Rap music, Australians and the Sikh diaspora have travelled far and wide. I never imagined that one day I'd meet an Australian Sikh rapper but I had the good fortune of doing so recently when I met L-FRESH The LION just before his first performance in London.
We had a lengthy interview, which you can read more of below. This interview is part of an ongoing series of documentary shorts that explore the Sikh diaspora and Hola Mahalla. This one touches on some of the concepts of music, others in this series include Meditation and Sacred Sounds depicting the role of Sikhs during WWI.
L-FRESH has recently released a new album called 'Become' available from his website.
Below is a longer interview with L-FRESH The LION.
My name is L-FRESH The LION. I'm a hip-hop artist from Australia, the land down under. I was born and raised in the city of Sydney in a particular place called Liverpool, in South West Sydney; currently residing in Melbourne. Active within the music scene back home and now internationally actively working in the field of human rights.
How did you get into hip-hop?
So hip-hop came to me when I was a teenager in high school. I would have been about 13, 14 at the time and I had friends sharing music, all different kinds of music with me and you know up until then you experiment with a whole different types of sounds and styles. I had friends give me hip-hop music, they'd buy albums and burn me copies. I'd listen to it and at first be shocked by how raw and how upfront and direct hip-hop music was but eventually fall in love with the medium of it.
It wasn't the stories that I connected with, because we have hip-hop artists that I was listening to talking about things that I didn't personally experience, but the style and medium really spoke to me. The emotion being shared throughout the music really connected with me, growing up as a Punjabi Sikh in Australia, you know in a space where there weren't many particularly at that time. There weren't that many living in that area where I was growing up. So, like I said the sound, the style really appealed to me and over time I kind of just started attempting to write my own hip-hop music, just raps and showing it to friends. My early friends, particularly at that time were very encouraging and just continued to be like “you should keep doing it”.
I started to perform at school and got quite a good response and continued from there. Once I started making music I couldn't stop and it became such a big passion that I continued and continued, fortunately enough to this day 12 years later I'm about to do my first show in the UK, what a blessing.
Can you talk about the work you did with Street University?
Hip-hop music back home, particularly a number of years ago, I'm talking may be five/six years ago was definitely not at the space where it is now. Now it is pushing, to be, if it isn't already, one of the most popular forms of music in Australia where hip-hop artists are doing really well in the mainstream, on different levels. May be five/six years ago that wasn't the case, we probably wouldn't have envisioned it to be at the space it is now. So back then the focus, purely for me, it's always been this way but also for a lot of artists was that community aspect. You know when I think about hip-hop as a culture not just music, but hip-hop as a culture it's not just music it's a way of thinking, a way of being within it, and there's forms of expression that make up the culture music being one, hip-hop music being one of those aspects. There are others: dance; dejaying; visual arts like graffiti; and other ways people express themselves using a hip-hop mentality which is that of pushing the boundaries of innovation, bringing the best of you, using whatever resources you have, making the most out of nothing. I mean that's kind of a hip-hop mentality. So from it's inception it's always been about community.
I grew up in Liverpool, South West Sydney, quite a marginalised community, when we talk about socio-economic status, hip-hop is huge out there for us, so using hip-hop in workshop formats, alternative educational formats was big. For four/five years I worked in that space using hip-hop to not just to learn about the community but to build with the community and to empower not just the community but myself. So from there I delved from working with communities for five years whilst I was there for University I finished a Law degree and an Arts degree at University. Once I finished that, finished my work in south west Sydney I took a trip to Melbourne and did the same thing working with the community out there, using hip-hop as an entry point. I cant remove that community aspect from hip-hop.
What was it like performing on Triple J?
Back home the music industry isn't as big as it is in the UK in terms of music industry institutions where artists can go to build and establish themselves, utilising those platforms. One of them is Triple J and it's a great platform for musicians to get their music heard and it's the national youth broadcaster. I suppose it comes under the ABC, which is our equivalent to the BBC. They have a segment on their Breakfast show called 'Like a Version' where they invite artists who are active and doing quite well to come on the show, do an original song live in the studio and also do a cover song, and the cover song part is really popular, that's what people really appreciate the creativity the artists put in to developing a creative cover song. So, to be provided with that opportunity at a time when I just released my album a couple months removed from putting out the album and doing my own national tour, to getting opportunities to perform in many different states across the country, it came at quite a pivotal time for me, and I'm very appreciative of the opportunity. I took my team, we went on their and did 'Survive' which was one of the original songs, which the radio station had been playing on rotation for a while up to that point. And then the second thing we did, we did a cover of the 'The Fresh Prince of Bel Air' theme song with Punjabi MC 'mundian to bach ke'.
So, you know, it was a cool fusion thing. My thing was I wanna go on their and take an element of my culture with me and the most popular song that people back home know that's in Punjabi is Punjabi MC 'mundian to bach ke', so you know it was an obvious choice. I love the Fresh Prince of Bel Air, it was a cool fusion thing. We had so much fun, it was received really well, it was quite popular, it got added to the 'Like a Version' CD for last year which is great. People received it really well. So from there we were able to do a whole bunch of things because more people were taking note.
It gets people more aware, it's a platform, a platform where when you talk about music industry back home it's a really important one to try and get on if you can. And it helps in many ways, because the festivals are all watching what's happening, what's coming off Triple J, as well as other platforms, but Triple J is quite an open platform. Recognition in terms of audience recognition is always a positive, that was an immediate thing, as soon as that happened that just jumped, coverage jumped across the board and thankfully we were able to do a whole six to eight months of none stop festival performances across the entire country. So it really helped extend the life of the first album, I wouldn't say it was the only thing, there was a whole lot of other things happening at the time as well which kind of as well added to the momentum and definitely played a roll.
Talk about the song 'Survive'
So my song 'Survive' for people that haven't heard my music, or for people that have, it's probably the first song that they've heard. It's a kind of an introduction. It's a song about an experience that I've had a lot back home, which I've notice doesn't really happen out hear as much as it does back home. May be because there's more Sikh people here, but back home when I see another Sardar or another Sikh person I can immediately recognise them and they can recognise me. So the song is about that connection we have, and we have a conversation about life, history and legacy, experiences and those kinds of things and the last thing we tend to ask each other is our name. So that essentially is what the song is about, that idea that we're connected to other people more so than we think and that we can connect with people beyond just superficial things to begin with. There's a lot of depth there and we appreciate that. So that's what the songs about and it starts off with an 'Ardas' sample, a prayer sample.
When it came time to make the music video, it was all about I want to represent the diversity of faces within our community to a wider audience. So that to me was really important because we haven't had anything like that in Australia back home - get any type of coverage. So that was definitely going to be part of the focus. I wanted to ensure that anyone around the world who was of Sikh faith could play it and feel proud that this exists. How it's been received? Immediately the community back home, I definitely felt a strong sense of support.
We don't have a creative 'Asian scene' back home established like it is here. It's starting to emerge now but we don't have that, so that song was quite pivotal for me to get more recognition and support from the Sikh community back home. In terms of wider community, of all the songs on my album we released it as the third single, that song got the most radio play out of all of them and that's the song that most people when I do shows back home, know the words to. People that come to my show are predominantly a huge mix, a small fraction are Sikh people at the shows, it's mostly a huge mix. It got national play on Triple-J, it got play on MTV World based in the US. The video itself got coverage on TV as well back home. It opened doors and it kind of spread a message to people to let them know what I'm about but it also kind of provided an honest and genuine portrayal of the diversity of the Sikh community in Australia, well specifically Sydney and Melbourne.
Talk through your experience of meeting KRS-One
KRS-One finally came to Australia a couple of years ago and it's taken him that long because he doesn't fly. He came by boat. He came on a cruise. He came to do a tour, which was a massive success for him. He was well received everywhere he went. He did a few community engagements where he could and one of them was in Liverpool, South West Sydney where I grew up. He came to the space and did a lecture at the Youth Centre, the Street University and it was great. Rarely have I been in a room for three or four hours where someone's been speaking for that long and no one moved. Everyone was sitting there and there was multiple generations in terms of ages of people there. Once he did his talk, we spoke afterwards for a bit, just hung out, shared ideas and just connected and it was just a buzz man. He's got the title of 'Teacha' in hip-hop you know, the guy who's been allocated to go around the world and speak to people about the essence of hip-hop culture and philosophy. It was cool, but he's like each and everyone one of us, he's just another man, you got to give respect where respect is due for sure 'cos he's a pioneer in many ways and it was an honour and privilege to kind of chill with him.
As part of that meeting, we had cameras around so we asked him to do a little freestyle for the album. Actually we asked him to do a little shout-out and he was like “yo shut the door... close the door” and as soon as you close the door he just goes into it you know. Goes into this freestyle and we caught it on film. I was like “man okay we got to figure out how to use it, hopefully the footage is clear and the audio is clear for us to be able to use it on the album”. Thankfully it was, so you know – that was a privilege. It's a cool way to kick off your first album – to get a shout-out from KRS-One, it's not bad.
What are your live shows like?
My shows, my live shows are all about movement. There's a lot of movement, physical movement but ultimately it's about moving people physically, mentally and emotionally in the same space at the same time. I think a live show is a moment in time that cant be repeated. Each live show is individual and there's certain experiences that happen at one live show that won't happen again. So for me it's about being present and having the most fun possible. I want to see smiles on their faces, on the people in the audience and if their not smiling, I'm gonna be smiling anyway. Like I said, a lot of movement, a lot of interaction with people. Ultimately it's about having a good time, connecting with people in a meaningful positive way.
Talk about what Seva means to you?
I'm thankful to be brought up in a family that instilled positive values in me. My mum and dad really gave me such a solid foundation in understanding 'self' and understanding 'history' and 'legacy' and understanding my role within the world. For me 'seva' has played a big part of understanding my purpose in the world. Everyday I think about how I can become a better person so I can contribute positively to the world. Ultimately that's what I think about. I don't think about seva as an exclusive thing for the Sikh community. I try to think about it, for me how can I have and how can we have an impact on what's happening around the world in areas of most need. So back home I'm quite active in human rights issues. In particular at the moment I'm focussing on racism and trying to tackle that at an institutional and systemic level working in schools, working with young people to try and breed racism out of the next generation. Working with indigenous communities, with young people who have been battling with homelessness, drug and alcohol abuse. Working with asylum seekers and refugees. These are things that I'm passionate about. It comes from a sense of understanding a concept of seva and understanding how important that is in the Sikh faith but also understanding the amount of privilege that I have, that I have been given. That my parents sacrificed to be able to set up for me, to be able to live in a beautiful country like Australia where I have access to so much privilege, to horde that would be an insult to the sacrifices my parents made, and their previous elders made. It's definitely an integral part of me, regardless of music, regardless of anything else, it's at that core, it's in the fibre of my being, it's there.
What are your Aspirations?
You know, it depends on how deep you want to go with this question. There's things that I would love to do on multiple levels as an artist. There's in my head a vision of being able to perform in-front of a sea of people. An unending sea of people on a stage with the people that I love performing with, my band, my crew, performing music that I love the most. I don't know where that's gonna be... not just in Australia but somewhere around the world. So using music as a passport to travel and see the world. Ultimately music for me it doesn't stop at music. Music for me is the ticket, the hook – that's how I get to be where I get to be but it's these conversations that I really value. It's the people that I get to meet at the shows with whom I have conversations long after the show. It's the discussion I'm able to have in the media to hopefully build and raise awareness. To get people to ask questions because I'm asking questions and finding out more and more questions everyday. It's what impact can music have on peoples lives beyond just having a good time, how can we utilise that to uplift people in ways that are positive. Music can definitely be a catalyst for so much positive change.
Then there's a vision for me, ultimately where I'd like to get with music. I see myself on a beach with a guitar in hand, beautiful day with family looking back and seeing a house and being like “oh snap that's my house” and the beach is my back yard. Whether that's a home or a holiday home or whatever, that to me is peace right there. That's the vision. Self created home because of music and kind of living and breathing twenty-four-seven, that brings me joy. There's different levels there. There's the entry point of “yeah I'd love to perform and build” and the fun aspect of it, but then there's the depth aspect of it. Look at things beyond music, how can we have positive impact on the world and is that personal goal and dream, the lifestyle that I'm trying to create.
What are your highlights?
So many highlights for me, where to begin. There are awesome moments, there are moments that I've had, being able to do certain shows and take certain opportunities that you know writing a biography, you're trying to capture peoples attention by saying “hey, I've done this”, you know like performing at the Asian Cup opening ceremony, it's the biggest gig I've ever done. It's broadcast to millions and millions of people around the whole world and I'll never forget moments like that.
There are other moments where it's like looking at the faces of people at a show and seeing the impact it's had on the stadium, the individual person, and having those conversations with people afterwards. When they come up and tell you why and it's like they feel the same pain, the same emotion that I felt when I wrote it and it's like yeah – that's why I do this, because that's the role music played for me. You know music changed my life in such a positive way because I could relate to the emotions people were exploring in songs and it just felt like I was being listened to and being understood. I think that's one of the greatest things people can feel in life - is that they feel understood and when you find that in music it's such a beautiful feeling. So to see that at a show and have that conversation with people, that's such a highlight man, that's bigger than any opportunity you get because that's real right there, you know. That hit's the heart man. So yeah man, too many highlights man, too many highs of amazing shows, opportunities. Man, being on stage there's no better feeling, crowd surfing, man it's ridiculous, being in the studio working on jams for hours and hours and hours, seeing the impact that it has on people, you cant measure that.
Hola Mahalla is a little known Sikh festival that takes place annually in Anandpur, India. Dubbed the Sikh Olympics, it involves sword fights, daring horse stunts and a dab of spiritualism.
This documentary focuses on the festival Hola Mahalla that has been running since the 17th century, showcasing skills such as swordsmanship and daring horse stunts that are with an ever decreasing number of nomadic Sikhs.
Featuring key interviews with Nihang Jatherdar (High Priest) Baba Nihal Singh and Kesgarh Sahib Jathedar, Late Giani Tirlochan Singh. This beautifully shot film takes the viewer on a journey through the festival and Anandpur Sahib, the "City of Bliss", providing a snapshot into a world rarely experienced outside of India and exploring this Forgotten Festival.