Today we’d like to introduce you to Jessica “Culture Queen” Smith Hebron. She and her team share their story with us below:
Jessica “Culture Queen” Smith Hebron is a Grammy-Nominated teaching artist, children’s musician, author, and arts manager, who creates empowering entertainment for children! She is the founder of Culture Kingdom Kids, LLC, where since 2010, Culture Queen has produced innovative Black History-themed children’s performances, festivals, and professional development programs at schools, libraries, restaurants, malls, theaters, and museums across the country including the Smithsonian National Museum of African-American History and Culture and the Reginald Lewis Museum of African American History and Culture.
Her children’s album, I Like the Me I See!, released in 2016 along with her 2019 children’s book by the same title, hits all the right notes for families and educators bringing up confident, culturally aware, and curious children. She’s been a featured speaker on TedXRVA, and her TED-ED video entitled “Mansa Musa: One of the Wealthiest People Who Ever Lived”, has received over 6 million views. Culture Queen is also an award-winning playwright whose children’s musical, Bone Soup: A Kwanzaa Story, is published by Pioneer Drama Service and produced around the country.
Her work has been featured on Sirius XM, and in publications like Billboard Magazine, Parents Magazine, Martha Stewart Living, Red Tricycle, The Washington Post, and many more. She is the recipient of the 2012 Top Forty Under 40 Award for Education by the Prince George’s County Social Innovation Fund and the 2015 Alumnus of the Year Award by the Prince George’s County Public Schools Board of Education. Jessica lives in Baltimore, Maryland, and serves as the Chief Program Officer of Arts For Learning Maryland – a nonprofit working to transform learning through the arts for more than 250,000 Maryland students annually.
I’m sure you wouldn’t say it’s been obstacle-free, but so far would you say the journey has been a fairly smooth road?
At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, I received harsh criticism about my work from a peer. The feedback came to me was at a time when I was vulnerable because I was new to virtual programming, so I had not mastered performing while trying to operate all of the virtual equipment on my own. It made me question the value and quality of my work, and as a result, I lost some confidence in my ability to perform online.
I feared that I was embarrassing myself or perhaps even lessening the value and quality of my work. If we were not in a pandemic, I would have just paid someone to help me and entrusted their expertise to handle the virtual production skills, which would take me a long time to master. But, since we were quarantined and I had already been contracted to do a year’s worth of weekly shows, my dilemma was that I had to learn on my own, which meant that my limited skills would prevent me from showing up in the polished manner in which I am used to presenting my work.
So, I improved what I could, kept trying new things, and most importantly, kept performing and creating. It wasn’t always easy because for a while I viewed myself from someone else’s perspective and not my own. What helped me refocus was the fantastic parents writing me to say: “My kids love watching you online! Keep up the good work!” I realized that if children and parents liked my work, that would always be my priority and way to assess if I was making an impact. I had to remember that I don’t do my work for my peers. I do it for the royal children.
They deserve my best, and thus, I am committed to learning new skills to give them a great experience. Lessons Learned: Be open to criticism, but be careful who you take advice from. Be patient and graceful with yourself when trying new things. Perfection is no fun! No matter what, don’t stop trying. If ever perfectionism or criticism is getting in the way of your creativity, think about what called you to create in the first place and try to focus on recapturing that magic. Let it lead you, keep you, push you, guide you and teach you.
Thanks – so what else should our readers know about your work and what you’re currently focused on?
Eleven years ago, I first came to the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History and Culture to perform for a Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. program which led to me facilitating numerous Culture Kingdom Kids, LLC children’s programs to correspond to their exhibits. Around the same time, I was hired to perform for the Baltimore Public Library System and accepted into the Teaching Artist Institute presented by Arts For Learning Maryland, formerly Young Audiences of Maryland.
All of these experiences made a great impact on me. I remember feeling the exciting energy of Baltimore every time I would visit for a show or a professional development session. The festivals, the people, the culture, the food and most importantly: The love! Baltimore felt like home. So, in 2020 when I got the opportunity to apply for a Chief Program Officer position at Arts For Learning, Maryland, I took a leap of faith and submitted my resume. Being hired for this job would be life-changing as it would mean that I would need to move to Baltimore which was where I felt that I needed to be professionally, culturally, and artistically.
Working for Arts For Learning Maryland has been one of the best work experiences I’ve ever had. Our passion for children, the arts, and inspiring creativity is at the center of everything we do within the organization which is always a great feeling. Within 6 months of being hired for the position, my husband and I took another leap of faith and purchased our dream home in Northeast Baltimore which we truly adore. We love to take our Black cat Princess Nubia on outings to Backyard Basecamp Bliss Meadows, a Black-owned farm nearby. As a new resident of this beautiful city, every day is like a field trip!
In my spare time, I basically shop and eat my way through Baltimore’s scrumptious eateries such as Taharka Brothers Ice Cream, R House, Neopol Smokery, Land of Kush, Rosario’s, Waterman’s Pride, Midnight Confections, and all the crabs I can eat from Blake’s Crab House. My personal and professional life has been forever changed for the better since moving here and I can’t wait to see what new experiences are in store for me. Everything’s better in Baltimore!
Alright so before we go can you talk to us a bit about how people can work with you, collaborate with you or support you?
I’ve learned the power of partnerships and collaborations this year. It’s helped me to be a better person, artist, leader, and friend. In 2021, I worked with eight amazing Black teaching artists at Arts For Learning Maryland to produce ” Blacktastic” which was a virtual Black History Festival of the arts for grades K-12 students. It was attended by over 17,000 students in one day. With only a few weeks to plan it, my experiences as a small business owner led me to believe that I was going to have to handle all of the logistics on my own. However, thanks to the super talented staff and artists at Arts For Learning Maryland, teamwork made the dream work! It was such an amazing experience!
I’m also part of the One Tribe Collective which features 26 Black family musicians who released a children’s music album called “All One Tribe” on Juneteenth 2021. The process of working with my tribe members on the album taught me that there’s so much value in collaborating with other creatives. In addition to the community and culture capital that is built, you get the opportunity to learn new ways of approaching your work which ultimately helps to sharpen your skills while opening you up to new possibilities. We were recently nominated for a Grammy for “Best Children’s Album” which is historic and exciting of course but, I feel like the true victory is the true sense of community that we were able to build and experience while working on this project.
Most recently, I was able to co-created the first-ever Kwanzaa line dance called the “Kwanzaa Slide” with my fellow Grammy-nominated tribe member collaborator Fyutch. From the very beginning, we made a very conscious choice to use the Kwanzaa principle of Ujima (Collective Work and Responsibility) to make the project a truly collaborative experience. As a result, the song and music video went viral in less than a month and was featured on many radio stations like Sirius XM Kids Place Live and media outlets like Black News Channel and Fox News. It was the most transformative experience that I’ll always cherish. My advice: Don’t hesitate: Create & Collaborate!
There are many ways in which we can work together. If you are interested in booking a Black History-themed in-person or virtual performance, workshop, book talk, or professional development program, learn more. I have many themes and programs that are perfect for every month of the year including cultural holidays and celebrations like Kwanzaa, Black History Month, Women’s History Month, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, Juneteenth, Maryland Emancipation Day, birthdays, family reunions and rites of passage ceremonies.
You can purchase my children’s book and album both entitled “I Like The Me I See!” and empowering apparel by visiting www.culturekingdomkids.com. By empowering children’s music can also be found on all streaming services. Check out my music videos for children and families on Youtube or www.culturekingdomkids.com. Mention this article to receive 20% off of your next booking or product.
To learn more about my work as Chief Program Officer with Arts For Learning, visit www.artsforlearningmd.org. We are always looking for ways to bring enriching arts experiences to children across the State of Maryland.
- Email: email@example.com
- Website: www.culturekingdomkids.com
- Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/imculturequeen
- Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/imculturequeen
- Twitter: https://twitter.com/imculturequeen
- Youtube: https://www.youtube.com/user/CultureKingdomKids
- Other: https://www.artsforlearningmd.org/
Brandon Mitchell Photography and Ryana Burrell Photography