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IxDA Stories: Meet Webster

Interviewed by Poppe Guthrie on the IxDA Stories podcast

Tell us something about yourself that we wouldn’t get from the bio.

I’m a hip hop artist, I started to rap in 1995. I was one of the first rappers in Quebec city. I feel privileged to have witnessed the birth of the culture and to have helped bring that culture to life. To me this is a privilege in space and time for which I’m very grateful. I'm also grateful for hip hop because it allowed me to go all over the world and to visit so many countries I wouldn’t have seen if I was on my own. I owe that to the power of words, the powerfulness of hip hop culture.

Can you dig a bit more on the power of words and what that means to you?

They are so important because they can achieve so many things but also undo so many things. I compare words with fire. With fire as well as words, you can bring warmth. You can warm the heart of somebody through words but you can also destroy them. We know that words kill. We’ve seen it with false accusations in the lynching years in the United States. People, through words, would have people killed. To me it’s like fire, you can use it for good use but also nefarious use. They are so powerful that we need to know how to use words and to understand their impact as a society and as individuals.

This is not the topic of my talk, but there’s a link there. I will talk about the impact of images. How images were able to help people to understand slavery and push towards the abolition of slavery. Art was used to aim towards the abolition in the US and in England. Those images, and the design through those images, denigrated black people and native americans and asians through caricatures like black face, yellow face, red face. And there’s the parallel with words, because we were able to foster change in society through design, through images, in a positive way and in a negative way.

That concept of images and words as power and constructing that through design to tell a greater story and have a larger impact, how do you take that approach in composing your songs and your lyrics?

Well, when I was younger, I used to have a style of rap that was quite militant and revolutionary. Just wanting to change things and I was mad at a lot of things like social injustice and things I wasn’t able to change so I was rapping about them, but in a violent way. I used to call my style of rap terrorhythm. Then I realized that I was feeding all this negativity to the world and feeding it to myself. I was feeding myself with negativity because when I rap a song, it’s energy I put into myself. Since I practice them, I rap them, I write them, I go to the studio, I go to shows, I’m the one who’s most exposed to my songs. So when I realized that, I realized I needed to rap about positivity. And for the people also because I feel like if you push something into the world, it might as well be positive. So this is how I started to rap more positively about courage, being a better version of yourself, resilience.

A couple years ago, there was a kid in a classroom who asked me "What type of rap do you do? Is that conscious rap, gangsta rap?" I told him "I want you to listen to my songs and be inspired to have good grades, I want you to listen to my songs and be like you know what, I’ll become an astronaut, I’ll become a doctor". So this is the type of rap I do. As I said, since I’m the one who’s most exposed to it, this is what I want to feel. This is what I want to receive.

If we want to change society, we need to change individuals. And for society to feel better and be better, I think individuals need to feel better and be better. That’s why I want them to receive what I’m doing positively so that they can have an impact around them.

On that topic of impact and what you’re delivering to your audience through your rap, given that this is IxDA’s most global and diverse audience ever, what perspectives or concepts are you hoping people will take away from your talk, what are you hoping to impart to them?

That we always have an impact on things. People need to understand that if we want to change the way society is going, we all have a role to play, we all have an impact. If we want to fight against sexism, it’s not only a women’s thing. As a man, I need to change my mentality. It’s not because women are at the losing end of sexism that they’re the ones who have the weight to change it. It’s the same with racism. It’s not just black people or racialized people that have the weight to fight racism, it’s a society thing, it’s everybody.

Everything is design. Whether it be architecture, music, when I write a song, I design thoughts, I design art. Why don’t we try to implement change in the way we design to be able to build a better future for everybody.

Transitioning to the conference theme, Design In Perilous Times, how have you been personally tackling these challenging times?

I try to focus on other things. I couldn’t give concerts anymore, I couldn’t travel, give lectures or workshops. So I’ve focused on writing, on research. To use a violent metaphor, I’ve been putting bullets in the magazines. We fight with thoughts, with ideas, we fight with information, so through research I’m able to sharpen my weapons. I realize I don’t like to use those violent metaphors but through information and research, we’ll be able to better tackle those issues and be able to debate. So that’s what I’ve been up to.

We finally have the time to do all those things we never have time for, so I’ve been trying to put this time to good use. I continue my same routine, waking early in the morning, working the whole day, not just waiting for something to happen. Being a freelancer, I was already used to that pattern so the only thing that changed for me is that I wasn’t going out to do my job.

Sounds like you redirected your creative energy to different mediums.

Yeah, I’ve always liked to touch things. There’s this expression “renaissance man”. While I don’t qualify myself as being one, let’s call geniuses that, but for me, I like the concept. I think about the Middle ages in Bagdad, in Morocco, where people were scientists, wise people, they would do poetry and astronomy and biology. I like that. I like being able to be a rapper, a historian, a curator for an exhibit at the museum, and now I’m translating a book. I like the concept. I don’t know if I’m good at it, but I’m trying. I’m going there, we’ll see what happens.

What advice would you give to people to stay sane while living and working in shelter-in-place?

Am I sane? I don’t know if I can give that advice to people! Find your balance. I say that and I’m not even balanced, I work a lot, I like working. My girlfriend tells me I’m a workaholic and I’m like, yeah I am. I’m one of those people who just decided to jump in. You smoke so many cigarettes, you know it’s bad for your health, and you’re like good, I’ll die from cigarettes. I’ll probably die from work, but I’m at peace with it. I have a different balance, don’t be like me. In french we say “cordonnier mal chaussé” (shoemaker who doesn’t have good shoes). Find your path. Find your balance.

If you could commission any artist, dead or alive, to create a work of art just for you, who would it be?

I think I’d ask Christian Scott to write a song. He’s a trumpeter from New Orleans, I just love what he does. This guy is so socially-conscious, but historically conscious. He knows about the impact of history and he’s a native american from african-amercian descent so he embodies both those struggles. He’s a hip hop kid too. When he plays, and through his songs, we feel that he’s from the hip hop generation. So I’d tell him to write a song and leave me some space for 16 bars to rap on that song too.

How would you describe your talk, and do you have a catchy title?

I don’t have a catchy title but I’d describe it as how design impacted slavery, the end of slavery, the dehumanization and also how design helped me to recreate the history of slavery and the African presence in Quebec. This is something that was totally forgotten, erased from our history but through design, I was able to bring the history back to, not the limelight, but a feeble light that if you screw the bulb tighter, it’ll become brighter.

🎧 Tune in to other episodes of the IxDA Stories podcast.

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The Interaction Design Association (IxDA) is a member-supported organization, focusing on interaction design issues for the practitioner, no matter their level of experience.

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