Better than Jay-Z, Bigger than Osama: Enter the future of Humble the Poet

MTV Iggy, October 3, 2011

It feels like one of those guaranteed party songs—the fat beat, the epic loop, the perfect wave-your-hands-in-the-air tempo. And it is a party song, no doubt. But pay attention to the lyrics and see the video, or better yet, watch the Humble the Poet perform it onstage, and you’ll know that “Baagi Music,” his 2010 anthem, is a lot more than that.

With its “Go Baagi Baagi! Go Baagi Baagi!” chants, it’s the Toronto MC’s biggest song, whether measured by YouTube clicks or the sheer energy rise in the club when he plays it. And it’s also a statement of defiance and regional pride, and a provocation—sharply crafted and aggressively delivered.

To wit: “Toronto’s my heart, Punjabi n my blood.” And: “I’m not Indian—four knuckles to your eyes, if you call me that again.” And: “F*@k Bollywood—we Punjabi!”

Around this core theme, some ornamentation: The flyness of Punjabi girls. The realness of Punjabi guys. How Punjabis the “home of bhangra and Jay Sean’s mom.” All spit by Humble, a tall, rangy Sikh brother with full beard and turban, hyped and accompanied onstage by his friend—and “Baagi Music” producer—Sikh Knowledge.

We get the message.

Or do we?

Because Humble the Poet, a.k.a. Kanwer Singh, isn’t just a single-issue voter or one-note MC. When he’s not big-upping Punjab, he’s addressing the frustration and melancholy of the immigrant condition; critiquing the schools and the prison system, and advocating resistance and solidarity. Elsewhere he’s speaking on Palestine, or on women’s rights.

And he’s aimed his most acerbic provocations at loftier targets than just Bollywood: In January 2009, only two days after Barack Obama’s inauguration, he uploaded a track called “Imagine 2009 (Obama Diss).”

It is just that, a harsh diss of the new president as just another agent of a flawed and unjust system. “F*@ Obama,” Humble raps. “Let me get the ball rolling, in a couple of years, that’ll be the new slogan.” You be the judge.

It’s a cross-border incursion, as Humble is, in fact, Canadian—a former Toronto elementary school teacher who now makes music full-time. His creative circle includes fellow Toronto new-school South Asian artists like the R&B singer Selena Dhillon; Sikh Knowledge, from Montreal (or “Realistan,” as he calls it), who supplies the bulk of the beats; and fellow brown leftist types from across North America, like the Bay Area’s Ras Ceylon and Mandeep Sethi. And in keeping with hip-hop tradition, as his own body of work and reputation progress, he is bringing along new artists under his wing.

A recent visit to New York finds Humble and Sikh Knowledge, whose given name is Kanwar Anit Singh Saini, relaxing backstage while waiting to perform at the downtown club S.O.B.’s. It’s the night of DJ Rekha’s monthly Basement Bhangra party, and they are the featured guests. Members of Desi punk band The Kominas were hanging out in the room as well. The next afternoon, the two Canadians will be spotted in the East Village, dropping in on an Internet radio broadcast by the hip (and two-thirds Desi) rap trio Das Racist.

All this adds up to a distinctly South Asian vibe, but Humble wants to set the record straight: He sees himself as part of the broad global family of hip-hop, not a niche artist making music for and about a specific ethnic constituency. “‘Desi hip-hop artist’ is the quickest way to put us in a box we don’t want to be in,” he says.

“I want to be an ethnic hip-hop artist in the same way B-Real is an ethnic hip-hop artist,” he goes on, referring to the leader of the classic L.A. group Cypress Hill. “He’s hip-hop, you know what his ethnicity is, he speaks Spanish in some of his rhymes—along the same lines. But I want to be in the pool of hip-hop. I want to be a small fish in the pool of hip-hop, because that’s the music that inspired me.”

“If I have to go as far as saying that I hope one day Jay-Z can be the Black Humble the Poet, I’ll say it. You need to compare me to these people. And I will destroy them, to show you I’m a more proficient hip-hop artist than them.”

He smiles: “Which I’m not at this point!”

It’s not exactly humble of Humble to rank himself ahead of the likes of Hova, even prospectively, but then it wouldn’t be hip-hop without a measure of healthy braggadocio. As it turns out, even his choice of stage name comes as much from wanting to draw attention to himself as from humility, even if the two seem contradictory.

“As I child I was heavily infused with Sikhism,” he says. “To its credit, it helped me realize that the ego is probably your greatest enemy. As philosophical as that was, ‘Humble’ became my screen name for chats and whatever I was doing to get girls.”

Posting as Humble on a hip-hop site during a battle-rap competition, he took on the well-worn debate between the concepts of rapper and MC—“because the rapper is just a dumb guy who rhymes, and the MC is a guy who communicates.” Humble went one better: “I had a line, ‘F*@ you MCs, I’m a poet. Edgar Allen Poe, Shakespeare, I’m trying to hit that level.’ And I actually won the tournament, so I kept the name Humble the Poet.”

It was only about four years ago that Humble began making full-fledged songs, starting with “Voice for the Voiceless,” a tribute to people in his community who died of gang violence, HIV and other scourges. He had come to hip-hop through the spoken-word scene, with at first no intention of rapping. “But then once the music was on, I kind of naturally fell into the beat as opposed to rhyming over it. It worked out pretty well.”

Well enough, in fact, that last year Humble gave up his day job of seven years, as an elementary school teacher, to focus completely on his music. The choice wasn’t just about time management, he says. It was also political.

“As a teacher I was part of the problem,” he says. “Every day I was getting these kids ready for a 9-to-5 life, making them think that whenever there was a problem there would be this authority I could run to and save the day. Hopefully I didn’t cause too much damage. If you love kids, teach them to be themselves and to take risks.”

It’s safe to say Humble has at least taken his own advice. In these few short years he has released a prodigious volume of work, including five albums’ worth of his own songs or collaborations and a plethora of original videos on his YouTube channel. He distributes all his work via free download, earning income instead from merchandise and gigs. It’s working out for now, he says: “I’m fortunate enough to be able to pay my mortgage.”

“I want to be the hardest worker in the room,” Humble says. And DJ Rekha, who has seen more than a few Desi artists come through and rock her party, says the Toronto MC’s commitment to his craft stands out.

“The great thing about Humble is his work ethic,” Rekha says. “I don’t want to cast him as this hard-working immigrant, but you get a vibe around him, that he’s ready to do this day and night.”

For Ali Sachedina, a manager, lawyer and consultant who works with a broad swathe of international artists, Humble’s music combines the energy of high-quality hip-hop with DIY values and an appealing set of cultural references.

“His message and his look are not alien to me,” Sachedina says. “Issues of race, immigration, religious persecution and love for the ladies are all ones that I understand. One thing is for certain—he is an incredibly skilled MC with some of the most intelligent lyrics and production I have heard from anyone.”

For that production and much more, Humble is quick to credit Sikh Knowledge as the key to his success. Vibing together backstage, the two men—who sport different takes on the Sikh turban and beard, Humble’s old-school and flowing, Sikh Knowledge’s fashion-forward and trimmed—show all the playfulness and ease of close creative partners.

The two live in separate cities and do much of their work together over the Internet, but their professional chemistry has proven highly potent.

“Sikh Knowledge, he’s taken so many pages of my excuse book and just ripped them up,” Humble says. “I still don’t even know how to add an echo to my voice! Let alone having someone I consider a better rapper than me to finish the verses. Let alone someone who can produce a beat out of spite and turn it over to me and have it be the biggest song of my career.”

He’s referring to “Baagi Music,” which has a back story. Sikh Knowledge, who is openly gay, put the beat together at a time when he was coming under attack for his sexuality—all the way to death threats, he says. So he named the beat accordingly.

“The beat was called ‘F the Homophobes,’” Sikh Knowledge says, “because I was being attacked online by a bunch of losers, they just hate me because I’m gay.”

Humble interjects. “The idea of being homosexual was under attack, particularly a Punjabi Sikh being homosexual. And he took personal offense to it, rightly so. And what he said to me was, and you need to quote this: ‘F— that, I’m going to make the craziest club banger possible and shut everybody up.’”

Sikh Knowledge made the beat, but then decided to drop the hostilities with the Internet trolls. But not before posting the raw track online, where Humble discovered it the next morning. “I come out of the shower, I press play—and my towel fell off!”

Thus “Baagi Music” was born. Its title, says Sikh Knowledge, resurrects an old Punjabi word. “It’s basically a sovereign rebel, a rebel directed by his own internal compass. This is what we want kids to have, this sentiment of being their own internal rebel.”

“Baagi Music” is far from the only ultra-catchy song that Sikh Knowledge has put together for Humble. “Life of an Immigrant,” for example, rides a deft interpolation of GZA’s “Killah Hills10304” with “Ya Rayah,” the Algerian classic about emigration and exile. But “Baagi” is the undisputed anthem, the one that gets requested every time, the one Humble can play at a formal Punjabi event where no one knows hip-hop and still get everyone moving.

As such, Humble says, it’s also become a bit of an albatross.

“I’m loathing that song actually, it’s the bane of my existence. I can see why certain artists don’t want to get known for just one song. So I’m hoping to trump it or destroy it eventually, through new songs, in due course.”

One problem, he suggests, is that some in his audience take the song’s Punjabi nationalism, which is cultural more than political, to a place he did not intend.

“They think it’s the Khalistani national anthem,” he says. He’s referring to the name that Sikh separatists have given to their vision of an independent Punjab. It’s a cause that spiked in 1984 when the Indian Army occupied the sacred Golden Temple in Amritsar, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was assassinated by a Sikh bodyguard, and reprisal attacks against Sikhs took place in Delhi and elsewhere. The Khalistan movement has since simmered down but still has its supporters in the diaspora, including in Toronto.

“I love the word Khalistan,” Humble says—but he doesn’t like all its uses. “I’m not a separatist; I’m an autonomist.” He has a political critique ofIndia’s treatment of Punjab, but he says it can be fixed without breaking India apart. “I don’t have a political ideology on it. Everybody has a different flavor of ice cream. I’m not down to take one idea and blanket everybody with it.”

You could argue Humble the Poet wants to have it both ways: The aggressive Punjabi pride, but also the broad-based, inclusive themes of social critique and class solidarity. But DJ Rekha, for one, sees no contradiction.

“It’s easy to be critical of any facet of South Asian nationalism,” Rekha says. “But if you look at artists who are proud of other places, like Jamaican artists for example, nobody thinks that’s parochial. It’s just that the baggage of South Asiais so heavy.”

Sachedina agrees. “Humble’s identity as a Punjabi is not one that defines his music, but it certainly powers his message. I can respect that.”

But there’s something else, too. When you’re a tall, bearded, turban-wearing man in the West these days, you get singled out and harassed to the point where some cultural defiance is understandable and probably necessary.

“I want to normalize the way I look,” Humble says. “I want to be as popular as possible so that this”—he points to his face—“is normal. If my competition now for beard and turban is Osama, and people always say his name when they see someone, then I will keep working until they say, wow, that guy over there looks just like Humble the Poet.”

And to get there, he’s committed himself to using hip-hop. Where the jaded see an art in decline or overrun with commercialism, Humble detects a renaissance—whether in the likes of J. Cole, Jay Electronica, Tyler, The Creator, or any number of new acts along with the music’s enduring grassroots vitality.

“People can’t complain anymore about the state of hip-hop,” Humble says. “Hip-hop is beautiful, it’s epic, it’s financially sound, it’s probably created so many jobs. It hasn’t been stolen by pop culture as much as people wanted it to be. I’m in it because I owe hip-hop. It’s going to be an extremely convenient time for the sound that we have and that we’re creating.”