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. 

Clearance culture is hindering Canadian artists’ creativity

By: Michael Rancic | Photo by: Chachi Revah

In a cryptic post to her Twitter account in mid-August, Montréal-based horrorcore rapper Backxwash announced that her Polaris Prize shortlisted album, God Has Nothing To Do With This Leave Him Out Of It, would be removed from streaming services and no longer be for sale in any format. “Wish I could go into more details but I can’t!” she added, following up in another tweet by comparing the situation to that of Death Grips’ 2011 album Exmilitary

Like MC Ride & co.’s debut, Backxwash’s latest album is sample-heavy, deploying percussion and vocals from oft-used sources like Led Zeppelin’s “When The Levee Breaks” and Black Sabbath’s “Black Sabbath.” This technique simultaneously situates her work within hip-hop history and forms the heavy metal aesthetic that permeates the album. Alluding to the Death Grips situation hints that some, or all of the musical quotations used on God Has Nothing To Do With This were not cleared for her to use. “Clearing” a sample is a process by which artists attempt to gain the rights to use elements of a song from its rights holder. It’s an intentionally opaque and expensive process that privileges major labels and stifles creativity.

In hip-hop, when an artist can’t clear a sample— either because it’s prohibitively expensive to do so, or they’re denied by the sample source’s rights holder— they often release the song online or on a mixtape for free. But as much as artists have accepted and adapted to this model, it forces them to make an untenable decision: navigate a system not designed for their benefit, or waive their ability to sell their own creative work. 

Non-commercial use exemplified by mixtape culture is enshrined in Canadian copyright law through what’s colloquially known as the “mashup” or “YouTube” provision in our Copyright Act. In Canada, the government defines copyright as “the exclusive legal right to produce, reproduce, publish or perform an original literary, artistic, dramatic or musical work.” The copyrights of a musical work are divided into reproduction rights, handled by Canadian Musical Reproduction Rights Agency (CMRRA), and performance rights, which are handled by Society of Composers, Authors and Music Publishers of Canada (SOCAN), and Re:Sound for songwriters and recording artists, respectively. 

Things get a bit more complicated when factoring in sync rights for TV or film, background music, mechanical rights, satellite radio, etc. Even though we have our own set of laws to protect these rights, for Canadian artists like Backxwash, the terms of sample clearance are dictated by American major label corporations and American case law, and policed through non-Canadian tech companies like Spotify, YouTube, or Soundcloud. 

“We’re seeing a lot of enforcement by algorithm,” explains Brianne Selman, scholarly communications and copyright librarian at the University of Winnipeg. With streaming becoming the most common way for people to listen to recorded music, services like YouTube (with its native Content ID technology), or independent companies like Dubset (recently acquired by Pex) use proprietary fingerprinting to identify sound sources in order to sniff out copyright infringement. 

This method is likely a contributing factor to how Backxwash’s samples were discovered by copyright enforcers. “We know computers are making decisions, but we don’t know how and we don’t know based on what,” says Selman. It’s unclear what technology Spotify uses, though we know they acquired Echo Nest in 2014 after that company developed audio fingerprinting technology. Distributors that work with Spotify, like DistroKid, also license third party digital fingerprinting software. 

These automated copyright infringement algorithms happen at a stage before an artist can even speak to their use of a certain sample and its place in their song. The technology circumvents legal frameworks, thereby entrusting private tech companies with the role of what is or isn’t legal. The algorithms also don’t take into account where an artist is from and therefore the nuances of laws that exist in a global market are lost. Selman says they don’t provide a trustworthy method for tracking actual infringement, citing a recent case where claims of copyright infringement were levied against the sound of static. To the delight of noise musicians everywhere, no one owns the sound of static, but that didn’t stop people from saying they did. 

At the University of Winnipeg, Selman works with faculty and students to explore their rights as creators and users, a knowledge base which also connects to her work with the Cultural Capital Project, a research-based initiative that “aims to establish a ‘radical monetization’ of the music industry based on equity, connectivity and sharing.” Members of the project were involved in petitioning the government for fairer use laws around copyright in the recent 2018 Copyright Act review. 

“You need to be accessing other people’s creative work in order to make your own. That’s part of how creativity happens,” she explains. “Things like remixes and sampling and those really fantastic ways of using other people’s intellectual property in totally new ways are really innovative and aren’t things that we [as a country] want to be shutting down.“

Selman says that while copyright law is meant to uphold the rights of songwriters like Backxwash, the system is unfairly stacked against those not on major labels. “Copyright formalities absolutely hurt independent artists at this point, even though that’s who these laws are supposedly written for,” she argues. “The creators, the people who generated the work that has copyright, are almost never able to take advantage of the law.” 

The law is also incredibly difficult to challenge given how consolidated the industry is in Canada. The “big three,” represented by major labels Warner, Universal, and Sony, account for about 75% of the total market share here. The recent American federal appeals court decision that sided with Drake over his use of a Jimmy Smith sample, defining it “transformative,” feels like a monumental step forward for how the courts understand sampling. However, it obscures the fact that Drake was likely able to obtain use of the sample in the first place because he’s on Warner, the label that also owns the publishing rights to Jimmy Smith’s Off The Top, the 1982 record that “Jimmy Smith Rap” first appeared on. 

“[Within the same label] you can get those samples much cheaper, much easier than [Backxwash] can, because it’s all within the one big family,” Selman states about how the law, influenced by the major label system, benefits artists who operate within that system. If you’re not Drake, clearing a sample can run anywhere from $4,000 to $20,000 USD to get permission from both the owner of the recording masters, as well as the owner of the composition itself. That’s a huge price tag when you also factor in how the Cultural Capital Project has found that the average Canadian musician makes around $17,900 a year.

It’s also these same record companies who are lobbying against copyright reform, and pushing for longer term extensions so that rights holders can retain their rights over longer periods of time. Longer terms prevent new artists from freely quoting or referencing those creations in their own work. The recent signing of the new United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (which takes over for the previous North American Free Trade Agreement) means that Canada is now obligated to extend copyright terms from 50 years to 70 years after an author’s death. While our trade relations have greatly influenced this course of action, the change has long been advocated for by Music Canada, the organization that lobbies domestically on behalf of the Canadian shells of the “big three” labels. 

That hip-hop is predominantly a sample-based style of music, means that these copyright laws often disproportionately affect Black, Indigenous, and other marginalized artists. Sampling is historically not the only way copyright law has been used as a tool to disenfranchise non-white musicians, stripping them from the control, autonomy and financial benefit of owning the rights to their own work. Academic and entertainment lawyer Kevin J Greene has focused much of his own scholarship on this very subject, noting in an essay titled “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag: James Brown, Innovation, and Copyright Law:”

The founding fathers established copyright law as a means for increasing cultural productivity by giving economic incentives for the creation of artistic works. Analysts note that “in large part, the early music industry [ in the United States] was built largely on the creativity and innovation of black composers and artists.” One would think, then, that black artists would have been among the prime beneficiaries of copyright law given their astounding contributions to the world of music. However, the actual history of black cultural production and the law is one of inequality rooted in racial animosity.”

New Feeling reached out to Backxwash to comment on the matter, but she declined. It’s completely understandable that she can’t or won’t comment on the situation because the threat of litigation, over not just uncleared sample use but talking about the rights holder(s) who flagged an issue or issues on God Has Nothing To Do With This is very real. Now, she faces a potential Polaris Prize win, and save for the prize money won’t be able to reap the reward of the storied “Polaris bump” in album sales that winners experience after being thrust into the spotlight

Backxwash could potentially try re-releasing God Has Nothing To Do With This without the samples, and recently revealed in an interview with Complex that she even entertained the idea, but ultimately resolved that they made it what it was. “I was experimenting to go sample-less,” she says. “As I started making these beats, they sounded cool, but the idea of the sample is telling a story, and I miss telling those stories. When it’s coming off a VST, it’s hard to see what that story is. Even if it sounds incredible, I’m not connected to it. With the samples, I’m connecting to those sounds.”