JB the First Lady is revolutionizing hip-hop.
Change the rhythm
It’s evident from the moment she shakes your hand—Jerilynn Webster’s generous warmth and kindness is immediately obvious and generously dispensed. But the strength of her presence speaks to a keen understanding of what it means to go without; the single mother in her early 30s has experienced homelessness, deep poverty, and racism through years of moving across a country that prides itself on its prosperity and inclusiveness.
Today, she performs hip-hop as JB the First Lady. She’s one of B.C.’s few female, aboriginal MCs. With three albums to date (her latest, Indigenous Girl Lifestyle, was released last year), plus five Aboriginal Peoples Choice Music Awards nominations under her belt, her work is making waves in Vancouver and across Canada.
By insisting on a new, empowered representational reality for young Indigenous women, JB is making a unique and necessary mark on a Canadian music scene dominated by men and by non-Indigenous people.
Part of the Cayuga and Nuxalk First Nations, she’s a leader, an amplifier, and an advocate for aboriginal people. “My Mom told me she sees me as a palm tree,” she says. “If there’s a hurricane, palm trees are built so that they can bend all the way down, but as soon as it’s sunny, they move all the way up. I see that for my people too. People push us down, but we’ll come right back up.”
In addition to her work as a hip-hop artist, JB is a public speaker, workshop leader, producer, mentor, and parent.
Her words are positive and her message is clear: through knowledge, support and love, anything is possible.
Megaphone sat down with Webster near her home off Commercial Drive. Here’s what we discussed.
Megaphone: When did your love affair with hip-hop first start?
JB: The first time I went to a hip-hop show, it was the end of the Native Youth Movement [a widespread Native youth activist movement that happenedin the late 90s and early 2000s].
As a young person, I faced a lot of barriers like homelessness—when we arrived in different cities, we would be homeless. Transition houses were a place where we were kept safe. I [was raised by] a single mother, poverty. We moved all across Canada, then we moved to Vancouver and there was a high level of racism.
[At the show], these young people were talking about decolonization, Native pride, being proud of where they came from, residential schools. I was like “Whoa.” It blew my mind.
When I saw those artists I thought, “I want to do that.”
MP: How did you find your voice as an artist?
JB: There are so many messages of gangsterism and what’s going on in the streets, and those are real stories. I totally see that and it’s no greater or lesser than the music I make.
A really amazing Canadian artist Shad, in his second verse of his track “Keep Shining,” he talks about how more women need to be in rap because we’re only getting one half of the story.
That has pushed my entire musical career. I put out my first CD when my son was two weeks old. And I thought, “No one wants to hear a young Native girl rap about empowerment.”
I actually got to meet Shad and become friends, as well as another amazing Canadian artist named Ryan McMahon, both of whom said, “You know what, JB? We need to hear your voice. We need to hear your point of view, especially as a young Indigenous woman.”
MP: How does that make you feel?
JB: What I’ve noticed, and especially with elders that I’ve spoken to that have seen me perform, they’ve said you’re doing the same job as your great-great- great grandmother, and by speaking and bringing hope and inspiration.
For a young Native person who may face racism, who may feel suicidal, who maybe addicted, they need to see a powerful, strong Indigenous woman. I’ve taken that onto myself and have said ‘yes, I will step into that role.’ I want to bring hope.
MP: How do you feel about the future? Have you seen positive change in younger generations, your community or yourself since you’ve been making music?
JB: There’s been a big shift in women’s voices since the end of 2012. I was the only female artist to ever be nominated in the Native Hip Hop category at the Aboriginal People’s Choice Awards.
Just seeing the shift within my own self and saying “Hey, yeah I have a place here.” The greater public is seeing me and seeing other female artists taking pride in themselves.
In the younger generations, it’s nice to see a lot of people taking pride in themselves; young role models that are strong with strong voices in diverse areas.
You’re seeing more representation across the map, groups like Tribe Called Red, you’re seeing a lot of these people break through to the mainstream.
MP: How has this ‘female shift’ affected you as an artist?
JB: I have a female collective, a sisterhood. [The First Ladies Crew, a Vancouver Aboriginal women’s hip-hop collective, featuring JB]—we’ve really empowered ourselves to make our own music and stick with it.
I look back at the footage of us as young female hip-hop artists. In the Vancouver hip-hop community we were looked at as “just the females.” We were given one night a year to rock out on the stage. When I go back to that footage I think we were so killer, but we were so inside ourselves.
Especially for myself, I believed that we were “just the females” and we didn’t have the tightest lyrics or we weren’t singing the right thing. I really feel like we weren’t really welcomed. No one was ever rude or harsh, it was an unspoken thing.
[But now] because we’re different, we’re not a dime a dozen, we’re not preaching gangsterism, I’m not putting any of that down, I’m just saying that we provide a different perspective and people want to hear that. We’re happy to provide that.
MP: Do you have any advice for emerging artists who wish to get more involved in music or in their community?
JB: The best advice I can give is to invest in yourself. Invest in time and love for self and it will take you very far.
Work is happening organically. Not in a linear way. Change happens one connection and one person at a time.
I have a lot of hope for the future. We may not see it right now—it’s a little grey, like a Vancouver day. But in Vancouver, you wait five minutes, the weather changes. So just wait, things will change.