JB the First Lady: a candid interview about hip-hop, Indigenous identity and finding her voice

"I want to empower other young people through hip-hop or through their own art."

"I want to empower other young people through hip-hop or through their own art."

Jerilynn Webster is JB the First Lady: beatboxer, MC, rapper, songwriter. (Courtesy of the artist.)

This story was originally published on Jan. 3, 2014.

She was guided by a feeling, propelled by a rhythm and went in search of a beat.

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 Indigenous woman beatboxer.

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, that 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.

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.- JB the First Lady

Webster 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, 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, Sask/, Webster moved a lot as a kid, zigzagging across Canada, either "living large or in poverty" in a single-parent, Christian home.

"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, N.Y., made her a mixtape that turned her on to hip-hop and R&B.

"Salt n Peppa 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 Webster finally settled in Vancouver, she attended her first hip-hop show, which proved an eye-opening experience.

"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. But when I moved to Vancouver, it was high-level racism, and I learned about all the different stereotypes of our people. 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.' It really brought a sense of community and belonging for myself."

Movements like Idle No More busted me open.- JB the First Lady

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; music with a message.

"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. The landscape was spare, with Webster as the sole female beatboxer on the scene, but soon she found herself at the centre of a group of First Nations women focused on hip-hop, and the First Ladies Crew — including Rapsure Risin, Gurl 23, Dani & Lizzy, Miss Christie Lee Charles, Crystal J — became a support group/hype circle/rallying cry that Indigenous hip-hop was about to get an overhaul.

But even with a crew, it wasn't easy, and Webster experienced moments of doubt wherein she considered calling it quits.

"It wasn't like males would be like, 'No, you're not allowed here,'" Webster says. "It would be more like a shoulder, like throw me some shade. Nobody's ever been like, straight out, 'No women here,' but it's definitely been a space of resistence in silence. Which I understand, especially in Native hip-hop there's a lot of gangsterism influence or stories. For myself, I appreciate those stories that need to be told, but when it's influenceing the young people and people don't want these unhealthy behaviors to keep re-cycling, then for me with the messaging that comes through hip-hop. Because I wasn't in that lifestyle, that's where the shade would be thrown towards me."

After telling her friend she wanted to give up on music, he played her the song "Keep Shining," by rapper Shad. He talks about how rap's only getting half the story, that more women need to have their voices heard. That song inspired Webster to finish her next album in just two months, and Shad is the first thank you in the liner notes despite the fact that, at the time, they didn't know each other.

Since then, Webster's had the opportunity to give Shad her album, and their relationship has actually flipped.

"I do lots of workshops about decolonization and residential school effects, he came to it and he was like, 'Wow, JB, you just inspired me 100 per cent. How I inspired you is how you are inspiring me right now,'" Webster recalls. "Then if you look at his second single, "Fam Jam," it's all about that: First Nations people, how they might feel like immigrants in their own country and talks about him connecting with his culture from his motherland and seeing the injustice there. Wow, I did inspire that! I felt it!"

I want to empower other young people through hip-hop or through their own art.- JB the First Lady

Alongside the support Webster has received from the men and women in her life, the potential groundswell of social change has been a catalyst as well as confirmation that there's a place for her voice.

"Movements like Idle No More busted me open and my story really needs to be heard," Webster says. "Living in a city like Vancouver where there are missing and murdered women, talking about injustices, it's not even a hobby anymore — it's a duty to talk about it and bring forward these voices. Our voices weren't allowed to be as they are today. In 1951 we weren't allowed to practice our culture from the potlatch ban. For me to be able to practice my culture, my songs and my language and to bring forth stories that people do want to hear, it's my duty as a young person to capture the different moments, the victories but also the hardships and the injustices and talk about that through hip-hop. It's so engaging for young people and I want to empower other young people to do the same, through hip-hop or through their own art."

With Webster's commitment to making music with purpose, it's somewhat inevitable that she's considered a socially conscious hip-hop artist, though she's wary of labels.

"As a young person that's Indigenous to Canada, we get put into so many boxes: status, non-status, Aboriginal; 'socially conscious' isn't that bad," she says, with a laugh, "but it definitely pigeonholes you to be a certain way or talk a certain way. I've been moving as an artist and trying to make music that's relatable but that's also fun to listen to."

But can there be a light side to oppression and decolonization and the big subjects Webster covers in her music?It's all about the vantage point.

"I don't want to keep showing our people as heavy all the time," Webster says. "I want to give an alternative for young people. Because Native hip-hop is so heavy in gangsterism, I want to give an outlet and a breather to that side. I'm OK with not conforming in those areas, because that's not my story. I didn't grow up around that. That's their story, this is my story as a young Native woman who is working in her community to provide safe spaces for people to express themselves and I think I do that very well in my music."

Hang out with me on Twitter: @_AndreaWarner