When Canadian hip hop artiste Ali Ndiaye aka Webster began his performance at Take Five restaurant he immediately won over the audience with his powerful voice and music. The event was organised by Bangalore School of Music, in support of their outreach partner, Concerns Community College. Taking time out of his hectic schedule, which included a performance at a metro station and interactions with college students, Webster spoke about his journey as a hip hop artiste.
“I started to listen to hip hop music at the beginning of the 90s. What drew me to hip hop was that nobody had ever translated my realities as a young boy in the back alleys, but hip hop did. I started rapping in 1995, and initially performed American rappers, I translated their songs,” says Webster whose father is Senegalese and mother is from Quebec, an identity he is proud of.
Over time, it dawned on Webster to create his own music.
“I thought ‘boom’ I can write my own music and I wrote my first text. I was one of the first persons to rap in Quebec city. I took the hip hop culture forward. I rapped for eight years in English before I began rapping in French. I decided to rap in French because I have a better mastery over the language,” says Webster in fluent English.
He has rapped on themes revolving around social justice, racial profiling, environmental issues, and the history of African slaves in Canada.
“But it’s not my favourite way of writing because I feel too confined by the themes itself. The part I like the most is free form. It allows me to play with words and ideas, and at the same time, I am able to say something meaningful.”
Hip hop is a superior art form he stresses, it involves word play set to a rhythm, which is no easy task. “It is so dense, it has so many ideas and layers of understanding. I love the complexity of the art form.”
When asked about a memorable performance, he reminisces: “I had performed last year at the Symphonic Orchestra in Quebec City. The concert was held to commemorate a black music composer. My song was remixed in a classical form. I rapped with 75 musicians. My family was sitting in the audience and I could feel their heart beat.”
Webster says that people often forget that African slaves existed in Canada too as much as they did in America and Brazil. “People think Africans and people from the Caribbean came to Canada in the 1950s and 1970s, but it dates back to the 17Th century. Most of the slaves were in fact natives. My mission is to get knowledge on this history back. It is not about blaming or making people feel guilty but to understand that this history impacts our identity as a whole. For me, it is important to go beyond slavery. It is not an identity, it is a social status and that it is important to tell their stories. I also want to talk about the people behind slavery.”
Webster conducts creative writing workshops all over the world; he was invited to Harvard University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Boston, youth correctional facilities in Geneva (Switzerland), schools in the Bronx (New York) and cultural centres in Mauritiana, Senegal, Mali and China. He regularly collaborates with the Governments of Quebec, Canada and France.
“In my workshops I like expressions to flow. I say tell the participants to write for yourself and not to hold themselves back. For me these workshops are important to share knowledge of my journey while I also learn from the participants.”
Webster also gives lectures about a variety of topics. He meets troubled youth to speak about courage, perseverance, discipline, resilience, and other aspects of positive reinforcement.
“I grew up with people in my neighbourhood who made different choices in their lives. I was not incarcerated but a lot of people around me were. When I work with troubled youth I give them the tools to express whatever they want to say. There is no judgement. It is important they own their choices. You learn from your mistakes. A mistake is only a mistake if you don't learn from it. Once you learn, you grow.”
As for the creative process of writing and performing his songs, Webster says: “The writing is personal. You dive deep into yourself, knowledge and biases. I love to fashion my text that way. In the studio, though, you fashion it outwardly. This is how I make people receive. I enjoy the contact with the audience because there is not too much analysis of the song, but the feeling of the song gets conveyed."
Before he takes his leave, he talks about his first impressions of India. “I love it. I love the vibes and warmth of the people.”