Meet Chippewa's Bigg Zee, a former addict who's inspiring youth through rap music

Zachary Albert-French, from Chippewas of the Thames First Nation, recently won a talent competition for emerging rappers. His success earned him a shout out from his chief.

But First Nations rapper concerned he may not be able to cross border for upcoming talent competition in U.S.

Zachary Albert-French, 20, is also known as rap artist and producer Bigg Zee. (Hala Ghonaim/CBC)

When he was 18 years old, Zachary Albert-French says he was pounding back booze, hooked on street drugs and in trouble with the London police.

But now, two years onward, Albert-French isn't letting his past define his future.

"I might be able to be the voice that may inspire the next generation … I can show people that even if you do something wrong, you can make it past that," said Albert-French, also known as rap artist and producer Bigg Zee.

Albert-French, who is a member of the Chippewas of the Thames First Nation, recently won a major competition for emerging rappers.

 The win also earned him praise from the chief of his community.

"I'm going to tell everybody about this young man. I'm going to make sure his story gets heard. He's going to inspire many. Not just Indigenous youth, but all youth," Chief Myeengun Henry told CBC.

Addiction and conviction

Albert-French was born in London, where he was raised in a challenging environment.

He says both of his parents were alcoholics and his brother was a drug addict, who was often missing from home.

"I didn't have a role model to teach me a different way. It was all that I knew," he said, noting historic trauma forced many loved ones to turn to drugs and alcohol.

By 14, young Albert-French was experimenting with all sorts of street drugs, whatever he could get his hands on, he said.

"Molly, crystal meth … Adderall, Percocet. It was very prevalent here in London," he said. "I wasn't myself … I was skin to bone."

A year later, his drinking would send him to hospital with life-threatening alcohol poisoning.

Albert-French is currently working on his upcoming album, which will be released in April. (Hala Ghonaim/CBC)

Albert-French had many run-ins with the law but it wasn't until he was 18 years-old when he would get his first — and only — criminal conviction.

He was involved in a robbery at a downtown location in London that resulted in an employee being attacked. He was on the lam, wanted for robbery and theft with violence.

Albert-French turned himself in and was eventually convicted of assault.

He described the event as a "drunken, unfortunate choice [I] should not have made."

Turning point

Albert-French avoided jail time but realized he didn't want to spend the rest of his life as an addict or alcoholic.

"I was more than that," he now reflects.

A year ago, Albert-French decided it was time to sober up and focus on music.

"It was probably the hardest yet the easiest decision I ever made."

The hardship in his life, he's turned that around. He's found a skill within himself to be able to show people good things.- Chief Myeengun Henry

Albert-French is sharing his experiences with the world, through writing lyrics and mixing beats.

He's even embedded himself in his community, where he's become a role model for many young kids, said Chief Henry.

"The hardship in his life, he's turned that around. He's found a skill within himself to be able to show people good things. That's why I'm excited about this young man," said Henry.

"He's going to allow our people to know that they can do things," he added.

Border troubles

This past February, Albert-French won first place at The Showcase Tour, a popular music contest held in Toronto. He's now eligible to compete against artists from around the world in the final round in Los Angeles over the Labour Day weekend.

However, he's afraid his past conviction will prevent him from crossing the border.

Henry said the community is willing to help Albert-French by writing a letter of recommendation.

"We're dealing with a border issue tight now," said Henry, noting that many community members run into a similar problem. "We want to make sure they have the ability to travel freely across that border."

In the meantime, Albert-French is solidifying the final touches on his upcoming album.

"I'm blessed to be able to do all of this," he said. "I'm here to inspire the youth."

Have a listen:

CBC reporter Hala Ghonaim tells the story of a local rapper who chooses music over drugs. 3:37