Rapper L-FRESH The LION puts his words into action

Issue 
Proud Sikh L-FRESH The LION. Photo: Michelle Grace Hunder

One
L-FRESH The LION
Vienna People Recordings
Released May 9, 2014
www.l-fresh.com

Rapper L-FRESH The LION is as well known for his activism as he is for his music. Green Left Weekly's Mat Ward spoke to the Sydney-raised Sikh about his newly released debut album, One.

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Hip-hop pioneer KRS-One opens your debut album, One. He places a great emphasis on rappers putting their words into action — something you seem to do with a relentless passion. Was he the main inspiration for your multifaceted activism?

KRS is one of them, for sure. My main source of inspiration is my Sikh background. My ancestors gave back to community in such amazing ways. They essentially lived to serve others. There's countless examples of my ancestors doing so, in a variety of ways: the 6th Sikh Guru (Sri Guru Hargobind Singh Ji) and his people built a mosque for Muslims while, at the same time, he was fighting tyrannical Mughals who identified as Muslim; the 1st Sikh Guru (Guru Nanak Dev Ji) established the concept of langar - a community kitchen run solely by volunteers and community donations. Now langar is served to all people regardless of race, religion, gender, caste, class etc at every Gurudwara (place of worship overseen by Sikhs) in the world. Then there were countless battles fought against oppressors and invaders... I mean, the list goes on. It's hard not to be inspired by their acts of selflessness.

On your album's title track, "One", you rap that you're "watching politicians speak but I ain't sure of what they tell us, they're talking the same shit, just remixed like acapellas". You also released a song before the general election noting the lack of difference between the big parties, "#OpenLetter to Tony Abbott & Kevin Rudd". Want to talk about that?

I think the lyric speaks for itself man... We're at a point in time where there's a lot of political rhetoric and games being played by Australia's two major parties, but both of them aren't really that different. Both of them are still not making any genuine attempt to engage in dialogue with Indigenous communities. Both of them are still taking a hardline on refugee/asylum seeker issues.

Welcome to the world where people ain't afraid to be jealous
where it's like you're weird if ever you're acting overzealous
inspiration finds the mind when I'm hanging with the fellas
watching politicians speak but ain't sure of what they tell us
talking the same shit just remixed like a capellas
ask one to spell it but they stink so much that you can smell it
dropping bombs like melons but camouflage the charade so they can sell it

On your track "Faithful" you rap, "understand the plight of those that are addicted to drugs". What effects have you seen in south-west Sydney, where you grew up, and Melbourne, where you're now based, from the recent meteoric rise in the use of ice?

Any form of substance abuse has a heavy impact on the person and their families. While I was working in community in Liverpool [in south-west Sydney], we worked with quite a few young people who were impacted by the rising use of ice. It was full on. My thoughts are always with the families and the individual. Ice eats at a person, man.

The history’s the future, it repeats like the barrell of a gun
here it comes full circle to hurt you, I never run
some stare at the sun trying to absorb the light
yet turn their heads to the struggle and ignore the fight
I recognise the lives of my people on the street tryna eat too
was told “my son, they’re out to beat you
so careful who you speak to, coz they tend to cling a leash to
teach you wrong and unleash the beast in you”
but I see the real in the eyes of those that you judge
understand the plight of those that are addicted to drugs
see a child is a child, we all starve the same
trying to evolve from rats to escape from this racing game

When Indigenous hip-hop artist JPoint proudly posted a pic of you and him together on Facebook recently, I was pretty dismayed to see someone make the comment: "Osama?" How common is this reaction to your appearance and how do you deal with it?

I didn't even notice that until you pointed it out. Man, it's ridiculous. It happens often. I don't take it to heart nowadays. I try to think of how I can use the experience to create a learning opportunity for the wider public. I was having a conversation with someone recently about the idea of race-based jokes. Race-based jokes said time and time again have the effect of dehumanising a group of people to the mainstream. The consequence of that is then when that group is faced with persecution or oppression, the mainstream let it slide because they don't identify or relate to that group, partially because of those jokes. I had to pull up a dude at a festival I played at recently because of a terrorist-related joke he made. He thought it was funny. I told him that it wasn't. Plain and simple. People don't see the bigger picture. They think it's just a joke. Try saying that to the kid in the schoolyard who cracks jokes about other people based on their race, sexuality, gender etc, in an attempt to assert their power. We call those kids bullies. And we condemn their actions.

You made your track "Survive" about the Sikh community, saying: "Not many people know about my community. That's because we don't openly go out and speak about ourselves." Did your family come to Australia because they were fleeing persecution of Sikhs?

Not directly, no. My family were quite lucky in some sense in that they somehow avoided the persecution. I have a feeling though, that it played somewhat of a role in their reasons for moving out of India. There are so many Sikhs around the world. We've spread out every where. I think a lot of that has to do with the fact that we don't get a lot of love in India.

Considering the past persecution of Sikhs in India, how do you feel about the possible election of Hindu nationalist Narendra Modi as India's leader, considering his demonisation of so-called "illegals" and Muslims?

My mum and dad will be the first to tell me how messed up politics is in India. It really is some crazy shit. Corruption is so out in the open. Take this for example: there are politicians who played active roles in the planned genocide of Sikhs in the late 1980s who are still yet to face any form of disciplinary action and who are still benefiting from their actions, while the community suffers. I have quite a few relatives living in India, as well as extensive family friends, and I'm constantly reading about the open corruption of contemporary political figures in India who are vying for leadership positions. It's very concerning.

How many Australians you meet know that Sikhs arrived in Australia before many whites, first coming to the country more than 150 years ago?

Ha ha, not very many... We've been here for quite a while. From stories I've heard from family friends, I believe many Sikhs settled here as farmers initially.

They also pioneered trading in the outback [from a colonial perspective], as most "Afghan" hawkers in Australia were Sikhs or Hindus, from merchant backgrounds, right?

Yeah man... I've heard some stories of my people's trading in the outback as well. It's amazing stuff. I'm still learning a lot about it myself, at the moment.

In your track "Victory" you rap that you'll "Show them all the victory, never let them get to me". Does if feel like you're constantly fighting a battle?

Not always. My people have that warrior blood. It's in our ancestry to fight against oppression and injustice. As a teenager, I definitely had that mentality of always fighting my way through situations. But at some stage, I learnt about the importance of moving forward in other ways. "Victory" was inspired by the mind-state of great athletes and competitors who take their game to the next level in crunch time moments. I learn a lot from sports and great athletes. I'm particularly interested in the mentality they have when they push for greatness. I try to take that and apply that to music and to life, in general.

How was it growing up in south-west Sydney and why did you choose to move to Melbourne?

South-west Sydney is home. Always will be. I loved growing up there. I love the diversity of cultures, particularly in Liverpool. I learnt to appreciate that as I got older. I think [the song] "Macquarie Street" will resonate with your readers. The song celebrates the refugee and migrant communities of Liverpool. It explores the idea of families overcoming trauma and hardship in order to come to Australia in search for a better life. It then celebrates their success in surviving and thriving or getting by in Liverpool. I moved to Melbourne to challenge myself. I wanted to try and tackle a new city and see what I could do in a new space.

Were you involved in music from a young age? If so, what kind?

My dad taught me to play the tabla when I was younger. I also played the harmonium for a little bit. I learnt the trombone in primary school. And played the guitar for a bit during high school and after that. I learnt a bit about music theory... enough to be able to make beats and produce tracks.

Tell us what inspired your recent video on racism in Australian hip-hop, and the main points that stayed with you.

I wanted to bring the conversation to the forefront again. It's not a new conversation. But it's one that I don't think we take seriously enough in Australia. I picked three issues for those videos to be conversation starters: racism & Hip Hop in Australia, sexism & Hip Hop in Australia and the future of Hip Hop in Australia. I love how each artist mentioned that it is the responsibility of Hip Hop artists to address issues like racism and to challenge their audiences.

It's great to hear the Indian musical influence in "The Heart, The Pen (feat. Jeet Hakam)". Tell us who are some of your favourite Indian artists and why.

Other than having the musical influences growing up that I mentioned above, I don't really listen to a lot of Indian music. The Punjabi music scene is kind of like the contemporary Hip Hop/Pop music scene. It's over-commercialised. I'm yet to do a proper dig for Indian music that really resonates with me.

When Nihal, host of "the world's biggest Desi [Indian] beats show" on BBC Radio One, interviews big Indian music stars, a recurring theme is their parents' resistance to them pursuing a career in music. Was that also a hurdle for you?

My parents were very supportive when I started out. My mum, in particular, encouraged me musically. They saw it as a hobby that I was pursuing in addition to my studies. I encountered some resistance when I finished uni and told them that I was pursuing music full-time. I had finished studying a law degree, so I was expected to begin working full-time as a lawyer or something along those lines. I have too much creativity in me at this point to do that though. They understand now and they are supportive. They're wishing me nothing but the best with my album.

There's a lot of misogyny in hip-hop, but you take the opposite tack, interviewing women who inspire you. You also highlight an interview with a proud Sikh woman - Kaur Thoughts - who refuses to shave her legs or armpits, since Sikhs don't cut their hair. Is she more the exception or the norm, in your experience - and what are the pressures such women feel to comply with mainstream Western ideals?

Sikhs, both male and female, don't cut any of the hairs on their body. With that said, it's a process and a journey. We're all learning and we all make our own decisions in relation to the practice of our faith. For some, that is easier to do than it is for others. It's easier for a man to grow their hair because it's normal for a man to have hair on his body. Although it's probably not considered normal for him to do so without cutting it throughout the duration of his life. With that said, from conversations I've had with sistas, it's definitely a lot harder for them to do that because of the pressures of mainstream Western views. Sukhjit (who I interviewed in that piece you're referring to) is an amazingly strong and talented individual. She's working on addressing this particular issue and others relating to it in the near future. I'd prefer to let her and women like her voice their views on this concept because it's their story to tell. My role is to acknowledge my privilege and do whatever I can to support them.

In your interview with your onstage female MC Mirrah - who also features on your album - she stresses the importance of "acknowledging ‘you’ are not the focus on stage – more that the ‘audience’ is the focus to entertain". So few artists realise that, don't you think?

Us artists owe it to the audiences who support us. We make the music, yeah... but the audience's are the ones that make it possible for us to travel and tour. When my band and I do a show, we know that our role is to make sure that the audience has a good time at the show. It's important that we engage and respect everybody who comes to see us do our thing.

You have become very well known without being signed to a label - as far as I know - and not even releasing an album until now. Would you say you are living proof that artists don't need labels?

That's not entirely true. I'm signed to Vienna People Recordings on a one-album development record deal. I had planned to record my album at Vienna People Studios with my mate Michael McGlynn, who runs the studio, for quite a while. We'd spoken about doing my album together for almost a year before we began seriously locking in dates for studio time. It just so happened that at the same time, he was piecing together a business deal with a mate of his to create a record label that offered artists one-album deals to record their first album or EP. So we sat down and worked out the deal and I became the first artist to sign with them. It's been an amazing journey and learning curve for me. I've worked together with Vienna People every step of the way and they've given me free reign to make any and all decisions relating to my album and my career. I believe that record labels still play a role in the music industry, it's just that their roles are changing. We're at a point in time where artists have more power than ever and labels are starting to recognise that. Old school models of record labels may cease to exist but newer models may also arise. Who knows...

Hear and buy the album here. Read an interview with rapper-activist AWKWORD here.