Ebony Payne-English is a writer, performer, educator, and human rights activist. Ebony established the Jacksonville chapter of Black on Black Rhyme. She was the first woman to establish a chapter of the organization. Originally founded in 1998, Black on Black Rhyme is a forum for innovative poetry, hip hop, and visual arts. Through community outreach efforts, Black on Black Rhyme engages diverse audiences and encourages volunteerism and personal development.
Ebony mentors youth through Black on Black Rhyme and Jax Youth Poetry Slam. As a result of these programs and the opportunities they create for youth, over the last five years, 100% of Ebony’s mentees have enrolled in college after graduating from high school. Ebony also serves as the Program Director for The Performers Academy.
In September of 2016, Ebony self-published a paperback collection of 42 poems titled, “Secrets of Ma’at.” Ma’at was a female goddess in the ancient Egyptian religion. She represented truth, balance, order, harmony, law, morality, and justice. The goddess decided whether a person was bound for the afterlife by weighing their soul against her feather of truth. Kemet law, the rules by which ancient Egypt was governed, was rooted in the 42 Laws of Ma’at, divine principles similar to the 10 Commandments. Ebony’s 42 poems offer perspective on politics, religion, culture, education, family, friendship, and love by examining Ma’at’s 42 Laws.
On Saturday, November 12, Ebony will be one of 25 local writers participating in JAXbyJAX, a Jacksonville literary festival. Twelve venues in Riverside will serve as backdrops as these writers read and perform original material. The festival is scheduled to start at 3:00 PM and conclude at 6:00 PM, with an after-party and book signing at CoRK.
10 Questions with Ebony Payne-English
Can you describe the process of publishing your book, from its conception to the release?
When I turned 30, my friend Mackey told me as a gift he wanted to fund a book for me. He wanted me to write about my life. At the time, I was going through a plethora of traumatizing life events and was very discouraged.
I’d began to shy away from my pen, but Mackey refused to allow me to do that. I declined his offer because I’d firmly sworn off an autobiography of any kind and I was currently working on a graphic novel, which I’m still extremely passionate about.
Then, my friend and fellow poet, who is also a painter, farmer and educator – Jeaninne Betu Kayembe, came to visit from Philadelphia. She had gotten a new tattoo. It was a depiction of the Egyptian goddess Ma’at.
I asked Jeaninne about her connection to the deity. I was so intrigued by her explanation that I decided to write the book Mackey asked me to, and I’d call it “Secrets of Ma’at.” I drew inspiration for most of the poems from the 42 affirmations of Ma’at. Some of them, however, I’d already begun writing years prior and just never finished. They were poems, just not complete works.
I wrote the new poems first and that took about 18 months. Then, I selected the partial pieces to be completed that were inline with the theme of the book. I had my finalized collection two months after my 32nd birthday.
At what point in your life did you discover the power of the written and spoken word? Additionally, how did you develop your voice, as well as your confidence to let that voice be heard?
I discovered my gift when I was four years old. I taught myself to read and write. At that time, all of my books in my collection rhymed, so that was how I began communicating my thoughts. It didn’t develop into a real entity for me until I met the members of Black on Black Rhyme in 2003. It grew into a career from there because members from that organization believed in me.
Live performances entail vulnerability, especially when an artist, such as you, performs subject matter that is rich with emotion. What has vulnerability taught you about yourself?
It was performing that taught me about vulnerability. Writing emotionally charged poetry was initially a way for me to vent. When it came time to perform that work, I honestly wasn’t prepared for everything that came along with sharing such personal parts of myself with strangers. My vulnerability taught me that I’m not alone. I realized that there are other people whom have been through the things I’ve dealt with, and that I’m presently dealing with. I also learned that I’m not made of stone.
How do you mentally prepare yourself when you begin a new project? Do you have any patterns, routines, or rituals?
Every project has different preparation rituals for me, but they do exist. For “Secrets of Ma’at,” I began saying daily affirmations “I am whole and complete. I am divinely capable. Life is blessed by my presence and I am present. I am ready. I am willing.” I did this because I was writing about subjects I found extremely difficult to discuss. I had to remind myself daily that I could do it.
You play the role of mentor through Black on Black Rhyme Jax Foundation and Jax Youth Poetry Slam. What does it mean to you to be a mentor, and what insight can you provide to encourage other artists to consider a mentoring role?
My students call me Kuongoza, which is Swahili for guide. I call my students Mwaza, which is Swahili for creative person. My role is to be a guide to the creative people. It is that simple. I’ve been where they’re trying to go and I want to help them edit the map.
You are the Program Director for The Performers Academy. Has your experience as an artist served you in the role of Program Director?
Absolutely! My experience as an artist has allowed me to shape programming that brings the inner artist out of our students at The Performers Academy. Being an artist also gives me the advantage of not having to ask students to do something that I myself have never done.
In your “Dear Jacksonville” campaign you said, “I am a product of my environment, but I’m a quality product. I believe other young people can be too if they see their surroundings in a different light.” What do you feel are unique opportunities present in Jacksonville related to art and culture? On the flip side, what are some current limitations that you’d like to see addressed?
I think Jacksonville is unique in that it has a robust collective of open platforms. As an artist, there is never a time I’m in Jacksonville without an opportunity to show my work somewhere to someone. There is a flip side to that. Although there are all these amazing platforms, the vast majority of the city has no idea how great the art scene is here. I believe this is because there is limited access, in certain communities, to these platforms and artists.
In his book “Eldest,” Dwight James III thanked you for introducing him to poetry. He credited your sacrifice and honesty for making him the “crucial critique and contributor” that he is. What provides you with a greater sense of pride, the art you create or the art you inspire? Additionally what poets or books of poetry do you most often recommend to someone who is interested in learning more about poetry?
I am definitely an educator before I am anything else. My youth are my life’s work. It is the highest honor to inspire the great minds of this generation on a daily basis.
My favorite author is Alice Walker. She is who I normally refer others to.
You are a contributing writer for JaxbyJax Literary Arts Festival 2016, scheduled for Saturday, November 12. What venue will you be performing at, and what can audience members expect from your performance?
I don’t have my assigned venue yet but the audience can expect honesty, stories to which they can relate, and a fulfilling exchange of energy.
Your discography includes three poetry albums, “Old Soul” (2006), “Struggle’s Embrace” (2010), and “EbEnFlo” (2012). In addition to these albums, you also released an album of hip hop, titled “Know Love.” How do you see the relationship between poetry and hip hop?
The relationship I have with poetry is a direct result of my relationship with hip hop. Tupac Shakur gave me the courage to write out my demons. It just so happened that as a 10 year old I didn’t have a producer to make beats for me so it came out acapella.