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In battle with ignorance

Webster advocates curiosity through Black history and hip hop

Aly Ndiaye, better known as Webster, is a hip hop artist and historian from Quebec City who has been a major contributor to Quebec’s rap and hip hop scenes for over 20 years. Webster started his rap career in 1995, inspired by the prominent influence of Black musicians in the media. Since then, he has focused on bringing back the impressive lyrical talent and powerful messages that made hip hop in the nineties so influential.

The artist weaves a multitude of themes and messages into his music, but devotes special attention to rapping about the history of Black, Indigenous, and other marginalized peoples in Canada. His advocacy is not limited to hip hop only. As a historian, Webster travels throughout Canada and the U.S. to speak to high school students about these issues.

In Qc History X, he gives listeners a history lesson right away by mentioning Mathieu Da Costa, the first recorded free Black man to have visited Canada. Da Costa was believed to be Samuel de Champlain’s interpreter in the navigator’s expedition from France to Port Royal in 1608. Originally from the Benin Empire, a pre-colonial African empire in what is now Southern Nigeria, Da Costa’s main role in the exploring party was that of translator. His knowledge of the local language was used to establish contact between European settlers and Indigenous populations. By embedding history in his songs Webster hints at the importance of acknowledging the past to construct a better social and artistic present.

Webster projects his wisdom through both his music and speeches, encouraging his listeners to transform the ignorance prevailing our society into never-ceasing learning. He was also one of the speakers of this year’s launch of Montreal Black History Month.

Webster spoke to The Daily about his career and his message.

The McGill Daily (MD): How do you believe the hip hop genre has changed since you started your career?

Webster (W): Back [in the nineties], hip hop was closer to its literary roots. The text was important, the lyrics [were] important. […] But nowadays the hip hop that is commercialized is like pop music, you don’t have any substance, it’s kinda dull. It’s not interesting. [Back then, the artists] were singing something and they would sell a lot of albums, but today […] there is a recipe where if you say something smart, you won’t sell anything.

MD: What do you think modern Canadians forget most about their past and their heritage?

W: I don’t like to put it like Black or white history because this is History, with a big H. But the thing is, in school, the history that is taught is white history. We don’t really talk about the Natives; we don’t really talk about the Black people, whether they are slaves or free men. We don’t really talk about the Chinese who built the railroads. Some might talk about it, but it’s not a known fact. That is what is important for me, all those facts which aren’t in books, they need to be known by everybody. […] You’ll ask anybody on the street, and they will tell you, ‘Yes, there were slaves in the U.S.,’ but they don’t know that there were slaves here [in Canada]. This is why it needs to become a common knowledge.

“[T]he biggest enemy of society is ignorance, because ignorance brings forth racism and xenophobia. So if you learn, and if you stay aware, you might be able to see things differently,” Webster shared with The Daily.

MD: You started your career rapping in English. What made you switch to rapping in French, and how has your experience and message changed after making that decision?

W: Well, first of all, I started rapping in English because […] my generation didn’t know that we could rap in French. […] I thought that it might be better if I could rap in French, because this is my native tongue, this is what I speak. […] When you’re a writer, you need to own the words, you need to have mastery of the words, and I knew that I was better in French than in English.

MD: You also speak at schools, and to young students especially. How does your music compare to speaking directly to your audience?

W: When I do music, it’s more poetic, you know? So you have better images, it’s nice to hear and the flow’s nice. But it’s not everybody that understands what I am saying through metaphors and comparisons. But when I speak to the people, it’s easier for me to explain concepts, and it’s more direct [and] to the point. That’s why I like to do both, it’s like different sides of the same coin.

MD: So you get the best of both worlds.

W: Yeah, exactly.

MD: Lastly, what do you think listeners and students who are reading this interview can do to become more aware and supportive of your message?

W: Learn. Just learn, stay aware, stay curious, read books. […] This is how we may grow as a society. I think the biggest enemy of society is ignorance, because ignorance brings forth racism and xenophobia. So if you learn, and if you stay aware, you might be able to see things differently. So I think all people need to do is to be curious about history, about the people, and about the world.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. Listen to the full interview on Unfit to Print here.