‘The long run is so promising’: how Punjabi Canadian hip-hop artists are taking on the world

‘The long run is so promising’: how Punjabi Canadian hip-hop artists are taking on the world

Written by Jeevan Sangha.

“Earlier than 2025, we could have one Punjabi album topping the Billboard charts, that is for positive,” says rapper, singer and songwriter Robyn Sandhu about the way forward for Punjabi hip-hop.

Sandhu, who’s from Sri Ganganagar, Rajasthan, and now based mostly out of Surrey, B.C., is amongst a brand new wave of artists who’re mixing the beats and cadence of the West with Punjabi lyrics, allegories and imagery — creating music that connects profoundly with generations of the diaspora in Canada. He is certainly one of many who see a vibrant future for Punjabi hip-hop. 

Rising up as a child in Surrey — a municipality of Vancouver, which is residence to the second-largest South Asian inhabitants in Canada — I keep in mind strolling the tightrope of appropriately expressing my love for Punjabi music. With the pressures to comply with the mannequin minority delusion and keep away from letting our love for our tradition take up an excessive amount of house, listening to Punjabi music was one thing we have been inspired to do at residence, with our dad and mom, and at weddings or cultural celebrations somewhat than in anglicized public areas. 

At present, I hear individuals unapologetically blasting Punjabi music in the identical streets the place I grew up. Punjabi youth, no matter the place they stay, are taking an curiosity in understanding the metaphorical lyrics utilized by Punjabi hip-hop artists, and are taking it upon themselves to study the language on a deeper degree.

The previous few years have been large for Punjabi Canadians in music. Rapper Nav, born Navraj Singh Goraya right into a Punjabi Sikh household in Toronto’s Rexdale neighbourhood, does not rap in Punjabi, however has damaged obstacles in hip-hop for brown artists within the mainstream who’ve come after him. In simply the final decade, he signed to the Weeknd’s XO Data, launched 5 consecutive prime 10 albums within the U.S., collaborated with artists together with the Weeknd, Future and Lil Child — and he co-signed now worldwide celebrity AP Dhillon, with Nav’s cameo look within the video for the track “Brown Munde.” 

‘I moved right here with 2 suitcases and 1 dream’

Singer, rapper and producer Dhillon made historical past this 12 months because the first-ever act to carry out solely in Punjabi on the Juno Awards. Born Amritpal Singh, Dhillon got here to Victoria as a global pupil in 2016 and has quickly solidified himself as one of many greatest rising stars on the earth, with music that stacks Punjabi vocals over the R&B, hip-hop and entice beats of the West. 

“In 2015, I moved right here with two suitcases and one dream, and that was simply to do one thing that may encourage individuals again residence,” Dhillon advised CBC Information on the Junos crimson carpet. “Immigrants that come into this nation with the identical hope that I had after I moved right here.”

Dhillon’s 2023 Juno look is a historic indication of a brand new period of Canadian music, the place a Punjabi act might be celebrated within the mainstream alongside the likes of Avril Lavigne, Jessie Reyez, Tate McRae and others.

“I am joyful that, lastly, this brown pores and skin is getting acknowledged,” Dhillon stated.

AP Dhillon performs ‘Summer season Excessive’ | 2023 Juno Awards

AP Dhillon performs ‘Summer season Excessive’ on the 2023 Juno Awards

Dhillon’s profession trajectory has gone from releasing covers on Instagram to amassing a world following of two.8 million followers on the identical platform, in addition to hitting 10 million month-to-month listeners on Spotify alone. Considered one of his early singles, the 2020 monitor “Majhail,” is an ode to the warrior-like nature of the boys from Majha, the central area of Punjab the place Dhillon was born and raised. The one rapidly rose to reputation within the North American diaspora, with Punjabi lyrics layered over a pattern of Fats Joe and Ashanti’s 2002 traditional “What’s Luv.” Three years later, Dhillon is promoting out arenas around the globe — all with a completely Punjabi discography. 

It is songs like “Majhail” which have shifted the panorama of Punjabi music in Canada, connecting listeners with the R&B and hip-hop songs we grew up on with the language that we communicate in our households. This contemporary and distinctive fashion is sported by the likes of numerous artists who’ve garnered large fanbases around the globe: Karan Aujla, Intense, Fateh, Shubh, NseeB and AR Paisley to call just a few, all of whom have been both born in Canada, or got here to Canada as younger immigrants or worldwide college students, documenting their experiences of migration, racism and coming of age via music. 

‘He put so many people on the map’

Arguably probably the most influential identify from this era of Punjabi artists is the late Sidhu Moose Wala, who’s identified primarily by first identify: an award-winning singer, rapper and songwriter who discovered immense success after his breakthrough monitor, “So Excessive,” in 2017.

Sidhu, who got here to Brampton, Ont., as a global pupil in 2016, is understood for mixing Punjabi folks stylings and Sikh musical custom with hip-hop whereas tackling socio-political and non secular points in Punjab, together with requires Sikh sovereignty.

Sidhu’s legacy is expansive, demonstrated by the bridges he constructed between the Punjabi music business to different flourishing international music scenes like mainstream hip-hop, grime, Afrobeats and extra. His tragic passing in 2022 garnered condolences from artists across the globe, together with a public tribute from Drake, who wore a T-shirt in Sidhu’s honour at his OVO present in Toronto. 

“He put so many people on the map,” stated Sandhu. “I wish to give all of the credit score to Sidhu Moose Wala for bringing this wave. And now it is our responsibility, the people who find themselves coming in new, it is their responsibility to remain true to it. And the longer term is so promising.”

‘Hip-hop is the music of resistance’ 

The late Nineteen Eighties and ’90s noticed a rise in immigration to Canada from India, a big subset of which, as College of Calgary educating professor Harjeet Singh Grewal defined, got here from the state of Punjab after the state-sanctioned persecution of Sikh individuals throughout the 1984 Sikh Genocide. Sikh Punjabi immigrants throughout this time grappled not solely with the horrors of criminalization in Punjab, but in addition with the institutional racism they confronted as newcomers to Canada. 

“Hip-hop is the music of resistance. It is the music, the rhythms of Black life, the inherent resistance that Black individuals have with a view to stay their lives,” stated Singh Grewal, who teaches Sikh research. “Hip-hop turns into an avenue of expression, due to what [Sikh artists] see as not precisely the identical, however a world of shared similarities of expertise.” 

I believe Sikh youth are discovering a house in rap. They’re discovering a voice in rap and a variety of instances it is not even one thing they’ll significantly articulate.– Harjeet Singh Grewal, Sikh research professor on the College of Calgary

Singh Grewal is at present working with Sara Grewal, a professor in postcolonial literature at MacEwan College, on a e book that explores Sikh hip-hop within the international diaspora. Their curiosity in Sikh hip-hop arises from the ways in which the Sikh neighborhood, each in Canada and India, face focused discrimination, and the way hip-hop acts as a device to seize totally different shades of Sikh experiences. 

“I believe Sikh youth are discovering a house in rap. They’re discovering a voice in rap and a variety of instances it is not even one thing they’ll significantly articulate…. It is simply that it speaks to them and so they really feel seen in what they hear,” Grewal defined. 

Grewal and Singh Grewal see the popularization of Punjabi music as a method to preserve the tradition alive on a world scale, and to make sure the telling of our neighborhood’s tales. Punjabi hip-hop has made house for listeners to make calls to motion, to course of the occasions of their lives, and discover consolation in an area the place all facets of their identification can coexist. 

As Punjabi hip-hop artists play at a few of the world’s greatest arenas, they’re additionally constructing bridges to the diaspora and past, all whereas fostering a connection to the tradition that displays the multiplicities that make up Punjabi-diasporic identification. 

Previously few years, audiences have seen what was as soon as thought of regional music prime international charts. Okay-Pop, Afrobeats and Latine music have solidified their presence within the worldwide music house, and Punjabi hip-hop has all of the substances to comply with the identical trajectory: excessive streaming numbers, an engaged international fanbase and worldwide collabs that blur style traces.

Our neighborhood and our musicians have so many tales to inform and a lot artwork to present — not solely in Punjab and Canada, however to phases throughout the globe.