Hip-Hop History: An Interview with Webster

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This interview originally between Christine Chevalier-Caron and Webster appeared in French on Histoire Engagée. Translated by Thomas Peace.

A few months ago, I had the chance to interview the inspirational Aly Ndiaye, better known as Webster. Growing up in the Quebec City neighbourhood of Limoilou, this Sénéquéb métis pure laine began to rap in 1995. Passionate about history, Webster’s work has fuelled historiographical renewal in Quebec by emphasizing the importance of its minority populations, specifically the histories of Black Québecois and slavery. As part of Black History month (in February), we present a transcript of this interview, tackling questions focused on activism, rap, history and inequality.

Christine Chevalier-Caron: What encouraged you to become an activist?

Webster: I come from a family of activists. Even in our youth, my mother and father were very active in the labour movement and immigration issues. I recall that during Apartheid we were never allowed to eat food from South Africa. My parents took us to many protests. I grew up with models like Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, and the Black Panthers. This is what I became interested in and they played a formative role in my life. As I grew up, I decided to develop this – to invest a bit – by denouncing inequalities, the events taking place around me, and the inaccuracies of history. I embedded myself into the vein of history and it is there where I found my activism.

Aly Ndiaye, AKA Webster

Chevalier-Caron: Was it similar influences that encouraged you to make hip-hop music?

Webster: More or less. It is a type of music that I listened to often. It was from this interest that I developed a desire to make music. For much of my life, I have searched for a creative outlet for my imagination. Rather than drawing or playing an instrument, I gravitated to writing. From there, because I was already listening to socially and politically conscientious hip-hop, it was not long before they blended together.

Chevalier-Caron: How do you see the links between history and activism?

Webster: For me, history aligns with everything. Everything has a history and one can make history from anything. Everything is connected. When I was young, I studied Malcolm X and the Black Panthers. It is history – recent history – but history nonetheless. History has always fascinated me – from wherever I have been – and, with time, as I was leaving university, I discovered the presence of Black people in Quebec. Slavery in Quebec: a subject few people discuss. And it was from this experience I learned that being a historian is a form of activism. I could use history to see the present in a different light and emphasize the influence, let us say, of Quebec’s cultural diversity on historic events.

Chevalier-Caron: In your opinion, what are the consequences of Quebec’s historians assigning a marginal place to minorities in their histories and how do you think that this situation might be remedied?

Webster: The consequence of seeing history as homogenous is that it defines identity as homogenous and therefore both young people and adults think of Quebec in a homogenous manner. White people will see Quebec as White. Non-White people will see Quebec as White. Young people will grow up without a firm Quebec identity. Instead they might identify with their status as “immigrant.” In my case, I was born in Quebec. My mother is Quebecois and my father is Senegalese. I lived much of my life in parallel. I consider myself Quebecois, but different. I don’t see myself in Quebec’s cultural or historical fabric. I have, however, studied Quebec’s history. Having a more inclusive history will allow us to affirm a Quebec identity that is more inclusive. Young people will be able to see each other. Men and women – everybody – will see difference in history. This will, in my opinion, make a significant impact in the present and how we perceive cultural diversity in our time.

Chevalier-Caron: Do you think that hip-hop can contribute to that renewal of history and empower those people who have been left out of the histories of Quebec and Canada?

Webster: Yes, because history allows me to sing these people, to sing this history, to free them from the history books. Knowledge of history remains quite “elitist” in the sense that if you have not studied history, you cannot truly know. Even if you have studied history, it is not certain that you understand. It is for that reason that I have tried to democratize the past by popularizing it. It is when young people come to see me and I discuss Quebec History X that I feel that we are close to success because it allows young people, 12 and 13 years old, to understand history. [Lyrics have been translated at the end of this post]

Hip-hop also allows us to diversify Quebec’s culture. To put this another way, if the presence of hip-hop were better received in Quebec, it would allow young people to see themselves reflected in mass culture, not just that of Blacks, immigrants or the children of immigrants, but also young white people who also do not see themselves in today’s culture. They too feel marginalized from this mass culture. According more space for hip-hop allows us to better affirm a diverse Quebec identity. I am speaking in terms of both class and ethnicity. This is the role hip-hop can play. It is important to show Quebec’s diverse origins. That is, the way that this diversity has contributed (and contributes) to the building of Quebec. My Senegalese roots pushed me towards this interpretation. This is what I discovered upon leaving my studies. I said to myself: “Look, these are the things I wish I had known when I was young.” This is what pushes me to do what I do.

Chevalier-Caron: And how can hip-hop work to improve social inequalities?

Webster: Already, hip-hop is an uncensored art. We can say what we want. Anything can be said through rap, and you can speak out about what you want; take the perspective you want; you can be aggressive, or not; silly, or not. When it comes to activism, you can be militant or non-violent. All of these approaches make sense with rap. For me it is an extremely interesting medium through which to speak out. We live in a fairly independent society where we are not subject to restrictions on speech. Rap makes it easy to speak out and talk about the subjects we want.

My approach is local because I want to respond to events taking place here, to change things locally and in everyday life. From this approach, at the level of history, this involves attacking prejudices, monolithic historical thinking about Quebec’s past. The history of the province has always been written from an ethnocentric perspective. At university I had one or two classes on Indigenous history, otherwise they were presented as spectators and extras. No one spoke of slavery or even used the word.

Work must also be done outside the classroom. Someone who hasn’t been to school will know about slavery in the United States, but no one knows that it occurred here too. It is unacceptable that this is not a known fact. Even if it was not at the same scale as in the United States, it was a reality here. I don’t make this statement to bring about feelings of guilt, or tensions. I do so with the goal of correcting historical inaccuracies. From this historical black hole, I hope that the people will learn and therefore put our present moment into perspective.

It is important to speak out. People who are here today do not have slaves. No one is pointing fingers. Unlike France, where the government has a debt due to its exploitation of colonies and slaves, no grand fortunes were built here on slave labour. Further, few Black Quebecois today are the descendants of slaves. Some things, however, such as the relationship between the government and Indigenous peoples, must be addressed. Indigenous peoples survived genocide. It is not normal that in our time Indigenous nations are parked on reserves with rotting buildings and unclean drinking water. To me, these are people too often swept aside. For me, slavery is not discussed to invoke feelings of guilt, but rather to raise awareness about what took place in the past. What took place with Indigenous peoples is another component of what occurred to the Blacks in servitude here. There was segregation here too, but it was not as institutionalized as it was in the United States. It was more “free.” The reality was considerably different than in the United States, but we cannot say that there was no racism.

Album Cover: Le Vieux de la Montagne (2010)

In light of this interview, you can see how rap can serve as an activist tool and contribute to the historiographical renewal Quebec’s history. If you would like to find out more about the history of Blacks and slavery in Quebec, Webster has developed a guided tour of Quebec City where he presents important places for that city’s Black populations. We invite you to check out his website (WebsterLS.com) to learn more about his work and his guided tour (QcHistoryXtours.ca).

Lyrics for Quebec History X:

Verse 1
I will take you back in time
For a few minutes
You will uncover facts
That we don’t necessarily learn
I will tell you another history
One not taught in the courses
Indigenous and Black
The one that needs to be updated
Where to start
To tell you like it is
First you must understand
History is romanticized
It is written by the victors
With one part hidden
The hypocrites do not date from yesterday
Back in the days
Around 1604
Champlain stepped ashore
With a Black at his side
Mathieu Da Costa
Called the interpreter
He spoke Mi’kmaw
French and Dutch
In 1629
Olivier Lejeune arrived
First slave reported
In the new city of Quebec
At least 10,000 slaves
In Canada
Until this law was abolished
In 1833
It’s crazy
By force of massive browsing
I discovered that Lionel Groulx
Argued for the purity of races
It’s the same for Garneau
Quebec History X
They erased us from the tableau
But wait
There were black business men
They were in the regiments
And others were Fur Traders [Coureurs des bois]
There were also Inn Keepers
And they want us to believe
That the Blacks have been here
Since the 70s
Point-du-Sable Jean-Baptiste
A metis from the Antilles
Founded a trading post in Illinois
Nowadays we call it Chicago
A Black francophone founded Chicago
Jackie Robinson
Oliver Jones
And Oscar Peterson
The list is long
But not so much
Many forgotten heroes
Have contributed to our past
But few want to emphasize it

400 years of history
6 million reasons
To make us forget to believe
We must remember
That is all I am afraid of becoming
When you think for 10 minutes
Ignorance diminishes

Verse 2
In the 19th century
It is not at all finished
They sent the Chinese
To build the railway all across the country
Living detonators
They were sent to dig out the rock
With nitroglycerine
And it exploded when they approached
Chinese pie
Comes from there
Beef, corn and potato
Everything you find on the Westside
Between you and me
There is nothing oriental
It was a mixture given to them
To feed them in piles
Now the Indians, ah the Indians
Man, they had it bad
The Indians
Genocide on a grand scale
A very grand scale
The memory of the Americas
Is forever tarnished
The first biological weapons
They gave them blankets
Soaked with small pox
You saw what followed
A microbiological shock
And cultural rape
To be seen as a stranger
On their own Land
Ancestral Land
It is because of the industrial era
that through the 21st century
the souls of the ancestors moan
We speak of rape, of glue,
And alcohol in flasks
The high suicide rate
Demonstrates a fucking despair
In the reserves
I understand that some attack
The government
Like back then at Kanesatake

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