It's the Friday before Labor Day, and rapper Ebony Eyez is hanging out on the cozy patio of her grandmother's house in north county. Lounging around on seats near her are four neatly dressed little girls, all wearing a school uniform of crisp white polo shirts and navy blue pants or skirts -- and (perhaps owing to the formal clothes, or the presence of a writer and photographer) all strangely quiet for students embarking on a long weekend.
But this quartet isn't a group of bored neighborhood kids who look up to Ebony because of her radio hit, "In Ya Face." They're the 24-year-old's half-sisters, whom she's been helping raise (along with her aunt and grandmother) since 2001.
The five share the same father, but Ebony says he "couldn't really handle the responsibility of taking care of all of them" after the younger girls' mother passed away in a car accident four years ago. (In fact, even though their dad still lives in St. Louis, contact with him is basically limited to the occasional meeting at family functions -- or, as Ebony puts it, "He's just not really around.")
Still, assuming a parental role at such a young age didn't prevent Ebony from working on her music, something she's pursued seriously for the past seven years.
"At one point I time I had the younger two [in my care]," she says. "I'd have to go to the studio late at night, and I'd be carrying 'em with me, [saying] 'Just go in the lounge room, and lay on the couch.' Or I'll call somebody: 'Can you please come over and watch 'em while I go into the studio?' It was extremely hard for awhile, but I started getting the hang of it."
Her sense of responsibility is evident not only in her dedication to the children, but in her persistence at building a career. Ebony graduated from Parkway Central High School and attended college at Florida A&M, but eventually went back to rapping -- something she's loved since she began dancing and rhyming around her neighborhood as a youngster.
As is true with most artists, reaching this level -- she's signed to a production deal with the TrackBoyz and is releasing her debut, 7 Day Cycle, October 4 on Capitol Records -- wasn't easy. She shined shoes at the airport for awhile and laughs at the trouble she had getting the TrackBoyz to contact her.
"I've known them [TrackBoyz] since probably about 1998 as far as the music scene goes," she says. "I used to be in a rap group [Nazir] with another female, so we'd always see 'em out and everything. I'd be like, 'Get us into the studio.' And they'd be like, 'OK, OK' -- and never called me!" She laughs. "Finally Tarboy was like, 'I'm not really looking for two female rappers, but I am looking for one. So if you ever go solo, come back and you're with me.'"
Sure enough, after Nazir dissolved in 2003, Ebony hooked up with J-Kwon's manager, Big Boy -- and also started working with the TrackBoyz, whose imprint is all over Cycle.
The album is a sprawling, diverse collection anchored by Ebony's sassy flow -- as fierce as a venomous python ("Act Like a Bitch") or tempered by plaintive R&B ("Take Me Back"). But the TrackBoyz's trademark dance-floor-shaking beats and monstrous hooks come through, especially on "In Ya Face." Although its chorus ("Let me put my ass in ya face") appears comparable to oversexed missives popularized by Trina or Khia, in truth it's a sarcastic response to a guy at a club who approached Ebony and asked her to do some raunchy moves. She saw how offended he was by her retort and immediately turned it into a song.
"You have Ying Yang Twins records, you have David Banner, you have Little Webbie, all these different guys coming out being able to say what they want to say on records," Ebony says. "You don't really have the same opportunity being a female. Everybody wants you to be well-reserved, quiet-spoken and all that. I'm like, 'No. I say what I want.' It's woman's empowerment I was feeling."
But it's important to realize that while Ebony Eyez is outspoken, she's not rashly so; for one thing, she censors herself when repeating the chorus of "In Ya Face" in the presence of her sisters. It's clear that she feels responsibility to protect and defend her gender, but without resorting to gratuitous sexuality or outbursts that might cheapen what she's trying to say.
"I definitely feel that I want to do a good job in representing St. Louis, especially from a female's perspective, to open the door for other females to follow," Ebony says. "There's a lot of talented female rappers from here, the singers and everything. It's just time for the women to be heard."