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Arts/Society Sikh Rappers And The Bronze Underground From SikhChic

Discussion in 'Language, Arts & Culture' started by spnadmin, Nov 28, 2009.

  1. spnadmin

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    The Bronze Undergroundby NAVDEEP SINGH DHILLON

    Socially conscious hip hop from the days of Public Enemy and N.W.A. seems to have all but vanished, replaced with the glamour of being a "G" - complete with tales of sexual conquests, gold plated grills, non-stop parties, drugs, alcohol and of course more "bling bling."

    But there's a revival bubbling up across North America - and it has its roots firmly grounded in Sikh America. From L.A. to Toronto to D.C., young men of the Sikh faith have taken up the mantel of hip hop, writing powerful tracks about oppression, racism and politics.

    Their music is informed by Sikh philosophies such as miri-piri, a religious tenet that advocates political and social activism to benefit society alongside individual spirituality.

    "I think it's impossible to be a Sikh and not be an activist," says D.C.-based rapper Tanmit Singh, known as Saint Soulja. "Our entire faith is based around the concept of being activists."
    Still, some of these artists shy away from using the term "activist" to describe what they do.

    "I look at my music as a personal project," says Toronto-based Kanwer Singh, who goes by Humble the Poet. "I talk about things that I find interesting, and it happens that most of the things I find interesting are socially related, but I don't consider myself an activist."
    They don't call themselves Sikh rappers, either.

    Despite their commitment to their faith and the issues they face within their community - the majority of these artists take exception to being boxed in with the label for the same reason Eminem doesn't call himself a white rapper and Steven Spielberg doesn't identify himself as a Jewish director. Artists who happen to be Sikh or "ethnic" shouldn't need to convey more meaning and history than "non-ethnic" artists.

    "I think it's a ******** term," says Kanwar Anit Singh Saini of Montreal who's known as Sikh Knowledge. "I'm a human being - that's my baseline. Then I'm Sikh and a rapper and whatever."

    But the outward appearance of these artists - most clearly marked by the Sikh symbols of a turban and beard - doesn't make being taken seriously as an artist particularly easy. "[It] definitely makes it difficult to fit in as a hip-hop artist," says Mandeep Singh Sethi, a San Francisco rapper. "But really, it only affects me as much as I let it."

    Jagmeet "Hoodini" Singh, an L.A-based emcee, agrees that sometimes it's difficult to bridge the two worlds of Sikh culture and hip hop.
    "Obviously, if you wear a turban, people are going to question that you rap. They might think it's a joke," he says. "And as soon as you say, ‘Yo man I rap,' they are going to tell you to prove it. So you better be able to prove it on the spot with some doooope rhymes that you got what it takes to call yourself an emcee. If your rhymes are real and genuine, then people will feel you within the first few bars. That's been my experience."

    Still, being bronze and being good, as these artists are proving themselves to be, can also work to their advantage. Despite the moniker, Humble the Poet doesn't mind having all eyes on him. "The outward veneer of my appearance helps me stand out in the crowd," says Humble. "I was in Amsterdam recently trying to convince some hip-hop heads I could rap. It was clear they didn't buy it until I started spitting."

    Tanmit Singh doesn't think it is restricted to the world of hip-hop. "I think any industry or profession where you are in the public's eye, Sikhs will face difficulties," says Tanmit Singh, aka Saint Soulja. "But as long as you're good, nobody cares about what you look like or what you wear. Hip hop is a very open minded and accepting community. So when you can prove to the people that you belong, they'll welcome you with open arms."


    MC Name: Saint Soulja

    Reprezentin': Washington, D.C., U.S.A.

    A Little Taste: "One: stop and pause/ Say two: figure out your cause/ Say three: let's get free/ The revolution starts with me/ Revolution makes lions outta cowards/ I'm a rebel to this world/ And I fight with a cause and if I lose my swords/ Imma fight with my paws." - "Soulja's Story" from the album, Soulja's Rise

    His Story: In addition to being a hip-hop artist, the multi-tasking Tanmit Singh, 21, just graduated from Drexel University with a bachelor's degree in accounting and entrepreneurship. "The accounting degree is a fall back so I have something to make a living with," says Tanmit. "The entrepreneurship degree I am using for both my music career and my clothing line." This practicality is to ensure his school teacher single mother that that her son won't be rapping in the streets. "I understand where she's coming from," he says. Still, he dreams of pursuing his music full time and doesn't think creative types having something practical to fall back on is a particularly Sikh thing. "A lot of musicians out there, rappers included, have day jobs and do music on the side till they get their big break."

    Family Business: Along with his brother, Sunmit Singh, Tanmit runs Rootsgear, a clothing line dedicated to making bold political statements while being fashionable. He also represents G.N.E., a group of artists (including brother Sunmit) "who make socially-politically conscious music

    and try to move the masses on a day-to-day basis through hip hop." People often ask Tanmit what G.N.E. stands for. His answer is always cryptic. "I would love to tell you," he says before dramatically pausing. "But I can't because then I'd have to kill you." The reason for the secrecy is that he wants you to tell him. "We keep the standings of the acronym a secret because we want the people who listen to our music to figure out what it stands for by themselves."

    Strong Conviction: Because of Tanmit's strong religious upbringing, he has never felt any difficulty balancing the east and west parts of his personality. "We rock mics, but we also rock kirpaans," he says of the symbolic dagger worn by baptized Sikhs. "We record songs and go to concerts, but we also make it to the gurdwara (Sikh church) on Sundays. It's the perfect balance."

    Listen Up: The debut mixtape from G.N.E. titled "Soulja's Rise" is now available for free download at www.datpiff.com. To download or view his other music, check out www.myspace.com/gnetalks and www.youtube.com/tanmit. G.N.E.'s music video/short film titled "turBAN" premiered in New York, Toronto and online in September.

    MC Name: Sikh Knowledge

    Reprezentin': Montreal, Canada

    A Little Taste: "The dance of the marginalized till my feet bleed like Rekha/ Play Ribs like xylophones balancin music and hunger/ I dance for 84, I dance for Darfur/ while they dance to duck ammunition during war." - From "Technorganic"

    His Story: Raised by a single father in Montreal from the age of 16, Kanwar, 28, was on track to study engineering when the then-eighth grader was waylaid by a Smith & Wesson instrumental on Rap City. "It hit me like a ton of bricks," he recalls. "It was ‘Soundboy Burial,' and I heard that instrumental and my life changed. That was it. I was convinced this is what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. Make beats. Make music. It's just that passion in me."

    Smart Boy: Still, the pressure to please his dad weighed on him. So after getting his Bachelor of Arts degree in music with a minor in linguistics from Concordia University, Kanwar completed his Masters of Science in speech language pathology at McGill University. "As a bronze man in North America, I would love to make the statement," says Kanwar, "that you can be an emcee or musician and still be an educated man, you know? I wasn't blessed with the wallet, but I still have hip hop."

    Standing Up: Kanwar says his music is a call to action against oppression, which he himself faced growing up in Montreal. "There were tons of racial issues. We had to fight for certain things - from wearing a kara (a steel bracelet) during basketball to wearing a patka (a small piece of cloth Sikh boys wear to cover their hair) during basketball," says the turbaned rapper. "There were the obvious looks and stares after the Air India bombing in 1985 and after Sept. 11. And two years ago, I was asked by a judge to ‘take my hat off' when I was protesting a parking ticket. Of course I didn't and I complained." Then he channelled his frustrations into his music.

    Standing Out: "I'm the ultimate minority. Even in the gay clubs in Montreal, I stand out because I'm Sikh and I spin hip hop while they're all about techno," laughs Kanwar, who came out in 2001. "Despite the homophobia that pervades hip hop, being gay afforded me the emotions to rhyme about **** I needed to get out. Being Sikh, as a visible minority, I always feel the need to level the table with everyone. It's a very self conscious game, like, can I explain myself with art?"

    Listen Up: Check out the latest, including his new track "Lovher" with Humble the Poet, on myspace.com/sikhknowledge or check out his blog at www.bomr.ca 
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