Ebri Yahloe on making the best of a miserable year globally

Andy Downing
Ebri Yahloe

Ebri Yahloe understands that this has been an incredibly challenging year for many people, with the coronavirus both taking lives and destroying livelihoods, while a parallel civil rights movement has shined a necessary but painful light on the Black community’s experiences with police violence and racial inequality. 

At the same time, the rapper said recent months have been incredibly kind to her. After losing her job due to the COVID shutdown, Yahloe started a successful business screen-printing T-shirts, and the additional free time has allowed her to reprioritize her music, which had atrophied over the last year amid the day-to-day demands of existence.

“Before I finish off and say all the good things I have going in my life … if this is a bad time for you, I want to tell you I love you. I’m hoping and praying for you, and I’m sending you good vibes,” Yahloe said in part during an extended aside in which she acknowledged the struggles currently being experienced by many. “But for me, it’s been one of the most liberating times of my life. … I wrote and published my first children’s book, ‘Baby Pineapple Counts to 10,’ and I got to release some new songs, and then some old songs I made last year resurfaced with the protests. It’s been amazing. I’ve had time to meditate. AndI like being at home. All of my stuff is here.”

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Contrast that with a video Yahloe recently discovered of herself, filmed on a rare off day in late 2019, in which she explains how she doesn’t know what to do with the unexpected free time. “I found the video on my phone, and in it [I’m explaining], ‘Yo, I have two jobs, and I have this time off and I’m supposed to be chilling, but my body won’t let me chill,’” she said. “I watched that video and I was sad because, man, I was really working myself to the bone. … It’s like a fight or flight. In order to not feel bad about not creating, about not rapping, I would take as many jobs as I could, almost to suppress what I knew I should be doing. … Now when I’m writing, my mind isn’t clouded by somebody else’s dream, because that’s all work is: somebody else’s dream. Now when I’m writing, I’m free of all that. It’s just me.”

Absent these constraints, Yahloe’s music has returned in a rainbow-hued rush, which the rapper will share when she takes the stage this weekend for 934 Fest. Due to COVID-19, this year’s fest will take place exclusively online from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. on Saturday, Sept. 12, with muralists, spoken word performances, a comedy showcase and musical turns from Joey Aich, Mery Steel and Mungbean, among others. (Click here for a full rundown of happenings.)

Yahloe said that she’s always felt most at home onstage— whether or not it’s accompanied by an audience having discovered a love for music when she heard James Brown for the first time at age 2. “My mom played his records, and I just remembered loving that sound, the instrumentation, the way he screamed,” said Yahloe, who grew up with a rapping stepfather and a mother who taught her the ABCs by freestyling the alphabet while tapping out a beat on her own chest, making it almost inevitable her daughter would pick up the mic one day, as well.

Early on, though, Yahloe considered herself more of a writer than an MC. “Even before I could spell I would just make squiggles in the middle of the paper,” she said. As a result, when she started to immerse herself in hip-hop sometime around high school, she was more drawn toward those artists who embraced the format as a means of storytelling, such as Slick Rick, Outkast and Kendrick Lamar. But even then it took some time before those traits started to surface in her own attempts.

“I used to be one-take shorty, like, just get me in the booth and go. I’m just going. It doesn’t matter,” said Yahloe of her initial approach, akin to exploding a dam and allowing the syllables to tumble forth in a frothy, unending rush of whitewater. “Then I learned that’s not how to do it. You want to slow down, take your breaths. That’s how you make a song.”