Ebo has 10,000 laughs: One is a mischievous chortle. One is a riotous, hyena-esque cackle that crescendos then falls, ending with the rapper shaking her head and saying, “I’m dead, I’m dead.” Ebo’s most common laugh might be what her friends call “the dad laugh,” a soft, polite chuckle that she uses to shakes off life’s irksome events. Stuck in traffic? Shrug, chuckle and move on. Hate your boss? Try a dad laugh and keep hustling. At just 20, Ebo has already realized that you can make life a little better with self-respect and dad laughs. If you can’t muster a dad laugh, put on one of her songs. That’s why she makes them.
“I don’t like negative energy, man,” she says. “I’m just about love.”
Ebo was born Ebonee Pettigrew in Memphis, Tennessee. The future hip-hop artist fell in love with music while watching her dad rehearse gospel rap rhymes in the bathroom mirror. Her father was a semi-notable Memphis rapper who, in the mid-'90s, rapped under the moniker “Criminal E.”
“Before I was born, he was doing Eazy E, Three 6 Mafia-style stuff,” Ebo says. Then he had kids, and Criminal E traded gangster rap for gospel.
Ebo is the baby of the family. As long as she can remember, her mother and father dragged their four children to church every Sunday. They were strict at home, too.
“I couldn’t listen to certain music,” she says. “If it had the word ‘hell’ or ‘damn,’ forget about it. After they had kids, my parents wanted a different life.”
And the artist formerly known as Criminal E didn’t stray too far from the stage. He transitioned into what would now be called Christian rap, writing rhymes about God and sacrifice with the same pen he once used to craft expletive-ridden mixtapes.
“I remember how passionate he was,” Ebo recalls of her father. “About music, about family, about everything.”
Around that time, Ebo borrowed a pen and a pad and started sneakily listening to artists like Soulja Boy, T.I. and Eminem, trying to merge their style with the likes of Lauryn Hill and Queen Latifah. She was 7.
“My first rhymes were Cat in the Hat-type stuff,” she says, punctuating her self-deprecation with a healthy dose of dad laugh.
Any time her father caught her listening to less-than-savory lyrics, he would dive into a full-blown Bible study, citing scripture and reciting lessons from the Book of Revelation. Yet nothing compared with the Bible lesson her father dispensed when Ebo’s sister came out as gay.
“She told them, ‘I’m having these dreams, and I like girls,’” Ebo says. “The Bible came out, and it was the whole nine yards.”
Ebo had embraced her own sexuality years before her sister came out. In a brief YouTube documentary, the rapper remembers her own revelation was decidedly boring.
“I never really had a coming-out speech or anything like that,” she says. “It really just happened. I kind of knew when I was in preschool when I kissed this first girl who was like my best friend. And I was like, ‘Oh, bitch, you gay.’”
But Ebo didn’t tell her parents until years after her sister did. Her father didn’t take it well. He brought out the Bible, and talked about his vision for his daughter’s future.
“He didn’t get that we like who we like,” she says. “He wanted me to marry a man. He wanted a man to be at the end of the aisle when he walked me down. Sometimes it doesn’t work out how he wants.”
Their relationship soured, even though Ebo tried to understand his perspective.
“It made me not like him at times, and I think he knew it, and he tried to make up for it.”
Years have passed since the rapper came out to her father, and their relationship is starting to return to what it once was. When it comes to sexuality, they take an “agree to disagree” approach, treating the subject like politics.
“If you’re a Republican and I’m a Democrat, we can still be cool,” she says. “We’ll just not talk about it too much.”
Nevertheless, she still has fond memories of her first favorite rapper.
“They say your dad is your first love, and for me, that was true." Some of her favorite childhood memories are of her and her father horsing around, him hoisting her far above his head until she felt like she was flying. "I used to always tell him, ‘Pick me up, Dad. Pick me up.’”
The family moved to Dallas in March 2013. After graduating from high school, Ebo attended KD Conservatory, a two-year school for film and musical theater. The rapper with 10,000 laughs had a penchant for making others laugh, too, and tried to launch an acting career.
“That’s a grind, man,” she says. “Auditions every day. Rejections every day. You have to be OK hearing ‘No’ every time you try.”
Dejected and depressed, Ebo surfed from couch to couch and job to job, searching for a gig that would satisfy her yearning to make people smile, but willing to settle for a job that made the late notices go away.
She cooked wings at Pluckers. She cleaned houses. She waited tables at Saltgrass and said “My pleasure” at Chick-fil-A.
“No one at Chick-fil-A is happy,” Ebo says. “Don’t believe that smile; look in their eyes.”
In between shifts and crashing on friends’ floors, Ebo started crafting more rhymes. This time, her raps weren’t as Seussian as her original creations. She filled notepad after notepad with lyrics that preached positivity without being preachy, then started putting the lyrics to music.
Ebo’s raps are 3-minute pep talks bereft of braggadocio. They’re not love songs; they’re self-love songs. In “Tough,” she advocates for letting down your guard and letting others in. In “Bounce Back,” she encourages listeners to stay hustling, because brighter days are ahead.
“I wrote that when I was at my most depressed,” Ebo says. “It’s all there in the lyrics: ‘I’ve been down, I been feelin’ kinda sad, But I'ma bounce back. I'ma bounce back.’”
Ebo did indeed bounce back. Churning out tracks about loving yourself helped the rapper do just that. She found a manager, a girlfriend and a sound that her loyal fans seem to enjoy.
“I like to keep it fun and bouncy, and I think people like that, too,” she says.
The artist also has an apartment of her own and a new job: customer service rep at Southwest Airlines. The prospect of calming angry callers appealed to the optimistic Ebo, who calls it “the best job I’ve ever had.”
“I get to make people happy,” she says of the job. “And they’re cool with me wearing all my piercings.”
Just before our interview, Ebo was at work. The phone rang, and Ebo picked up. The man on the other side was mad. Southwest Airlines damaged his bag, and something had to be done to rectify the situation. Ebo was happy to help.
“I said, ‘Yeah, let’s get you some compensation,’” Ebo recounts. “I heard him get happier. I heard the change in his voice. It was so cool.”
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