Quebec en scène: Rapper talks bridging divides after mosque attack | Toronto Star

MONTREAL—A day after the deadly shooting at a Quebec City mosque, the francophone rapper Aly Ndiaye, alias Webster, arrived at a Montreal school to lead students in a creative-writing workshop.As a native of the provincial capital, where the mass shooting...

Quebec en scène: Rapper talks bridging divides after mosque attack | Toronto Star

MONTREAL—A day after the deadly shooting at a Quebec City mosque, the francophone rapper Aly Ndiaye, alias Webster, arrived at a Montreal school to lead students in a creative-writing workshop.

As a native of the provincial capital, where the mass shooting had shattered the image of a historic, but homogenous government town, the kids wanted to know one thing first.

“The question was: ‘What is it like to be in Quebec City?’ ” Webster recounted in a telephone interview. “I said that living in Quebec City is a challenge, but it’s a beautiful city. It’s a city I love.”

Over the last two weeks, Webster has been asked repeatedly to help explain the social context behind the killing of six Muslims by a shooter described as an angry and isolated young white man.

He’s good at explanation. Webster is a trained historian and former Parks Canada guide who operates a walking tour focused on the history of slavery in Quebec City.

But as a black man and a Muslim born in the city to a Senegalese father and Québécoise mother, Webster also has a stake in figuring out the response.

“It’s a mission and sometimes, as a joke, I say that I’m in the trenches. What I mean is that I think it’s important to be on the front lines and to bring my point of view,” the 37-year-old says.

It may not have seemed so at first, but rap has proved to be a fitting vehicle for this artiste engagé.

In the 1990s, when the rap scene came into its own in this province, francophone MCs followed the American trailblazers and, mostly, rapped in English. It would take several years for a truly native style of French rhymes to become prominent.

Webster’s early days were also spent reconciling his intellect and interest in history with gangsta rap, the popular sub-genre that revelled in gang culture and street life.

It wasn’t easy. His stage name started as a joke based on the English dictionary he so often had at his fingertips. His musical idols included the rappers Nas and the Wu Tang Clan.

“They’re sort of the intellectuals of rap. They’re mixing intellectualism, history, philosophy, martial arts and politics,” he said. “It was really them that permitted me to assume those two parts of myself that could seem contradictory at times, but that actually compliment each other very well.”

Initially, Webster rapped in English, even though French is his mother tongue. He said it was “inconceivable” back then that he could make a career out of rapping in French.

In 2003, his perspective changed and he set about teaching himself how to rap in French. It was difficult, but it helps avoid political disputes that arise when francophone musicians use the language of Shakespeare instead of that of Molière. He still sprinkles English into his rhymes but prefers getting attention for the content of his songs, not their form.

“People judge you when you mix up the languages,” Webster said. “But from a creative point of view, for me, it gives you more options . . . It’s a bit like a painter: you put some red, some blue and some green, just like you can use English or any other language.”

He has worked his theories of composition into a French-language workshop that he has taken around the world to work with students on word play, rhyming and writing skills.

Webster keeps coming home to Quebec City, but he says more and more people like him — children of immigrants or those who were raised in the city from a young age — are choosing to remake their lives in places such as Montreal, Ottawa, Toronto or the United States, judging them more hospitable to minorities.

“Sometimes I speak to them and they say, ‘You’re crazy, why are you still there?’ I always say that if we leave, everything will be undone,” he said. “I’m at an age and have a certain social credibility where I can come and speak. I can bring a different perspective to the media. I can translate a reality that we don’t see in the media.”

Days before the Jan. 29 mosque shooting, Webster was invited onto the radio show of Jeff Fillion, a popular and notorious Quebec City talk-show host, to speak about the city’s upcoming Festival contre le racisme de Québec (Quebec City Festival Against Racism).

“If there’s one thing I don’t feel in the region of Quebec or in Quebec City, it’s stories related to racism,” Fillion said.

“Maybe it’s because you don’t experience it,” Webster suggested.

Less than a week later, Quebec City and the entire province were plunged into a collective examination of the social, political and cultural frictions that preceded the mosque killings.

Some have blamed provocative private radio hosts for fear-mongering, creating a toxic environment for minorities. Some have blamed politicians for stoking the ignorance and fear of voters with their policy positions.

Webster says that his city and its people are not racists, but racism does exist.

Will it be eliminated? Is such a thing even possible? Webster sees signs of hope, whether in the interest among Quebec natives to take his tour and learn the history of slavery, or the recent gusts of goodwill toward Muslims from Quebec and Canada after the killings.

“I have hope, but you have to be vigilant,” Webster said. “The important thing is where we’re going to be in six months or a year. Right now, there is a spirit of solidarity, but what’s important is to keep it going.”

En Scène is a monthly column on Quebec culture.

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