“I want to create something that lives past me, and it’s no different than people wanting to have kids. You have kids because you want to work on a project and watch it bloom and blossom. My creative work is my kids; it’s my legacy.” – Humble the Poet
It’s been a little over five years since Kanwer Singh, better known as Humble the Poet, debuted as an Emcee/Spoken Word Artist over YouTube with his 2008 single Voice of the Voiceless. His lyrical intensity and ability to discuss taboo social issues through his work turned the quintessential elementary school teacher into a hip-hop god, almost overnight. Since then, Humble the Poet has been trying to live up to the towering standard he has set for himself. With an increasing number of Sikhs engrossed with hip-hop, Singh who often felt like an outsider before expressing himself through his lyrics is now regarded as a trailblazer in the Toronto hip-hop scene. His live appearances deliver a performance of finessed talent, giving an edge to every word he utters.
Make no mistake. Humble the Poet is no one-trick pony. We caught up with the tattoo-clad poet warrior who wears a black-wrap around turban, and had a chance to talk to him about his take on social issues, his family, his music, the launch of his new book and the extent to how being a Gursikh hip-hop artist defines him.
DESI TODAY – Always a good question to start with, where are you living right now and what are you working on?
KANWER SINGH – Right now I’m actually couch surfing I’ve been travelling and I realized it’s not feasible to travel and pay a mortgage so I’m “homeless” at the moment. My belongings are at my parents’ home but I’ve been living out of my suitcase travelling and pursuing my artistic endeavors full-time since the beginning of 2011. I’m preparing for the launch of my book and album that will be available in December 2013.
I understand you have two older sisters. How has having two older sisters shaped you? Are your parents supportive of your music career?
In terms of music, I grew up listening to whatever my sisters listened to – Vanilla Ice, New Kids on the Block, Boy George. My sisters paid attention to what I wore and would tell me what to change about my style. Having sisters has that influence on you. As an adult, it’s cool to see them as mothers. They’re both very different people and it’s cool to learn from them. My middle sister and I connect on books, and my other sister is into pop culture and celebrities. I promised her if I ever make it to the Grammys she’s my date. My family is very supportive. Obviously they want nothing more than for me to be secure and to have a stable job, so they do tell me that my teaching job is there and it would help me earn a stable salary. There aren’t many people whose footsteps I’m following in, and they can’t think of anyone else’s success or failure as a guide for what I’m doing. I really am paving my own way. The idea of me pursuing the arts isn’t something they’re thrilled about because they don’t know of anyone pursuing the arts successfully. That being said, they’re very supportive and encourage me to pursue my dreams.
A lot of people don’t know that you’re an elementary school teacher. What grade do you teach?
Right now I’m a teacher on leave. When I was a full-time teacher I was teaching Grade 3. I’m still a teacher and I have the choice of going back next September. I started off with leaving my day job to pursue the arts, and now I’m getting overwhelmed with this work and the entertainment industry, that it would be a very welcome break to go back to the same peaceful classroom.
Did a lot of students recognize you as Humble the Poet?
I was teaching for a few years before I got into spoken word and popularity grew, when it got intense is when I left, at the same time when my last album dropped. Everyone at my school already knew, the kids were used to it and they knew that ‘Mr. Singh goes downtown and reads poems and he’s on YouTube’. It’s interesting because aside from asking me if I knew Miley Cyrus, my students were used to what I was doing and seeing me on YouTube.
How has your success affected your personal life?
I don’t have a personal life (laughs). The more successful you are, the more you’re able to put yourself out there. In terms of girls and relationships, considering the level of aspirations that I have, my number one priority is my work. Any type of interactions I have is with that understanding. When I started being Humble the Poet I was in a relationship and it ended, because of it. I’ve realized that was a huge part of my life that had to change for me to take part in this journey. I’ve always enjoyed the company of females and that’s never been an issue. I travel for half the year, so it wouldn’t be in anyone benefit to put up with that.
How did you get started with music and rapping?
While working as an elementary school teacher and high school tutor, I was looking for a creative outlet so I joined what was back then called the Toronto Spoken Word Club and started going to competitions, participating, performing and winning. After doing that for a few months I decided to tackle different things, and while working with youth groups discussing issues that affected our community, realized the disconnect between the adults that wanted to help and the youth that needed help. There was a huge communication problem and as a full-time teacher, one of things I specialize in is to communicate with younger people, so I took it upon myself to reach out to these kids. Parents would hire me as a tutor to work with their kids, and very few actually had academic issues, they were just making poor decisions and that’s why they weren’t doing well in school. A lot of the time I would talk to them and try to give them realistic advice and not “ideal” advice. Kids were receptive and they didn’t disregard me as an after-school special so I took that and put it into poetry format and released a track called Voice for the Voiceless. That track discussed situations of violence in schools, and the cycle of violence that was happening in BC. People really connected to the music, and at this point I wasn’t even thinking about turning this into a music career, I wanted to raise awareness while enjoying a creative outlet and using it as an excuse to try to meet girls.
After this I started recording more songs and meeting people like the engineer that I still use today. We started recording in his basement and he was learning how to make twist all the knobs and make sounds while I was learning how to record my voice on the mic. We’ve grown together. Same thing with the producer I use, we’ve all grown together and as the number of our videos increase, the quality of the music came out and got a lot better.
You’re paving your own way. Does this ever scare you?
I think everybody goes through that doubt, nobody is without fear. Those that move forward operate despite their fears, especially when we’re leaving our comfort zone. An anxiety can build especially when you see that the mortgage payment is due, the car payment is due. I really have to sit down and ask myself what’s important, what are we doing all these things for. I had to decide what would make me happy in life and I would be lying if I said there wasn’t fear or anxiety; if it was meant to be easy there would be a lot more people like me in the world.
I’m hoping that the ideas in my head can be brought to life and connect with people at such a level in comparison with the people who have affected me. There are people who have done things on this planet and they’ve left a footprint with their ideas which will affect the future, even when they’re not a part of it. I think I have the potential to leave that same dent with my writing, music and creative endeavors. I want to create something that lives past me, and it’s no different than people wanting to have kids. You have kids because you want to work on a project, raise it and watch it grow, bloom and blossom. And my creative work is my kids.
The things I’ve been able to do and opportunities I’ve had, I don’t think many people have had these opportunities, nor had the success I’ve achieved at this point. I am my own competition; no one can be harder on me than I am on myself. It’s rare that I sit down and look at my accomplishments, the only time I really do this is when I’m working on an application and need to submit my history and resume.
I see that you’ve written a book. Can you tell us a little bit about it and what inspired you to write a book?
I have a full-length book coming out in December which will be over 100 chapters in hard copy, available for pre-order mid-August. There is also going to be an album of the same name, which is UnLEARN. I’m a writer first and foremost. I write lyrics, harmonies and melodies more so than composing music. I think of ideas and there’s a bit of restriction when you’re trying to make everything rhyme, which has slowed down my creative output. I had an epiphany to write whatever is on mind and started blogging every day since the beginning of this year. I’ve been focusing on posting and working on themes and ideas that I want to discuss further and started to collect feedback on what people thought. Every chapter is no longer than 1-3 pages max, and the language is extremely simple. It’s not an academic rich book, it’s about things that people already know but we lose sight on the way in life but need to reconnect with. Me being a writer, this is one of the things I wanted to do, which is to be the voice for the people who aren’t in a position to voice things for themselves.
When I think of Humble the Poet, the first thoughts that come to mind are musician, rapper – do you consider yourself a writer foremost?
Well I am a musician and a rapper but as my writing continued it really grew and started a life of its own. A whole new base of people started connecting with me so even with the rap and music, I still consider myself a writer. Right now I’m also writing a script so that’s more under the writer umbrella as well. I’ve also done creative ideas like our video treatments. I love bringing creative ideas to life and I do that through my videos and through my writing on another website brwnppl.com.
You write a lot about the continuum of social issues affecting the South Asian community. Looking specifically at gang violence, do you consider this a settlement issue or a growing pain as the community grows?
In Toronto we don’t have a gang issue affecting the South Asian community to the scope that BC has. Realities and stories we hear about like guns at weddings and so many young people dying as a result of their involvement with gang activity, it hasn’t made its way over here. I don’t think this is a South Asian specific issue; there’s a pursuit to make money and gang activity is a quick way to do it. For South Asians, it’s like a street life appeal without the underprivileged component being the motivator. If you think of the inner cities and the Black communities that are stricken with poverty, that is their motivator to get involved with crime. It’s interesting to know that the Punjabi community lives in better conditions but get involved with drug trafficking.
Some of it can be pride and some can be money – there are a lot of motivators and you can’t point a finger at one.
If you look at the Somali community in Toronto, a lot of kids who were getting in trouble were sent out to Alberta in hopes that they would find jobs. Those that chose to live a life of crime were competing against established organized crime and starting losing their lives as a result of this involvement. A lot of communities, especially immigrant communities, try to get settled and speed up the process of wanting what everyone else has. We see this in the South Asian community, people like to show off, which is reflective in the houses we build, the receptions we throw – whether we can afford it or not.
The same way a corporation will buy out another corporation, or a business will try to muscle out its competitor, is no different than one drug dealer trying to shoot another dealer. At the end of the day it’s about money and getting people young enough who are impressionable enough to fall in love with the romantic notion that the life of crime.
I don’t see this as any different than a government using military indoctrination to psychologically prepare soldiers to want to fight wars. People are willing to kill for their country and gang activity is the same thing on a much smaller scope. When you get people young enough you can pretty much convince them to do anything.
So with gang violence you think the motivators within communities are all the same, with the exception of South Asians not being underprivileged for the most part. What about domestic violence?
Domestic violence is a topic that is so taboo to discuss and tackle, so it becomes extra prevalent which is not a socio-economic issue. In any culture for one gender to have power, the other has to be oppressed. For a man to feel strong, he needs to feel stronger over someone else, and women end up getting the short end of the stick. Our community is extremely proud and this stems from back home and a view on the role of women. Domestic violence happens here in Canada and it’s protected and hidden because people care about their name and reputation. It’s interesting because I had a conversation with my father after something happened on the street, and I knew what really happened and he knew the made up version that the parents were telling because they wanted to save face. When I told him what really happened he acknowledged that our community is one that even if they do know the truth, they don’t say anything. This becomes a normal element, this closed dialogue that exists and encouraged within the community is one of the reasons that domestic violence is prevalent because people don’t have a voice or an option. It’s common for the victim to get blamed and it’s not just violence, it’s sexual abuse, especially amongst younger girls. It’s heartbreaking that probably 75% of the girls that I’ve ever met have a story of some sort of abuse at the hands of a family member. This is prevalent within the Pakistani community, the Punjabi-Sikh community, the Hindu community – it’s prevalent because it’s not talked about and it’s taboo. When you put a taboo on sex and repress people, it’s like if you lock up your kids – you lock them up and they’re going to sneak out. When sex becomes taboo, the sexual problems increase. India has a reputation of being the rape capital of the world because they shut down anything sexual, and this wasn’t always the case. From the culture that invented the Kama Sutra, something happened where the view of sex changed, and it became negative and because of that, a myriad of problems are happening behind closed doors and they won’t be stopped, even if people know they’re happening.
Do you see a difference between the issues affecting South Asians in BC as opposed to Toronto, aside from the organized crime element?
I know a lot of people who were involved with various different things, but I don’t think they were ever able to take it to a level where the stakes were that high. The crimes here are petty and there wasn’t a big amount of money to be made, and the super-hard drugs weren’t being sold. The community in BC is a lot older and I look at BC and think, maybe that’s our future. The opportunities to grow and further yourself economically is there in BC, but so are the opportunities to get into unsavory situations.
Do you think solutions to social problems affecting the South Asian community are going to get solved in your generation?
I’m not an idealist. In the 15,000 years of human history, was there ever a time where these social issues didn’t exist. Domestic violence, violence, death, drugs – although the numbers have decreased over time, our sensitivities to them have increased, and this is probably a by-product of living in the First World. A few people die in Boston and it stops the whole country; we’re not used to that here. But we hear that 100 kids died in Iraq and we don’t bat an eye. Social problems have always existed and to try to solve them would mean to take power away from a lot of people who won’t let go of that power. There’s good and bad, and that’s the same with Punjabi culture – there are things we want to hold on to and there are things we want to let go. We can find solutions to replace old issues, but with the solutions will come new problems with consequences.
Being a turbaned Sikh man, have you experienced positive or negative feedback? Do people hold you to a higher standard because you’re Gursikh? What has the reaction been?
It really depends on who is doing the reacting. I’ve received a mixed review. Being a Singh, some people in the community have expectations of me based on what they perceive a Singh to be, and feel that I’m not representing them the way that they understand how I’m supposed to represent them. I think my appearance is a much bigger issue from within our community than outside of our community. Some people don’t even know what a Punjabi is and they look at me like my beard and tattoos represent that I’m part of a rock and roll or blues band. That’s their context, and it’s interesting because there’s a perception that the outsiders will look at you funny, but it’s from within the South Asian community that I get reactions. They see the turban and beard, and refer to the people that they know in their lives that are in a gurdwara preaching and live a certain type of life void of talking about girls and doing this or that. As an adult I realize, people don’t know more or less than I do, we’re all kind of just winging it. You can’t counter a lack of education and tell them what’s up and expect a light bulb to just go off. People see a turban and beard, and they expect you to act a certain way. Everybody in the public eye deals with that, and if you’re in the public forum you have to deal with people who are not excited to see you around and aren’t supportive. That negativity is present in such a small dose, compared to the overwhelming support I feel.
Kanwer’s Indiegogo campaign is now live until September 20th. You can check it out and make contributions at http://bit.ly/humblethepoet or visit humblethepoet.com