This piece originally appeared on Pitchfork on Aug. 17, 2015
On the chorus of her new track, "Sisterz", JB the First Lady, aka Jerilynn Webster, doesn’t restrain the rage in her voice. "I wanna walk the whole damn world," she cries, "my stolen sisters, where did they go?" Her agitated plea isn’t just despair, frustration, or fear. More than 1,000 indigenous women have gone missing or been murdered in Canada in the last 30 years; the Canadian government has refused to call for a national inquiry, though the crisis has spurred an Amnesty International campaign. Webster’s song is a tribute to those women and their loved ones; for her, it’s a way to organize the permanent ache of grief.
A decade ago, Webster helped organize the founding of the First Ladies Crew, an indigenous women’s hip-hop collective in East Vancouver. Webster says hip-hop was a natural place for her, with its parallels to indigenous culture: Instead of breakdancing, there’s powwow, fancy dancers, and smoke dancers. Drummers create atmospheres and channel moods like DJs. The emcees are the speakers, storytellers, and keepers of the creation stories. Coast Salish and Haida art is all about showcasing the spirit of the animal or the story, the same way graffiti artists communicate the spirit of a letter or a color or a word.
"Hip-hop showed me that I needed to be connected to culture: songs, dance, ceremonies," explains Webster, who is part of the Nuxalk First Nations, and also has roots in Cayuga Six Nations. Rapping allowed her to capture indigenous oral history traditions in a contemporary way, but it also became a way to reconnect with her culture’s matriarchal roots. "Our ancestors, the matriarchs, were the speakers, the keepers of ceremony, and our oral history. As a young person, an activist talking about women’s rights or about murdered and missing indigenous women, hip-hop has been the best venue to connect with not only my peers and young people, but also the greater public that may have barriers to listening to the stories of First Nations’ indigenous people."
When she helped found the First Ladies Crew, underground Native hip-hop was almost entirely male, at least in terms of who was playing the shows and commanding the crowds. So much so that when some of the women first met, the instinct was anything but sisterhood. "We were always surrounded by men and young boys, never really women," remembers Dani Nelson, one-half of the twin-sister singer-songwriter duo Dani & Lizzy. "So when we met them, at first, it was like, ‘Oh, we should battle them!’ But then we were like, ‘No, this is dope. We can actually hang out with girls who are into the same things.’"
"The First Ladies Crew was not embraced in the Vancouver hip-hop scene." Nevertheless, they kept beatboxing and freestyling, in each other’s homes, at youth centers, outside nightclubs, wherever they could get together just to keep the rhymes coming. They began recording their songs in a small neighborhood studio, at the Knowledgeable Aboriginal Youth Association. Whenever one of them would book a show, they’d suggest adding other First Ladies to the bill, and would take over the stage—winning over the crowds. The collective kept them close and gave them the creative support the wider hip-hop community failed to show them. Each made their own albums and music videos, but they wrote songs together and dropped verses on each other’s tracks.
Since those humble early living room ciphers, the First Ladies have shared stages and bills and developed friendships with influential rap and electronic acts across the country, including Shad and A Tribe Called Red. In 2011, Webster became the second woman to ever be nominated in the rap/hip-hop category for the Aboriginal Peoples Choice Music Awards. But the work to be done looms; the hip-hop scene is still dominated by men and Indigenous artists continue to be presented as "other" and largely precluded from mainstream Canadian music.
Next level acceptance came in 2012’s Beat Nation, a large-scale art and music installation at the Vancouver Art Gallery. It showcased the intersection of hip-hop and indigenous culture, and featured the music of several First Ladies: Webster, Rapsure Risin’, and Musqueam rapper Christie Lee Charles. Of the seven core crew members, Charles is the only one to rap in her traditional language, hən̓q̓əmin̓əm̓, as she did on her breakthrough single, "Experience", the first track on the Beat Nation playlist.
Charles remembers teenage years spent on the Musqueam Indian Reserve, the only reservation within Vancouver (the city itself sits on unceded Coast Salish territory). On "People of the Sea", Charles unleashes her own anthem for decolonization and reclamation, rallying Indigenous people to rise up and organize against pipelines and the destruction of the land.
"They tried to kill the Indian in us, but they didn’t," Charles says. "I’ve got some magic in me and I want to share that with people. That’s what my music is about."
Charles’ newest track features fellow First Lady Shawna Seymour, who raps as Mama Es. The two women trade verses, cathedral voices arching up into vaulted ceilings, the synths squeaking upwards, with a beat and backing track that owes heavily to '90s revivalism and is punctuated with samples of water rushing and birdsong standing in for the land itself. Within the context of Canada’s disturbing treatment of its Indigenous population, those atmospherics are as much a moment of reclamation as the women declaring, "I’m here to stay, I’m here to say, I’ll be the existence, I’ll be the resistance."
Webster believes Canadian society is entering a time she calls "women-era now." She says the First Ladies are ready to be leaders, from Charles’ new record to Webster’s song, "Sisterz", which is actually the lead single from Enter Tribal, her eponymous collaboration with noted producer Chief Rock. Dani & Lizzy signed a deal with 604 Records and are putting finishing details on their forthcoming album. All of this after their soulful memorial song, "Dancing in the Sky", went viral on YouTube in 2013, garnering more than 10 million views.
It’s taken 10 years, but that means "we have this catalog of music and this catalog of things that we’ve done in the past and people can go back to it," Webster says. "First Ladies Crew were able to achieve that. We were leading each other. It wasn’t a hierarchy. We were walking together, holding hands together."