This weekly column features community-minded Vancouverites that are making a difference at a grassroots level.
For nearly a decade, Jerilynn Webster has been hitting the stage as one of B.C.’s only female, aboriginal MCs.
Using her voice to uplift indigenous communities and shed light on important issues, the hip-hop and spoken word artist, activist, facilitator, teacher, and single mother is better known as JB the First Lady.
It’s a title she earned in her early beat-boxing days for always being eager to perform first at shows, but she tells the Straight that it’s significant for another reason, too.
“For me personally, it’s a reference to the rightful owners of this land—not the queen, or the president’s wife—but indigenous women,” she says.
Wearing a shirt that bears the word rematriate, a call for indigenous women to stand up against the appropriation of their cultural identities, it’s obvious that Webster is committed in thought, deed, and even her threads, to bringing Canadians closer to reconciliation.
The member of the Nuxalk and Onondaga nations says it was hip-hop that helped empower her to reclaim her own identity, but the path to finding her voice was one fraught with adversity.
As a kid, Webster moved frequently, sometimes facing homelessness, and was often the subject of racism and bullying in the classroom.
In other major Canadian cities she had lived in, she felt invisible, but in Vancouver, she felt ostracized for being visibly indigenous.
“Stereotypes really crushed my belonging and my identity,” said Webster.
“My whole life, I was trying to decide, which is better: to not have an identity at all, or to be stereotyped?”
It wasn’t until she started attending Vancouver’s Aboriginal Friendship Centre as a teenager that she found a connection to her culture through other young people who were on a similar journey. It’s also how she was introduced to hip-hop.
“I started to connect with these people who were proud of who they were; of where they came from,” she said. “I did feel alone, and very heavy, but I told myself that one day, I would do what those people did for me, for other kids.
“No one should feel like they don’t belong.”
With four studio albums under her belt, including the Indigenous Music Award-winning Indiginized by Enter Tribal, a collaboration album with Chief Rock, Webster sees her songs as a way of capturing oral history, and isn’t afraid to write lyrics that speak to challenging subjects like residential schools and missing and murdered indigenous women.
“In my song, 'We Were Children', I talk about imagining a community with no children. Imagine your child going to residential school,” she says.
In another song, she talks about looking for her missing sister.
“When you break it down for people like that, racism and stereotypes don’t get in the way, and you can connect to it more,” says Webster.
“It’s bringing these issues to a level of relationships, instead of race.”
Though music and activism have given her plenty of opportunities to travel, lately, she’s been spending more time using her voice within her own community—more specifically, at Grandview elementary, her son’s school—where she gets to share poetry, spoken word, and traditional singing and drumming with the students there.
“Our school has, from what I’ve seen, really taken hold of the truth and reconciliation recommendations, and tried to apply them,” says Webster, who, since the release of the TRC report regularly speaks with groups like the B.C. Nurses' Union and the Hospital Employees’ Union about indigenous knowledge and history.
“I get to talk with not only our First Nations youth, but with our immigrant, refugee, and non-Native communities, and showcase a powerful indigenous woman being proud of who she is,” says Webster.
“Its about encouraging everyone to be connected to their songs, dances, ceremonies, and language, because everyone is indigenous to somewhere.”
Webster says she’s “just one part of a bigger picture”, but her work is made worthwhile by the knowledge that, although progress is slow, she can see reconciliation taking place.
“We might not have true, authentic, real reconciliation on a national scale, or reconciliation that our linear minds will recognize, but organically, little spurts of social change are happening,” she says.
“It’s shifting, and people, nonindigenous included, are wanting to be part of the unlearning of colonization.”
She says a powerful reminder of how far Canadians have come is the federal potlatch ban, which made it illegal for indigenous people to gather for ceremony between 1885 and 1951.
“We weren’t even allowed to sing and dance, so for me to teach these young people singing and drumming, to be proud of who they are and where they come from, and to bring respect to Native people in this way, in an institution? It’s mind-blowing,” she says.
Webster is working on a new album, and says there’s a high demand for her to travel, but for now, she’s focused on keeping it local.
“I’ve made it my point to be in my community and share with the young people here,” she says.
“I think of how much belonging and identity those artists brought me at my first hip-hop show, and all I want to do is give back.”
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