Punjabi singer Raju Johal was exposed to two very different musical worlds. Growing up in Surrey, in the Canadian province of British Columbia, his father had him listening to Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and Hansraj Hans. At the age of three, he was taught how to play the dhol, and at six he began training in classical music. The other world he inhabited at school consisted of friends and classmates listening to gangster rap which glorified drugs, alcohol, violence and sex.
As Johal grew older, he found his sound. It lay somewhere in the middle of these two worlds – his music melds together the old-school principles of Punjabi folk music with R&B and has found many fans in the Punjabi community in Canada in the last eight years. He has performed live at various bhangra competitions in Vancouver. In fact, his first EP, released in 2011, was titled Nachna Pasand or love to dance.
“Surrey has a significantly large South Asian Community and a culture of gang violence in the overall Lower Mainland,” said the 29-year-old. “There is such a negative portrayal of South Asian males here and all of us tend to get categorised as gangsters because of our ethnicity. It’s completely unfair. I have tried to move past this and reframe how I approach my own identity.”
His last EP, In Words, released last year in August and is more mellow and contemplative in nature.
Sexist and violent lyrics have been a part of not just rap music in the US but also popular Punjabi music in India. Whether it’s Yo Yo Honey Singh asking the object of his desire to become “Mitra di whore” or Diljit Dosanjh reducing women to their 28-inch waist size, the catchiest numbers are also frequently sexist and demeaning. The millions of views they receive on YouTube drown out the noise of the few protesting against the derogatory lyrics. Add to this an obsession with guns as a symbol of machismo, like in the song Goliyan by Singh and Dosanjh.
Nikke hunde dad ne fada ti bandook, chacha mera kehnda haan bai shoot
Goli di awaaz ne chaska laa ta, bai hona ki si aggey pher, chakko payr
(At a young age my father handed me a gun and my uncle told me to shoot
I got addicted to the noise of the gun shot, there was no looking back)
Artists like Johal and the Indian Punjabi singers Jassi Jasraj and Dilin Nair (better known by his stage name Raftaar) have taken a stand against the trend of regressive and aggressive lyrics. In 2013 a series of protests against sexist lyrics in Punjabi music were held in different cities in India and Canada, home to a sizeable Punjabi community. The Istri Jagriti Manch, a women’s group, staged dharnas against artists like Singh, Dosanjh and Jazzy B.
According to an article in The Hindu, Charanjit Kaur Barnala of the Manch, described the lyrics as “intolerable” and said that “the videos released by them amounted to cultural pollution”.
But Rup Sidhu, a Vancouver-based musician, artist, and co-founder of Metaphor, a programme that organises hip-hop workshops is careful about pigeonholing any one style or genre of music as sexist. “It’s more a societal issue,” said Sidhu. “Sexism has lived inside all forms of music because patriarchy exists across genres – pop music, rap, hip-hop, rock.”
A few good men
Johal’s music is a departure from these themes. His last EP In Words was a 17-minute musical journey about heartbreak, love and finding oneself.
“It explores parts of my inner relationship with people and music,” said Johal. “I feel like I have some responsibility to show that I am not the stereotype being portrayed, that there are South Asian men doing good work – showcasing our families and community in a positive light. Choosing to have positive lyrics, choosing to not talk about violence, alcohol, and women in negative ways was different and challenging. I think it’s important to not fall into the trap of what is easy and will sell.”
According to Sidhu, Punjabi music is very popular within the Punjabi community in Canada and maybe UK, but not beyond. “Outside the community I don’t know if any Punjabi song in Canada has ever broken the top 40 in the mainstream level,” said the 40-year-old. However, the sound and lyrics of songs being made by Punjabi artists have been evolving to keep up with the mainstream music. “In terms of sound, it has followed the popular movement of its times,” added Sidhu. “In the 1990s, there were influences from electronic music and hip-hop and now you hear a lot of R&B influences along with a lot of different forms of urban music. Lyrics too have changed – the traditional songs talked about village life and farming and, of course, themes of eternal love and now lyrics reflect the capitalist society and you see the songs as a fusion of materialism and things being more shallow where people are concerned with what they are wearing and how they look as opposed to who they actually are in the world.”
In India, several singers have been distancing themselves from misogynistic narrative, with Jasraj even releasing a song in which he labeled Honey Singh as the “king of vulgarity”.
Following Raftaar’s ascent to fame after the release of his song Swag Mera Desi in 2014, the rapper gave interviews in which he declared that his songs would never disrespect women. He released a song titled Aurat after a molestation incident in Bengaluru on New Year’s Eve. In the one and a half minute song, Raftaar raps about how the news media reports on crime against women, the mentality that suggests it was the woman’s fault and the failure of the legal system.
Chhote kapre nahi, chhoti soch hai
Tu unme se hai beta, toh tu is duniya pe bhoj hai.
(Her clothes aren’t too small, it’s your thinking that is
If you think it’s her fault, then you’re a burden on the society).
In an interview to Hindustan Times, Raftaar said that he was inspired to write the song after the 2012 Delhi gangrape. “I was distraught (when the incident happened),” he said. “Main bhi tha un protests mein. Maine bhi tear gas shells khaye the (I was a part of those protests and was also hit by tear gas shells). I had these lyrics with me (all these years). I wanted to spread awareness through the song that women are equal and no one gives anyone the right to mistreat them, or think that they are any lesser than men.”
Johal’s In Words begins with the song Dil/Raj, a declaration of his undying love for his lady love while Pour Toi, or “for you” in French, is about dealing with heartbreak. “Breaking that macho image is a big step for me,” said Johal. “Men don’t share feelings and believe that they must maintain a certain machismo, but that’s not accurate. Sharing experiences like those in In Words creates connections at a human level. The songs resonate with both men and women and of any age group. That was the appeal of doing an EP like this – creating connections, pulling at heartstrings, getting people to talk about things.”