On The Gentrification of Cannabis Culture

By: Daniel G. Wilson | Photo by: Aphiwat Chuangchoem via Pexels

It always surprises people when I tell them that I don’t smoke weed. I’m a rock musician, Jamaican, Black, and I have a personality that some have said comes off as “high” sometimes. I check all of the boxes, and that provides me with a unique perspective about cannabis culture. Because as much as I don’t partake, I still experience a lot of the stigmatization and assumptions that have arisen out of the prohibition of cannabis, and I still have a reverence for the medicinal and religious ways in which cannabis is used, something that I see is becoming gentrified as the Canadian cannabis industry emerges. 

Since legalization, the culture around marijuana or cannabis usage has become co-opted in a fashion that is unfortunately all too familiar to marginalized communities. As with various forms of “ethnic” or generally non-European cuisine, hairstyles, fashion, and forms of speech, the industry that has formed around the consumption of marijuana and related-products strips it from its original religious and medicinal contexts, a process that is driven by the very same groups who once persecuted its use. 

Long gone are the days of films like Reefer Madness where the plant was presented as a type of boogeyman that threatened the stability of a polite and predominantly white society or the days when classic rock acts such as the Band or Jimi Hendrix would get arrested at airports for possession. Cannabis has been growing steadily in popular acceptance and now is treated as an almost miracle plant. In a recent moment of weakness, rocker Bif Naked went so far as to make wildly untrue claims that the CBD products she markets through her company Mona Lisa Healing “help your body defend against COVID-19 Coronavirus.” 

This shift in the public perception of weed is ever more apparent here in Canada as the plant has been legal, with various caveats and some restrictions since 2018, when we became the second country in the world to fully legalize recreational use of it. Unfortunately, this acceptance does not always appear to respect or properly acknowledge the roots of that culture, the work put in by BIPOC activists to push for the decriminalisation of the plant as well as the expunging of records for those still incarcerated on cannabis-related drug charges, or even involve these communities in the development of these new products.

It is not hard to find a lifestyle publication, a social media influencer, or major corporation cashing in on cannabis culture in some shape or form. This commodification is often at the expense of the BIPOC folks who not only birthed cannabis culture but who were also demonized for it by the legal system. The modern image of the highbrow weed dispensary or marijuana paraphernalia company that celebrities lend their names to or promote on social media stands in large contrast to the old image of marijuana as an illegal substance that was associated with only the lowliest of people in society. 

Despite this disconnect between the industry and culture, the cannabis industry has a purposeful and unspoken reliance upon music as a way to feign cultural legitimacy. Before legalization had even been finalized, companies like Aurora were sponsoring music festivals and events, though The Cannabis Act quickly put an end to that. Then, unable to outright endorse products thanks to the same legislation, musicians like The Tragically Hip and Drake began partnering with companies like Up and Canopy. The Hip’s strains were intended to be medical in use, though that partnership ended when parent company Newstrike was sold to HEXO. Drake’s More Life Growth Co. was to be centred around “wellness” but now that partnership is also up in the air with Canopy’s CEO David Klein telling BNNBloomberg in August that “when I looked at the IP that Canopy has on its plate, I will admit that More Life was pretty far down the list of things to get to.” 

Drake’s brand being a low priority doesn’t come as a shock in an industry where the largest companies like Canopy Growth, Cronos Group, Aurora, Tilray and HEXO are all owned and operated by predominantly white executives and management. The makeup of these boards offers a glaring dissonance from the people who are still currently incarcerated for possession, trafficking and production charges, which in 2017, made up some 53% of all drug-related arrests in the country. Though companies like Aurora and HEXO have put money toward programs for cannabis amnesty, the expunging of criminal records is not enough if the laws are still unfairly stacked against particular groups.

While many people and organizations over the decades have worked to both decriminalize marijuana and to remove its negative connotations, it seems the most startling difference between the image of the cannabis user in the public mind today is the shift from its association with often poor Black and brown people to more economically privileged white people while also becoming more socially acceptable. In contrast to the more corporatized partnerships, many in the music community work at a grassroots level to foster acceptance of the plant that’s inclusive of and acknowledges the deeper history of its use. In the Greater Toronto area cannabis paraphernalia store Culture Rising was started by punk musicians in 2006. Others such as Damian Abrham of Fucked Up and Witch Prophet  have acted as advocates of sorts for cannabis’ destigmatization by describing the positive experiences they have had with the plant. 

Though the use of cannabis for health and “wellness” reasons may appear to be a modern trend, the use of the plant for medicinal and recreational purposes has an old and complicated history. Different cultures throughout the world use marijuana and related plants for a variety of practical, medicinal, and spiritual purposes and have for thousands of years. In ancient China, the plant was used for its anesthetic qualities while the related hemp plant was often used as raw material for every item such as clothing or rope throughout in numerous countries such as in the Americas. In Jamaica, marijuana, also known as “ganja,” has been used as a type of medicine for everything from stomach aches to the common cold since the plant was introduced to the island in the 1800s by East Indian labourers. Many adherents of the Rastafarian faith would also recreationally smoke marijuana as part of their religious practice. This would extend into musical expressions as one of the biggest links between cannabis culture and music is reggae. Reggae as a musical genre has its origins in the integration of Rastafarian philosophy and musical elements such as Nyahbinghi drumming with other forms of Jamaican music such as ska and rocksteady. Some of the most prominent reggae artists around the world have been adherents of the Rastafarian faith or have been directly influenced by its ideals.

Who is benefiting and who is punished through this industry today belongs to a long history of the way in which settlers have shaped and defined what is or is not acceptable. In the 19th and 20th centuries psychoactive substances that had roots in Indigenous cultures and religions were specifically targeted by governments in both the United States and Canada. A report by the 2002 Senate Special Committee on Illegal Drugs In Canada details that: “the strictest controls were placed on organic substances – the coca bush, the poppy and the cannabis plant – which are often part of the ancestral traditions of the countries where these plants originate, whereas the North’s cultural products, tobacco and alcohol, were ignored and the synthetic substances produced by the North’s pharmaceutical industry were subject to regulation rather than prohibition.” Thus beginning the rise of drug policy as a form of social control, policies that still inform drug policy and legislation today.  

For decades in the United States and Canada, cannabis prohibition was used as an excuse to demonize, harass, and incarcerate countless BIPOC individuals. Black, Latinx, and Indigenous peoples have been particularly targeted at higher rates than other groups despite comparable statistical usage. And despite the work of advocates and the acceptance of cannabis culture, numerous individuals remain incarcerated on cannabis related drug offences such as possession. Processes to give people pardons under the new system have been unfortunately slow. In September 2019 only 44 people were noted as having been pardoned for minor possession related charges and in August of 2020 that number increased to 257 with thousands more left waiting in a bureaucratic backlog.

Even with recreational use legalized, the establishing of a formal industry and regulations means there are plenty of ways for Canadians to still get busted for pot, which coupled with the fact the rates of arrest for Black folks is disproportionately higher in this country, the enforcement around these new laws still single out one group while privileging another. This shows that there is much more left to be done in terms of the public discourse around cannabis culture, but it seems to have taken a side-step to the industry itself. 

Reggae artists have been some of the most vocal opponents of these injustices and proponents for the decriminalization of the plant globally. Numerous reggae songs were written both about the health and spiritual aspects of the plant as well as in protest of its criminalization during the ’70s by artists such as Peter Tosh in his song “Legalize It” and Inner Circle in their song “Healing of the Nation.” This extended to musical groups in the diaspora as seen in the song “Arrested” by Jamaican-Canadian reggae band Messenjah in 1982. This song’s lyrical content speaks to the context of the unequal ways in which cannabis is policed in Canada and how Black folks in particular are often singled out by these laws and those who enforce them. 

The song goes into detail describing an incident where a person is profiled and arrested for possession. The second verse of the song narrates the incident in question with lyrics, “I was a-sitting in the back of a police car, oh yeah,” painting an all too familiar picture to many BIPOC Canadians placed in custody for possession or suspicion of possession. The closing statement in Jamaican Patois, “Don’t u badda babylon, babylon cyan badda u,” (translation in English, “don’t bother the police and the police can’t bother you” ), acts as a haunting message to be mindful of police presence so as to avoid a similar fate. The image of the Black “drug dealer” who would corrupt the youth and destroy the fabric of society still permeates our culture today. Many Black musicians, including myself, have had experiences being mistaken for dealers when moving through white spaces and facing increased scrutiny that our peers would not be subject to.

With very few of the entities profiting from the plant’s growing acceptance acknowledging its history or making space for BIPOC folks in positions of leadership that are more substantive than mascot or corporate spokesperson, it is clear that the cannabis industry has moved away from the plant’s roots in BIPOC religious and medicinal practices. Framing cannabis consumption within the amorphous concept of “wellness” is a part of a campaign to legitimize the drug in a way that obscures and distances the actual medicinal and cultural practices of folks like Rastafarians, and the many Indigenous people who have built entire customs around it, after hundreds of years of demonizing those same practices and forms of knowledge. The cannabis corporations who are profiting from the change in legislation need to put more work into not only engaging with the original communities in which the plant was first used but to advocate for the release of those still incarcerated. 

The changing face of CanRock

How BIPOC bands like the OBGMS, Cutsleeve, and Zoon are leading the charge

By Daniel G. Wilson | Photos by Vanessa Heins / Beee / Louise Allyn Palma

For decades the Canadian rock musical sphere has been dominated on all fronts by a mostly white establishment. This is not to say that BIPOC musicians have not been involved in the genre’s history. Indeed, in that same amount of time, in every facet of CanRock’s history, there have been non-white musicians both on stage and behind the scenes helping to make this particular subset of our national music scene the grand (and frankly messy) experience it is. Unfortunately, the contributions of those individuals have far too often been ignored or forgotten.

Representation in music has always been important to me. I am a first generation Afro-Jamaican Canadian, and much of the music I make is influenced by my heritage. Even my band JONCRO’s name is taken from the Jamaican patois word for vulture. I hoped that other Jamaicans would hear about my band and feel welcomed into the punk sphere, and that a proudly Jamaican fronted band could rock out without question. To this end I started Festival Lingua Franca as a way to foster better representation of other BIPOC in rock and punk, and to build a greater sense of community for us in the Canadian music landscape.

That landscape and the industry that supports it has not been the most welcoming place to those who do not fit into certain boxes. A prime example is the historic lack of respect that has been given to Canadian hip-hop since the 1990s. While I am too young to remember, growing up with the story of how The Rascalz refused a JUNO due to the rap award not being televised would prove formative in my opinions of how BIPOCs were treated by the music industry in this country. It showed me how the music we create is not viewed with the same respect as our white peers. It helped prepare me for the unfortunate realities of being a non-white musician long before I ever picked up a guitar.

Returning to the rock sphere, I can name only a handful of popular bands that I grew up hearing on the radio and seeing on TV that had racially diverse line ups. These include Billy Talent, Sum 41, and Metric, but I can only count one or two who had a non-white front person, such as LiveonRelease, led by Métis singer Colette Trudeau. I never saw bands with visible members who reflected my background or looked like me. I never knew Black people or Jamaicans played rock music in Canada. Indeed, most of my CanRock heroes were white. 

Again, this is something that I think most BIPOC Canadians who are into rock, punk, or alternative music can relate to. This is not an indictment of those bands, many of whom I still love and listen to regularly, but it is an observation and an acknowledgement of an unfortunate truth. Not seeing yourself represented in any space, especially artistic spaces, can impact your view of them. It’s a sign that you may not belong, that your identity is somehow incompatible. It is a debilitating feeling that can prevent marginalized people from feeling welcome or safe. And as a result, it can lead us to turn away from that space entirely.

I had lost faith in the CanRock mainstream until two things occurred that shocked me and signified potential change. The Canadian rapper K-OS appeared on my TV one day in late 2012, wielding a guitar and performing his rock song “The Dog Is Mine.” It was the first time I had seen an Afro-Caribbean Canadian artist playing a rock song on MuchMusic (a throwback to when they still played music), and I was in shock. I became obsessed with the video.   

The second event was the phenomenal and surprising rise of Arcade Fire in the early 2000s. It makes sense that they were one of the bands that firmly inspired my love of alternative and “indie” music, whatever that term means in 2020, that has continued to this day. I had never listened to a Canadian rock band with a Caribbean singer before, who sang about their cultural background and the stories that come with it. Hearing Régine Chassagne sing songs proudly honouring her Haitian background was a different experience to another band singing about how much they hate their homework or some nebulous description of living downtown. 

These were the same stories I heard growing up among the Caribbean community. These were stories that spoke to an experience with which I was all too familiar. And to see a band like that gain prominence in the whitewashed landscape that is Canadian rock music was inspiring to my young mind. 

After this, I started to look beyond the white space that was in front of me and did my own digging into the CanRock canon. I made it my mission to find more artists who were telling different and diverse stories or came from different backgrounds. I found many bands that were racially diverse, BIPOC fronted, or composed entirely of non-white members during this time, who had not received much attention: Inuit-led bands such as Northern Haze, First-Nations-led bands such as Breach of Trust, Black-led bands like Weaves, the classic Canadian punk band SNFU fronted by the late Chi Pig, the genre-defying sounds of Beverly Glenn-Copeland, and the experimental, satirical rock of the Vulcan Dub Squad

I questioned why these bands did not get played on radio or TV as much as other bands. I questioned why these bands were not spoken of in the same ways as the Tragically Hip or Bachman Turner Overdrive. I questioned these things even though as a BIPOC I knew what the answer was.

Slowly things have started to change. As the old guard of Canadian rock has started to fall away, a new group of musicians is rising up to take their mantle. This was the case when ’70s hard-rock bands replaced the original rock and rollers, when the ’80s hardcore punk scene replaced the ’70s punk scene, and in the ’90s when indie-rock ruled the airwaves. 

The most noticeable aspect of this particular changing of the guard is where it stems from. Many of the emerging BIPOC artists I would like to highlight have been heavily involved in DIY punk scenes and shaped by their principles. These communities have typically been more open to new ideas and alternative voices, whereas the traditional pathways of the mainstream music industry have often been blocked, in favour of maintaining the status quo.

There is a growing cohort of BIPOC musicians and bands who are not afraid to proudly wear their backgrounds on their sleeves and sing about their histories, many of whom happen to be based in the Toronto area. Examples of these bands are Cutsleeve, who draw inspiration from their collective East Asian cultural background and heritage to paint expansive soundscapes; the Afro-Jamaican fronted OBGMS, who expand the sonic palette of garage-rock and the notions of what defines punk; Zoon, who channels his Ojibwe heritage into music that breathes new life into shoegaze; and the Latinx sister duo Lolaa, who proudly bring the sounds of classic Latin American pop music to the Canadian indie landscape. 

Each of these bands are actively challenging the conventions and orthodoxies that have held sway over Canadian rock music since the beginning, and that has also kept BIPOC artists from reaching the same heights as their white Canadian peers. In a similar way to how the ’90s Halifax indie-rock explosion led by bands like Sloan, Eric’s Trip, and Thrush Hermit managed to bring much-needed attention to the rock culture of the Canadian East Coast, these bands and many who are following their lead are bringing attention to another ignored side of Canadian music. Indeed, these artists are helping to usher in a new era where young BIPOCs will not be starved for representation.

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Danko Jones is a Black-led band.