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Photograph: Supplied/L-Fresh the Lion

How Sydney hip-hop artist L-Fresh the Lion found his fluency again

The Punjabi-Sikh musician from southwest Sydney navigates his culture and his first language in his latest album

Written by
Divya Venkataraman

As a young, Tupac-obsessed Punjabi-Sikh boy growing up in the southwest of Sydney in the mid ‘90s, Sukhdeep Singh didn’t know that people like him could make it in the world of hip hop. Now Singh, aka L-FRESH the Lion, is doing his best to be the exemplar for his community that he didn’t have.

“When I was coming up, it felt quite isolated,” says Singh. “Now, I’m really passionate about supporting artists from the area.” Sydney’s west and southwest, traditionally home to  enclaves of diverse migrant communities like Singh’s, who moved to Australia from the state of Punjab in India, are not areas which have historically been seen as an important part of the city’s cultural makeup or its music scene – a perception that Singh is determined to change. 

When he was growing up, being Sikh wasn’t considered ‘cool’. But now, he’s re-learning his fluency in both his first language and in expressing his cultural identity – the song ‘Mother Tongue’ on his new album, South West, which was released on July 17, features lyrics in both English and Punjabi. 

In his decade-long career in the Australian music industry – South West will be Singh’s third studio album, and he has performed with the likes of Nas, Elton John and was an Australian judge for Eurovision – Singh has become familiar with the double-edged sword that dangles over minority creatives when they ascend to mainstream prominence: not only is there pressure from within his own community to represent it well, but there are equal and opposite forces from broader society when artists of colour are so often the only ones representing their community in a room. “Whenever you speak or whenever you do something, it feels like you’re being asked to speak on behalf of the entire community,” he says.

This kind of tokenism expresses itself in myriad, unusual ways. Despite being a hip-hop artist, Australian music festivals continue to book him on the ‘world music’ stage – not to mention that the very term has been panned by music critics, criticised as a “subtle way of reasserting the hegemony of Western pop culture” and decried as problematic. Once, Singh explains, he was booked to perform at a major Australian music festival and it was only once he arrived that he realised he was booked into a specific South Asian space at the festival – bedazzled with cheap, Indian-inspired decor, rip-off Bollywood posters, and without a single brown person actually working in the space. “Where I was being asked to perform at the festival was a real tokenised and stereotypical space for me to be in,” says Bohgal. “And I remember being really exhausted and frustrated by it – like I was being misled to what this opportunity actually was.”

From Tupac Shakur’s oeuvre to NWA’s ‘Fuck tha Police’, hip hop has always been a powerful mechanism for social justice. Having been influenced by its capacity for political expression, Singh was determined to continue the genre’s project of building solidarity and tackling racial justice through his own music. “When I was younger, there were hardly ever any conversations about being proud of where you're from in Western Sydney,” he says. “When people asked where I went to school, I’d say Macquarie Fields High School. People were like, oh, you mean the place that had the riots?” He laughs. “So you wouldn't mention it. You’d say it, like, really softly.”

In his years working with children from southwest Sydney and nudging them to express themselves and their identities through hip hop and music, Singh has noticed marked shifts in the way they perceive their cultural identities.“I feel like it's changing, though. I feel like it’s changing because there are waves of people from western Sydney who are breaking ground, especially in music. And that's creating a generation of influences that these kids have, of people who look like them and sound like them, from the same places as them. No longer are their heroes just people from overseas.” 

The ability of hip hop to give voice to so many marginalised communities around the world – beginning of course, with black American musicians in the ‘70s – is no coincidence. While the more contemporarily well-known ‘gangster rap’ style of hip hop usurped the popularity of the conscious hip-hop styles of the ‘80s, there has been a modern resurgence in the genre focussing on addressing political issues with the credibility they deserve. Singh himself cites Tupac, J. Cole and the Roots as sonic and political inspirations when he was starting out – but more recently, he’s also loved the work of local artists like Barkaa, a First Nations hip-hop artist, and Dobby, a Murrawarri and Filipino rapper. “This is people from the same places that they're from and who sound like them and who look like them,” he says, referring to his Western Sydney students. “So I feel like there's a change, you know?”

The natural tendency of hip hop to give permission for the performative and transformative is another aspect of why it’s been such a touchstone for historically marginalised communities – starting from artists’ adoption of a stage name. Singh’s moniker, L-FRESH the Lion, is symbolic on a number of levels, each of which represents an aspiration rather than a descriptor. FRESH is an acronym for Forever Rising Exceeding Sudden Hardship. “The ‘lion’ is a symbol I aspire to be,” says Singh. “And what is associated with that for me is very much grounded in the amazing stories I've heard and I've been told about things achieved by people in the Sikh community in the past – a lot of which had to with the values of commitment and dedication to the Sikh way of life, but also commitment and dedication to serving humanity, to putting others before yourself, standing up for what you believe in, regardless of what the cost might be to yourself.” He pauses. “ Of bravery, strength, and courage.”

The catchy chorus of one song from South West sums up his thoughts on where that strength might come from: “It ain't winnin’ unless we all winnin',” he sings. With one eye always trained on lifting his community up alongside him, Singh’s music has always been about more than topping charts – hip-hop ones, not ‘world music’ ones. “When someone from southwest Sydney or Western Sydney does something,” he says, “it definitely breaks down barriers and makes it possible for the next person from the area to do something similar, who wants to go even further.... Personally, I always try to stay conscious of what I'm doing and how that will impact the next generation – and try my best to give back where I can.” 

You can attend the live-streamed launch of L-FRESH the Lion’s third album on Thursday, July 30 on the Liverpool City Council’s Facebook page

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