Quebec City historian showcases province’s hip-hop scene in local exhibit

Aly Ndiaye’s relationship with hip hop has been 30 years in the making.

A self-proclaimed bookworm, he’s known by the stage name Webster, and has long aimed to shed a light on the lesser-known parts of Quebec history. Known in recent years for his conferences and specialized walking tours of Quebec City, he says it was hip hop that first showed him the power of self-expression.

“I got exposed to hip-hop culture and it really spoke to me because it was the first time as an African-Canadian, as an African-Québécois, this was the first time I saw myself — I saw my realities pictured on TV,” he said. “Being a young mixed kid from Limoilou streets, this is the first time I saw people looking like me who were empowered.”

In the mid-90s, Webster launched a hip-hop career of his own, with his music focusing on themes he had previously felt unable to express.

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“It was a way to express myself, to express creativity also, and to speak about things I was living but nobody was talking about back then,” he said.

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“We were profiled by police. Almost every day, we were stopped and asked for our ID’s, but this is something that we lived and we’d speak with other people in the hip-hop culture … but it’s not something that was (portrayed) in the mainstream.”

In one of his better-known works, Quebec History X, Webster tells the story of Olivier Lejeune, the first recorded slave to be purchased in Canada.

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It’s one of the stories he would go on to tell in his walking tours of Old Quebec, which held the same name. Through that tour and through his work as an historian, he has aimed to show Quebecers that slavery once existed in the province too — not just south of the border.

But in his latest project, Webster focuses on an entirely different part of Quebec’s history: music.

“This is how we came to exist like in a culture, culturally, on stage and in the radio,” he said. “We built it for ourselves.”

In partnership with Quebec City’s Musée de la civilisation, Webster has put together an exhibit called Word is bond, which takes a look at the province’s hip hop culture from its early days to today.

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“Hip hop is a matrix so we have a lot of the same codes, the same bases, but then we adapt it locally,” Webster said of Quebec hip hop. “So, we talk about our own realities, we use our own languages … and we intersect with hip hop from the United States and hip hop from France.”

In his research for the exhibit, he realized he too had a lot left to learn about the genre’s history in the province.

“That’s the crazy thing. I always thought that I was part of kind of the first wave in the 1990’s. … But then, I’d say recently I learned that hip hop started at the end of the 1970’s here,” he said. “And many of the first people who started to rap here were women.”

Webster hopes the exhibit will expose a new generation and demographic to the history of the genre, while staying true to long-time members of the province’s hip-hop scene.

The Word is Bond exhibit is on at the Musée de la civilisation until September.

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