Hustle and Rhyme, Singh Style
Toronto-based Kanwar Singh aka Humble the Poet has whipped up much passion on the internet of late through his socially- and politically-inspired Punjabi hip-hop.
Kaka Kanwar Singh is a Gursikh , who wears a black wrap-around turban, has a flowing, chest-level beard and a neat downward-facing moustache (“a symbol of humility”). Toronto-based Singh, who is in his mid-20s and alternates between crisp English and earthy Punjabi, says he meditates daily. In multi-cultural Canada, he would be another Canadian Punjabi ”“ until you hear him sing about what it’s like to be one. Among British and Canadian desi hip-hop artists such as Jay Sean, Riz MC, Honey Singh and Imran Khan, Singh is the odd one out. Not just because Singh, who is still only an YouTube artist, has an independent label, albums, videos and tours to his credit, but also because he has been recreating a hybrid of immigrant hip-hop that is not just about hot chicks and gang wars.
The tall, skinny, fidgety Sikh, who speaks extremely fast and has a deep voice, is known as Humble the Poet on YouTube and has been, over the last two years, garnering millions of YouTube hits and scoring multiple album downloads as a wide-note MC, rapper and hip-hop artist. He has released five mixtapes so far, all of which he gives out free on his website thepoetproject.tumblr.com, besides posting regular slick, self-produced music videos online. Singh raps about a variety of topics, from the plight of immigrants in Canada (”˜Life of an Immigrant’, ”˜Singh With Me’) and the prison system, to Palestine (”˜Fucks With Gaza’), and domestic violence (”˜Voice for the Voiceless). He also sings in support of desi gay community in Canada (”˜Baagi Music’).
Singh’s music is firmly rooted in his identity and grew out of his search for it as a youngster. “I would constantly discover who I am in my peer group of multi-ethnic friends. I held on to the fact that I am Punjabi tightly and chose my appearance to make a statement accordingly. And it really affects me, about what all happens in the world around me. I always have a comment to make whether it’s about the social crisis of modern-day Punjab, the honour killings, farmer’s debt, the 1984 riots”¦”
The third-grade history teacher grew up writing verse and ran a popular YouTube channel with friends called “Harman the Hater,” where he would occasionally get together with friends and rant about the inequities and hypocrisies around him. “I was always writing growing up, whether it were verses or short stories. And me and my friends would always hang out taking on everything we thought was wrong in our small community,” says Singh, who was born and brought up in a multi-ethnic neighbourhood in central Toronto.
Singh says that when one lives away from one’s people, the only way to hold on to one’s heritage is to keep using it. “Religion and curating our culture is more important to us living overseas. When I started rhyming in my early years, people would ask me why I am trying to be a black guy by rapping. My only answer is, ”˜Did you know everything in the Guru Granth Sahib rhymes?’ Guru Nanak was the first real rapper,” says Singh, the youngest son of a cab driver.
“I started going for open mic nights and poetry slams around Toronto. That is where I nailed my unique sense of identity. I am a Canadian Punjabi. I am not Indian, make no mistake,” says Singh who transitioned into music after listening to artists like Lauryn Hill, Outkast, Goodie Mob and Ludacris. His first song, ”˜Voice for the Voiceless’, dropped in 2008, when Indian immigrants in Canada were turning up dead in gang fights and pub brawls and were victims of STDs and dowry deaths. ”˜Voice for the Voiceless’, a powerful song, had lyrics that went:
”˜Sister sister, oh God I miss her,
But now she in her own house, with her own life, her own mister,
Servitude and solitude, lemme paint a picture,
She never told me that when’s there’s liquor he used to hit her,
Now she stuck, and he don’t give a fuck,
Only peace for her when he out driving truck,
Picked up a passenger from down south,
3 letters from a hooker now he brought it in his house,
Infecting her while sexing her’
The song not only highlighted his lyrical toasting skills, but also his production abilities. “I knew it had to be slow tempo, so I put in haunting beats and a piano progression with rain and thunder samples. I knew I had nailed it,” says Singh. ”˜Voice for the Voiceless’ generated fierce debates on the comment boards particularly among the Jat Sikh community, but it also helped solidify his fan base.
In India to collaborate on a track with Midival Punditz and Monica Dogra (Shaa’ir + Func), for the rockumentary jam travel-based show, The Dewarists, Singh spent nearly three days on the beaches of Goa co-composing a track on dance. “It’s a high energy, drum ”˜n’ bass track. We are still unsure of the title. The Punditz sent me the song and I wrote the lyrics. The theme is on the eternal dance of the soul. I was inspired by a quote from the movie, V for Vendetta, which reads, ”˜A revolution without dance is a revolution not worth happening.’”
This is also the first time Singh has worked with musicians from India. His core group of homies are usually Punjabi music producers in Canada with whom he has been creating mixtapes that are floating online under his record label Believe Me Music. Singh released his first mixtape titled 00.05 in 2009 and has been releasing similarly titled albums every year, the latest being 00.03.
Singh credits a large part of his popularity to Canadian Punjabi producer Kanwar Anit Singh Saini aka Sikh Knowledge. Â “I found him online because I was curiously searching for hits of my name. Turns out vanity actually pays,” Singh guffaws. Sikh Knowledge, says Singh, helped clean up and streamline his rhymes. “He’s helped me slow my rap down a lot and give me production knowledge. Together we are unbeatable.” Last year, the Kanwar & Kanwar alliance released ”˜Baagi Music,’ Singh’s biggest hit yet. The track has scored over a million hits on YouTube and became his big ticket number. The under four-minute track is an up tempo club number that instantly gets you moving:
‘Toronto’s in my heart, Punjabi in my blood,
I’m not Indian, four knuckles to your eyes,
If you call me that again,
Fuck Bollywood, we Punjabi,
We the home of Bhangra and Jay Sean’s mom‘
”˜Baagi Music’, says Singh, is essentially about who he is. “I am just a bushy, bearded individual. I’m a Punjabi and I love music and I have an opinion and I am not Osama’s brother. This is my answer to every Punjabi stereotype there is,” says Singh who describes how the song was originally intended as a coming-out track for Sikh Knowledge, who wrote it as a response to the ignorance and rabid homophobia he encountered around him.
“The idea of a Punjabi Sikh homosexual was unheard of and Sikh Knowledge took major offence to the statement. This was his way of dealing with it and I added the idea of identity to it.” Wasn’t ”˜Baagi Music’ also misconstrued as a song that supported the Khalistan Movement? “Baagi means a sovereign rebel, someone who is self-motivated by his own conflicts. I have a tattoo of the word Khalsa on my back and one of the map of Punjab on my neck. I love the word Khalistan, but I am an autonomist, not a politician. I don’t endorse separatism, Â if autonomy can exist.”
Singh says his plan is to continue to work the way he has been for the last two years: to put up all his music for free and create music with his friends. “I make money via gigs and merchandising, that is more than enough for me.” But there is more to him, he says, than just this image of an intense hip hop preacher. He also wants to impress the ladies. “You know for a bearded sardar, I still get a lot of female attention. I love cars and fun-loving people. Social activism is a hobby for me and I will always have things to say and toast about.”
With inputs by Ashish Seth
Photo Credit: DIGITOLOGY