chicago where I was born and raised, and its difficult, “ continued Yarbrough, who referenced fellow Chicagoans Earth, Wind & Fire among those who have “focused on the spirituality and the love of our people.”
When writing “Cornrows,” the singer’s love was clearly shown as she deposited a history lesson as well as show the beauty in an hairstyle that she got tired of people ridiculing.
“Although it is a classic style for African-American hair, I wrote that book because I wanted our children to learn our history, how cornrows got its name. From what we saw, the braiding, the style and the look of it was similar to the growth of corn in the stalk, how they overlapped one another. And so it was called cornrows. But I used that book to tell how we got here, how we arrived here. Where we came from, what were some of the symbols there.”
The mocking of the cornrows hairstyle, Yarbrough found, was one of many methods used to take away the esteem of black people, a practice that still goes on today. So much so that she believes the issue is purposefully being avoided by many who simply don’t want to discuss it and country’s brutal racial past.
“Part of the destruction in destroying our sense of who we are, our self esteem, it was to ridicule our lips, our hair. It’s still going on right now. They’re going on about light skin and dark skin. It’s a terror,” Yarbrough explained. “We don’t want to think of the terror. We don’t’ want to tell our children of the hard time, the racism, who got lynched. We don’t want to say all of that to our children. And we should because that is part of our strength. We survived all of that. And so while we were surviving we were being creative. It’s amazing, our story is.”
While blacks came to America with “elaborate braids,” Yarbrough pointed out that their hair was ridiculed, covered up or shaved off in an another attempt at “destroying our self esteem” by those who didn’t want to see the hair.
“We were encouraged not to appreciate our hair. That’s why eventually I had to write that book. Saying, ‘No. Look at the history. Look at the roots, the proverbial roots. This time, the real roots, the physical roots that represent our story.’ That’s why I wrote the book.”
Looking at the here and now, public opinion has obviously changed about cornrows, which have been embraced by white people. As for how black folks from yesteryear would react to the change, Yarbrough touched on cultural appropriation as she noted how the hairstyle has crossed over.
”They would say we would have to get over it because they have appropriated everything, [laughs]” she said about the ancestors. “They want our color, but they don’t want to be black. They want our music but they don’t want to be black. So they take everything. That’s our history. That’s the shame of it.”
Yarbrough’s work as an author is known, but she plans to be on both sides of the pen as she devotes her time to doing “an autobiographical piece” which encompasses my growing up years in Chicago.”
“It’s a spiritual part I have to share with people, she said about her latest project, highlighting her time with the Katherine Dunham Company of Dancers, Singers, and Musicians, in addition to her upbringing and musical achievements, which include exposure to a new generation with having her song, “Take Yo Praise,” sampled for Fatboy Silm‘s 1998 hit “Praise You.”
Musically speaking, Yarbrough’s activism and music go hand-in-hand. Although she’s gotten her share of rejections, Yarbrough knows her efforts are justified and for a greater purpose.
“A lot of people wouldn’t play my music because they said, ‘She’s angry.’ No. I was just speaking truth. So yes, black lives matter. Yes, they matter and we have to stop saying it. We have to say what black lives. Not just today’s black lives. What about those black lives in the ‘60s and the ‘50s? What about those lives that my father lived through, the lynching’s and beatings, the people that stood up,” she expressed.
“People are critical in some ways of Rosa Parks, talking about she wasn’t the only one. Well, she did it. She did it. She was the one who faced down the policeman, but there was an organization there. We must understand. We must have systems of support. That means we work together, young and elderly. We’re a surviving people, you know. Who else has come through what we have come through and created the brilliance that we have created?”