Jenni Roberts: A. Girl. On. Drums.

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By Karen Campos Castillo for Tom Tom Magazine

Jenni and me go way back but she doesn’t really know that. It was the days of MySpace and bands on MySpace (I’m older than you). I was creeping around and came across a band that I was starting to spot on posters around Edmonton. The band was Illfit Outfit. First, I was relieved to hear something melodic and completely different from the punk and screamo and ska (shudder) of my youth. Then I noticed their singer had Kurt Cobain hair. But then I saw her: the girl on drums.

A. Girl. On. Drums. In Edmonton. A person of colour. In Edmonton. I feel like you must have a sense of what it’s like to grow up brown in Alberta by now. It leads to projects like this. It was also a huge deal considering that liking bands and drums was something that brown girls didn’t do. It was something that made me a bit of an outcast within my own family.

I eventually went on to meet Jenni in person and likely tried to play it all cool. We’re, like, real friends now though (I know where she lives.) I’m still in awe of her talent and style (denim, baby) and sweetness. Lately, gurl has been playing every instrument and looking damn good doing it with the likes of Renny Wilson, Calvin LoveGhibli, and Caity Fisher.

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Name: Jenni Roberts

Age: 30

Hometown: Edmonton, AB

Lives In: Dirt City (Edmonton)

Past Projects: Illfit Outfit, DB Buxton Revue, Boyfriends, Keep Me Safe

Current Bands: Tee-Tahs, Calvin Love, Renny Wilson, Caity Fisher, Ghibli

Drum Set: shared vintage kits, my own Pearl Rhythm Traveller

Cymbals: Vintage Zildjians, 80’s Sabians

Hi-Hats: Zildjians K Custom Hybrid

Pedal: Gibraltar Intruder Strap Drive

Fav Food: Pineapple

Fav Venue: Wunderbar (Edmonton)

How would you describe your style?

Beyond my staples (denim shirts, plaid, band tees, black jeans, black sneaks), I have thrifted joke shirts and sweaters. Half of my clothes started as gags then I just kept wearing them. I’m a very serious person.

Does being a person of colour influence what you wear?

Absolutely! In the melanin months when I lose my winter fade I feel like I can wear any pattern, any colour, all the things. Brown just goes. In terms of representing heritage, no, it doesn’t influence my clothing. My parents are both a generous mix of ethnicities with few of their specific traditions retained. Beyond my Welsh names, my German/Dutch grandma’s soups, and my mom’s “cook-up” meals and Ackee wall hangings, there’s nothing in my extended heritage that I identify with intimately enough to adopt. Not yet.

I’m into digging through the music traditions of my ethnicities, especially on my mom’s side, but there are few clear answers with slave heritage. She’s from Jamaica, mostly East Indian, part Jew (likely Sephardic), part African (probably West African) and recently found out one of her grandmothers was of Syrian descent. I feel like wearing traditional items in ignorance would somehow be appropriative… of myself. It’s weird.

Actually, I did want to wear a signifier of my roots culture. My mom recently visited back home for the first time in 30 years. She brought back a t-shirt that said, “Seven days without Reggae makes one weak.” She gave it to someone else. Welp.

How did you start playing music? I’ve always been in awe of your commitment. I put away my flannel and guitar somewhere around 17 years old.

I started playing the organ at four years. I took lessons and exams for 10 years then had to choose between organ or volleyball. Organ recitals suffer from a dearth of spandex, sweat and jumping. Formal music lessons ended but I picked up guitar, bass and drums through school bands and church. By university I couldn’t handle the dual practice schedules, injuries and sport politics so I dropped volleyball to focus on music studies. Now I hack out whatever role is needed when I join a project.

As for commitment, it has never been difficult to choose music. All of my immediate family is intrinsically musical but didn’t have the encouragement or privileges that they’ve created for me to pursue music. I was the first person in my family to finish high school then go to post-secondary. I think of everything my parents endured including the humility of asking for help so I could go to school outside of my neighbourhood and eventually study music.

Sometimes when I’m out galavanting in face paint or making everything a joke while my mom works two jobs, I feel like I should be making serious art or money for that matter. She has never asked me when I’m going to do something typical. Every milestone has been shared with pride and every difficulty comforted with, “soon come”. Nothing feels as much like actively living for me as playing music.

Is it ever discouraging to not see many people of colour, let alone women of colour, in these music scenes?

Unfortunately the underrepresentation of POC is a reality in the music scenes I’m part of it but hasn’t been acutely discouraging for me. Rewind—there have been a few too many obtuse moments when at least a half dozen WOC musicians with natural hair (that I know of) are assumed to be one person. It’s like it’s not worth confirming our unique identities before greeting us with an assumption, as though there is a singular busy brown musical unicorn in Alberta. It feels like a whiplash of racialization stepping off stage to, “Oh hey! You were great at !” That is happening less lately. I’d like to believe it’s because people are educating themselves.

Anyway, I never walk into a venue feeling surprised or disappointed that it’s full of white dudes. I came up coping with and accepting isolation: lots of hours at home alone while my mom worked hella hours, living in a remote neighbourhood away from friends, often being one of just a handful of POC students in my school, wrapped in a queer cocoon somewhere slightly outside of the gender-binary, etc. When I meet other artists in the intersections of coloured-ness, queerness, and radness I don’t feel relief, just love. Y’all know who you are. I see you, girl!

How do you choose what you bring to wear on tour or wear onstage?

Stage outfits depend on the band. Right now Renny Wilson is full-on CanTux, Calvin Love is muted and black, Ghibli is about hair and nails, Caity Fisher don’t give a darn. Can I say that?

Tour outfitting consists of whatever materials will hold the longest without laundering. The dirt keep the funk in. I take my stage wear plus cut off booty shorts and leggings (my “night pants”) year round because it gets hot sitting in the van for endless hours. Also, nobody is going to see me looking haggard at Walgreen’s twice so I just let it alllll out.

I don’t bring much for clothes. I leave space for thrifting on the road. The rest of my army surplus duffle is loaded with every contingency item we might need. I tend to take on the role of van mother.

Since you are one of my heroes, I want to know some of yours. Can be music-related or whatever.

There are definitely artists that I admire but I’ve never been a fangirl. We didn’t get  internet at home until I was in high school. Whatever network media broadcasted seemed like the world and I wasn’t part of it.There wasn’t anyone that reflected me in mainstream entertainment industry.

I did have a couple heroes though. When Team Canada made the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta for women’s indoor volleyball I was glued to the screen for every game. They had a power hitter, Janis Kelly, who had this nearly unreturnable spike serve uncommon in women’s volleyball at the time. She was super muscular and dark skinned with short natural hair. The TV commentators made some of the same ignorant devaluing statements that made about the Williams sisters’s superior strength. Meanwhile European player’s were getting “six-packed” in the face with heavy hits. I ate it up. One player can’t carry a team in volleyball. Canada didn’t make it to the final rounds. She played pro ball in Europe but after the Olympics I never saw more about Janis Kelly. I wish I could YouTube some of those serves now! They blew my mind.

My main hero has been my older brother by 11 years, Jerome. He played percussion in the best high school concert band in the city and was a drum major in army cadets. He put sticks in my hands when I was little and showed me the basic “mommy daddy” strokes for rolls. Through university and going on playing drums for 17 years now, I still can’t play as evenly as Jerome. His hands are incredible.

Jerome was also deep into the beginnings of the Edmonton hip hop and rap scene in the late 1980s. He started as a dancer (he was in local TV commercials!) then he rapped. He opened for Fresh Prince and DJ Jazzy Jeff when they came through. His crew Maximum Definitive were the first rap group outside of Toronto to win a MuchMusic Video Award. My eldest niece is the baby in the video. I would vividly colour so many drawings of Jerome’s self-made outfits with Pan-African accessories and his stepped hair that he manicured every day. Think of a Spike Lee joint. He is legendary to me.

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