MUSIC: Gurl Twenty Three keeps the ‘Beat’
A generation of artisans quietly came of age over the last few years at Vancouver’s grunt gallery. They produced the Beat Nation project — originally an exhibition and a website — to showcase the artistic influence of urban youth culture on aboriginal culture. The project hit a nerve. It’s since evolved to include a performance art/hip hop musical collective featuring Kinnie Starr, and last week launched a full-scale, mainstream exhibit at the venerable Vancouver Art Gallery. Beat Nation: Art, Hip Hop and Aboriginal Culture features 20 artists and innovators from across the continent.
And several of those artists are from right here in Vancouver, some of whom were on hand for a media walk-through last Thursday. One woman in particular caught my eye: short and solid, with a feather twisted into one of the long braids coming down each side of her face. She looked tough, but when she smiled everything sparkled with a kind of radiance that made me stop thinking she’d like to kick my ass. Larissa Healey, AKA Gurl Twenty Three, is a street artist who made her rap debut just a few weeks ago at the PuSh Festival. Now, the mural she co-created with Corey Bulpill is on the wall at the VAG. Healey still can’t quite believe that this is how her life is turning out. Standing in a room filled with art by her peers that mixes past and present traditions, Healey opened up about her art, finding her voice and overcoming the darkest aspects of her troubled past.
Your stage name references 23. Was that age a turning point for you?
In our culture, suicide is a big issue. I had no identity, I was sad, I was an alcoholic. In [dealing with my suicidal issues], I realized how incredibly greedy suicide was and that people cared about me and I survived. I marked it [rolls up a sleeve to reveal an ornate tattoo spread across her upper arm]. It’s pretty heavy, so I try not to share that with many youth. I tell the right ones, the ones who are ready for that. It’s not the easiest thing to talk about, but it makes them feel — not that it’s “common,” but it is something that happens in the world that surrounds us with the oppression and colonization.
How did you discover the best way to express yourself creatively in both music and visual arts?
I was always taking anything in my environment and manipulating it, whether it be finding mud in my backyard and sculpting or ripping gypwall out of the wall or going to the beach and finding a piece of coal and scratching on something, anything, finding cardboard in the alleys and chopping it up. It just kept the momentum going. Then my adopted father gave me a spray can and I grabbed it from him and then it was on after that! I followed the AA Crew, Aerosal Assassins, the first graffiti crew in Vancouver, and met them over time and worked with them individually and learned from them.
What about the music? Where did that come from?
There was another turning point with a lot of drugs, a lot of alcohol. My teeth were starting to go from substance abuse. I quit everything cold turkey. I got braces and my mouth changed, so I had no voice, I was only visual. I put those two together and learned how to re-use my mouth. My tongue was pretty mangled from the braces, so I started rapping, practising using my voice. The group of people I was working with have a pretty aggressive lifestyle and I was the female on the team, so to speak, and I thought, maybe I can express myself to them: let’s celebrate being alive and being a woman. I relearned how to use my mouth, I relearned how to have a voice, and then I rapped the song, ‘I’m a Hood Diva.’ And then Paul Armstrong, from Beat Nation Live, heard it and said, “You’re doing it! You’re doing that song on stage, you’re a part of the show!” That was it. I’ve never been on stage. It was just a couple weeks ago at the PuSh Festival. It was so beautiful. I never dreamed of having that experience!
This is a whole brand new world that you’re about to take on!
Being at this exhibition makes me feel confident, in our people and myself. I was bombing on the street one time and an elder came by and was like, “No, no. That’s not how you do it.” I looked at him and said, “Well, this is how we do it now.” And he said, “Ohhh!” (Laughs) To have him not be angry and have the elders see what we’re doing, it’s very important.
Larissa and Corey will be doing a graffiti mural live this weekend at Family FUSE Mar. 3-4. Beat Nation runs to June 3 at the Vancouver Art Gallery. Info: VanArtGallery.bc.ca.