You know how they say it’s an honor just to be nominated for a big award, even if you don’t win? Jessica Smith Hebron can attest to that.
This time last year, the Baltimore-based children’s artist, better known as “Culture Queen,” was at the Grammy Awards in Los Angeles as a nominee in the Best Children’s Album category for “All On Tribe” by 1 Tribe Collective, a group of 26 different Black family acts. She contributed the song “I Am The Future Of Black History.”
We chatted with her about the “epically huge” experience of being at the Grammys — something she shares with local band Turnstile, which is up for three awards this year.
Black history, Hebron’s specialty, has arguably never been more important, as some people are actively trying to stop anyone from learning about it. She said Culture Queen was created “from a need for this programming, but finding how to make it fun for kids, to have a connection to the history. I want to bring this to life beyond Black History Month and continue to make it fun, engaging and accessible.”
Hebron’s energy, even on the phone, is deliciously animated, and it’s obvious why she’s so successful with younger audiences, who usually prefer their entertainment over-the-top rather than understated. She’s a native of Prince George’s County — “that P.G. County, that Powerful Girl County,” she said — but moved to Baltimore a few years ago to take over as Chief Program Officer for Arts For Learning Maryland (formerly Young Audiences of Maryland).
“I am in love with being in Baltimore,” she said. “It’s the best move I ever made. We serve more than 250,000 students throughout the state. It was my dream job, and I needed to do it.”
On Feb. 23, she’s having a virtual history festival called “Blacktastic: Children’s Festival of Maryland Black History and Culture” from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m.. The event, whose name is amazing, will be accessible to teachers until June. Hebron has focused her musical lessons on Maryland figures, such as composer and musician Eubie Blake, former state poet laureate Lucille Clifton and Arctic explorer Matthew Henson. “I want to say, ‘You can go to the North Pole. You can be a famous jazz musician.’”
The goal of her Grammy-nominated musical collective was to pull together artists, many of whom had been performing for decades, during a pandemic where in-person gatherings were few. She and the other members had a watch party for the nominations from their respective homes “right before Thanksgiving 2021. Imagine the hypeness! ‘Oh my God, we’re going!’ We were planning and coordinating so that everyone could get there. By the time I got there, I was exhausted. But I felt like we already won.”
They didn’t, which is a bummer, but the weekend was still a hit. The bulk of the awards in the dozens of Grammy categories are presented at a separate, non-televised ceremony, leaving your Taylor Swifts and Beyoncés for the live CBS event. But 1 Tribe Collective performed at a Black children’s music showcase in Las Vegas the day before, which, Hebron says, “felt like a Black family reunion.”
Even without the win, Hebron was elated for Indian artist Falu, who took home the trophy. The children’s music industry is so small that Falu “is one of our friends,” she said. Attending the non-primetime ceremony also allowed her the opportunity to see legends like Joni Mitchell, Ledisi, Jon Batiste, Allison Russell and Beninese-American singer-songwriter Angélique Kidjo, who Hebron “literally bumped into.”
During the televised portion of the night, Hebron and her cohort took a photo together that reminded her of the road to getting there. “It was like, ‘We’re here! Remember the journey.’”
Of course, the fun of the Grammys and other awards shows isn’t just about the music; it’s also about the thrill of the fashion and some person with a microphone asking, “Who are you wearing?” For the artists of the 1 Tribe Collective, the answer was Black designers or designers of color, with matching masks and their logos on them.
“Formalwear is my thing. If it were up to me, I would always wear it. I would be in a full wedding gown the whole time,” said Hebron, who bought a dress by a Turkish designer in Annapolis. Draped in finery and her most comfortable, broken-in heels, she and her husband Jeffrey headed to the show. Like many of the other members of the collective, she had gotten ready in the company of her parents, who had come out west for the weekend.
“It was just like the prom. They took pictures all the way to the Uber,” she said. “It was ‘Bring Your Parents To Work Day.’ Our parents were the first people who believed in us, who paid for piano lessons and dance lessons. It was important for them to be there in this moment.”
Being a Grammy nominee is cool, and “gives you credibility to get you through the door, but it won’t keep you there,” Hebron said. So what does? The young fans she creates for. “The opinion of the children and parents I serve is worth its weight in gold.”
Hebron currently has a residency at the Smithsonian, where she’s been reunited with those she couldn’t see during the pandemic.
“When [the kids] come through the doors, I know I’ve missed them, and they’ve missed me,” she said. “They all know the songs and dances and moves. That feeling right there is when it happens. It’s more than an award. It’s an honor to be a part of someone’s childhood.”