Ebony Payne-English’s journey into sound began when she was just a young girl. She was born on the base at Camp Lejeune in July 1984, and her Marine Corps family moved to the Navy town of Jacksonville four years later. By that point, she was already well on her way. “I began writing poems and raps when I was four years old,” she says. “However, I didn’t consciously develop my skill set as a MC until I was 10. That’s when my cousin introduced me to the music of Tupac Shakur. It changed my life.”
Having made career plans early, the teenaged Payne quickly set about acclimating herself to Northeast Florida’s burgeoning hip-hop and poetry scene, an incubator that has produced dozens of national and international talents, in a variety of fields.
Having watched the evolution of women in hip-hop in real-time over the past quarter-century, Payne-English decided she wanted to explore the subject in greater detail. “Gender disparities are majorly pronounced in rap music,” she says. While their numbers were always comparatively few, women have played decisive roles in the music’s progression since its birth in mid-70s New York. Early pioneers like MC Lyte, Queen Latifah, and Roxanne Shante paved the way for later icons like Lauryn Hill, Remy Ma, Jean Grae, Boyfriend, and Vida Killz.
Today, with artists like Cardi B and Nicki Minaj, women are leading lights as hip-hop goes ever more mainstream, but there is still more to be done. “Of the 25 rap albums that charted Billboard in 2018, only two of them were released by women,” says Payne-English. “The problem I have with that is the lack of diversity in terms of subject matter.”
The result of these deliberations is “The God MC,” a special event she’s bringing to the Museum of Contemporary Art on Sunday, April 7. “I chose MOCA because their Executive Director [Caitlin Doherty] is a woman and she’s awesome,” says Payne-English. “Also, Rap Music is a contemporary art that has shaped modern culture internationally. What better venue to explore that with than the Museum of Contemporary Art?” The timing is perfect: it comes right after the end of Women’s History Month, and at the start of National Poetry Month.
The event includes both men and women, including the lyrical talent of T.W.A.N., whom she first met while hosting The Cypher, which is now the longest-running open-mic poetry event in the region. “He was always freestyling with my childhood friend The IGive so I knew he could rap,” she says, “but I don’t think I truly understood how gifted he was until his first album came out. When it dropped, I just knew we had to work together. Now, we not only have music together, I finally get to let him open for the feature!”
Intricate the Almighty “was a member of the HBO Brave New Voices Semifinalist teams I coached in 2010 and 2011 with Matthew ‘Cuban’ Hernandez,” says Payne-English. “Intricate released his second solo mixtape called OG Totes in 2014 and became my favorite rapper. The music he creates is genius, and to know that his first concert was in my living room is amazing.”
Payne-English has been planning this event for much of the past year, not just as a showcase for her own considerable output, but most importantly for the other artists she’s carefully selected for the day. Each of them has stood out in different disciplines that coalesce under the rubric of hip-hop. Together they will “dive into the elements of hip-hop and assess the major roles women have always played in DJing, MCing, Breakdancing, Graffiti, and most importantly: Knowledge.” You could write a book on the subject; actually, someone really should.
Manning the decks is veteran DJ Mas Appeal, who co-founded what is now The Lyricist Live with the inestimable Mal Jones, and currently oversees events like Hip Hop & Hookah. “Mas and Mal [Jones] were the first tastemakers I found in Duval that shared similar taste in music as I did,” Payne-English says. “Representation is important, and they were definitely holding it down for the backpackers in a city that didn’t necessarily rock with that type of vibe.” They work together at the Performers Academy, “so he and I have a lot of great history together in terms of preserving the element of knowledge and maintaining a platform of safe expression for the youth.”
Visual art will be provided by Nicole Holderbaum, who’s carved a tremendous niche with her murals and children’s outreach work around the state, most notably the Jax Kid’s Mural Project. Payne-English first met Holderbaum when the visual artist was doing a piece based on Payne’s work. “At that time, I was just a fan of her work,” she says. “I had no idea she was even from Jacksonville. Of course, I was like, ‘yes!’ I collect art so to know an artist I enjoy is inspired by me in any way is the highest honor. What she can do with a wall and a can of spray paint is the work of a master creator.”
Virginia native Rochelle Underdue “is a dancer whose energy and career path resemble mine” says Payne-English, of one of The God MC’s other performers. “Being that our talent has put us in many classical venues; she too knows what it’s like to be discriminated against or marginalized in those spaces simply because you come from a hip-hop influenced background. In dance, those type of barriers, I believe, are harder to get around than in poetry. Her choreographing the progress of Hip Hop Dance for The God MC is an important part of the her-story lesson that I’m honored to have.”
Having noted the pervasive gender disparities in the music, Ebony is also quick to credit the women who have been making inroads in today’s industry. “My favorite femcee right now, hands down, is Rapsody,” she says. “My favorite poet right now is myself. Specifically from Northeast Florida I enjoy Che, Lady G, Love Reigns, and Kia Flow.”
Historically speaking, “The single greatest female MC of all time, in my opinion, is Missy Elliot,” says Payne-English. “What she has accomplished is triumphant all by itself for any artist, but to have done it on her terms, maintaining her individuality and creative control as a woman in a male dominated industry, is the inspiration that keeps me going.”
This feature originally appeared under the headline “Journey Into Sound” in Void Magazine, Vol. 9, Issue 12, The Swimsuit Issue.