She was guided by a feeling, propelled by a rhythm and went in search of a beat.
Yes, it sounds like the tagline for a movie, but there’s something undeniably, quietly cinematic about Jerilynn Webster’s transformation into JB the First Lady, Canada’s sole Aboriginal woman beatboxer.
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'It’s a challenge as an artist and as a First Nations’ person, you deal with a lot of heavy stuff every day. The music is how I let it breathe' - Jerilynn Webster AKA JB the First Lady
I met Webster in October at a panel discussing women in hip-hop, but earlier in the year her music caught my ear as I was putting together a playlist of the 10 Canadian musicians you need to know. I liked her tell-it-like-it-is flare, the hint of fabulousness rooted in reality. And then I sat next to her as she spoke about her experiences as a First Nations’ woman in music and I cried. Most of the room cried.
Webster, a 29-year-old single mother, doesn’t just wear her heart on her sleeve; she bares it in every word, gesture and action. Some people aren’t meant to live their lives in such a raw state, but Webster elevates herself above hardship, perceived or real, and tethers herself to the positive.
"My music is political, but it's positive, it’s about love," Webster says a few weeks later when we meet for our interview. "It’s a challenge as an artist and as a First Nations’ person, you deal with a lot of heavy stuff every day. The music is how I let it breathe."
Music has always been a source of happiness for Webster, though her first love wasn’t hip-hop. Born in Moosejaw, SK, Webster moved a lot as a kid, zigzagging across Canada, either "living large or in poverty" in a single-parent, Christian home.
''I wanted to be that artist that could really capture the moment and the environment that we’re in, but come with a female perspective.' - Jerilynn Webster AKA JB the First Lady'
"We weren’t really allowed to listen to music at all, really, except Christian music or ’50s music like Motown. We never had television; we had AM radio,” Webster laughs. “I really got my musical delight in Christian music!"
As a teenager, Webster found herself caught up in alternative music, but cousins in Rochester, NY, made her a mixtape which turned her on to hip-hop and R&B.
"Salt-n-Pepa was my first tape, which was kinda controversial as a young girl, but my mom saw the empowerment of being a woman and doing hip-hop," Webster says.
"When I moved around as a young Indigenous person in Canada, people didn’t look at me as First Nations," Webster recalls. "It was about my personality and how I was caring and how I engaged with people, not the colour of my skin."When Webster finally settled in Vancouver, she attended her first hip-hop show, which proved an eye-opening experience.
"But when I moved to Vancouver, it was high-level racism, and I learned about all the different stereotypes of our people," she continues. "When I went to this hip-hop show, I saw Kinnie Starr and Skeena Reece, Ostwelve, Manik1derful, and they just had so much pride about who they were and where they came from. I wanted to encourage other young people to stand up for the injustices in Canada pertaining to land, water, Aboriginal rights. They talked about decolonization and colonization and I was like, 'Woah.'”
A youth worker at the Vancouver Friendship Centre suggested Webster had "rhymes" and advised her to take her strong voice into the Centre’s free studio. Eventually JB the First Lady was born and Webster felt she found her calling: music with purpose.
"I wanted to be that artist that could really capture the moment and the environment that we’re in, but come with a female perspective," Webster says.