Navigating the music industry, faith, culture and identity as a young Sikh Australian
Can I really do this? Is this sustainable? Should I give up my passions and get a stable office job? Am I letting my family down by following my dreams?
These are all questions that those of us in the arts have no doubt asked ourselves on a day to day basis. And at some stage, we have to decide which path we are going to take…the ‘normal’ but stable job with a steady income, or the path that is frighteningly unknown, yet full of soul fulfilment.
As a writer and author, I know all too well how it feels to have my identity so intrinsically intertwined with creativity, as well as the ongoing challenges that come with striving to make a career in the arts. So when I heard about UQ Brisbane’s ‘Dare to be Different’ event (organised by the Young Sikh Professionals Network and Queensland Sikh Society), featuring two incredible Australian Sikh creatives, I was fascinated to hear more about their journeys. Below, is a highlight of L-FRESH The LION’S story (as told on the night): of the challenges he’s faced, the connection between identity and art, and the importance of taking care of your mental health. A big thank you to YSPN and QLD Sikh Society for allowing me a media pass to share more of the event!
“Hip hop came into my life at a time when I needed to be listened to, and no one was listening…Hip Hop taught me how to be a Sikh.” – L-FRESH The LION.
Growing up in Western Sydney, Australian Hip Hop artist L-FRESH The LION spent much of his youth struggling with what it meant to ‘fit in.’ The son of a Punjabi Sikh family, L-FRESH not only felt out of place amongst his peers, but also shouldered the responsibilities of what it meant to provide for his family and the path that he would have to choose to do so.
“My parents came to Australia and worked so hard to give opportunities to us, so I guess there was that expectation to get a stable job and [follow in their footsteps],” he shared while speaking at Brisbane’s University of Queensland campus last month. “But I had this burning drive within me to do something different.”
However, despite these inner flickerings and desires, L-FRESH had no idea of the path that lay waiting. As a young Punjabi boy growing up in an overwhelmingly Caucasian environment, L-FRESH admitted to often feeling lost and struggling to ‘fit in’ at school. “I grew up speaking fluent Punjabi, but at school that wasn’t cool,” he admitted. “So I fell the track a bit…trimming my beard, braiding my hair; it was scaring the hell out of my parents… I was lost.”
Interestingly, it was during this period that he not only discovered his love for hip-hop, but also the power that it could play in strengthening and shaping his identity.
“Hip-hop came into my life at a time when I needed to be listened to, and no one was listening to me…Feelings of empowerment, redefining yourself… all those things resonated with me…” he said.
For L-FRESH, he soon discovered that many of the themes within hip-hop, such as social justice and empowerment, really spoke to who he was and the passion he had for speaking out against injustice. Although only 14 at the time, it was a powerful time in the life of the teen — one that was propelling him forward toward his desire to follow a unique path.
However, it wasn’t until L-FRESH took a trip to Punjab at the age of 18 that he truly discovered the place that music would play in his life. Standing on the streets amongst an explosion of colour, bustling people, the melodic song of birds flying by, and the hustle and bustle of the city, it was at this moment that the then-18-year-old realised his life calling. “I had tears running down my face…It felt like my chest was going to explode,” he shared. “I knew at that moment what I needed to do for the rest of my life; what my journey was going to be in terms of reconnecting [to my culture], and the role music would play in it.”
Since that time, L-FRESH has thrown himself into pursuing his passions for music, going from a local musician to an internationally-renowned artist who has played major shows across the world. Alongside this, the artist is also an ambassador for All Together Now and White Ribbon Australia, a fellow in YouTube’s Creators For Change program, and regularly uses his platform and law degree to make a difference in his community with resettling/supporting migrants and asylum seekers. And if this isn’t enough, he was also a guest judge at this year’s Eurovision awards!
That said, like many others in his field, L-FRESH’s journey to the top hasn’t always been smooth sailing. From challenges surrounding racist/culturally insensitive assumptions to ongoing battles with his anxiety and the day-to-day stress of running a business, the artist has had to dig deep to get to where he is today.
“I’m full time as a musician but to get to that point has been a 10-year journey,” he admitted honestly. “I was full time at uni, working full time as a musician…and even now, there’s a lot of stresses that come with running your own business.”
Speaking about his role working with YouTube, the artist explained that although exciting, this has also opened his eyes to the prejudice and discrimination that still exist within every industry – his own included.
“I never thought I’d be an ambassador for YouTube. It’s like, wow, I’m working with one of the biggest companies in the world! But there are still barriers to break through. I’ve had to have conversations about what’s culturally appropriate; answering annoying questions about race and all those sorts of things,” he shared, touching on the difficulties of being judged for his appearance.
“For example, you could be having this amazing conversation over email about a great business deal, and it’s all cool, and then they meet you and, hmmm” — he says, pausing — “something’s not working out for some reason. Maybe because you don’t look how they expected…those are things I’m constantly having to negotiate, even in some of the biggest festivals [around the world].”
“I could be like, oh it’s tough, poor me, but I try to think of the bigger picture. I’m going to break down those doors. Good luck trying to stop me!” he stated.
Now 29, L-FRESH is committed to showing others that life is not about ‘fitting in,’ but rather, about embracing our unique differences. I recall very distinctly talking about this with L-FRESH last year while working on a chapter for my book ‘Reasons To Live One More Day, Every Day’, and I still remember his words so clearly:
“I’m a person who was made to stand out.”
It’s a message that holds a lot of power for today’s generation, who so often hold themselves up to impossible ‘social media approved’ standards — something both L-FRESH, and Sukhjit (who spoke alongside L-FRESH on the night), want to help break down.
DE-COLONISING SIKH CULTURE: “WE’RE BRINGING IT BACK.”
During the event, L-FRESH also spoke about the colonisation of Sikh art, through which much of their literature was destroyed by the British in the 1850s, and the importance of researching and rediscovering his roots so that he can help to ‘bring back’ the traditions that were such a huge part of Sikh culture.
“There was a story [that someone shared with me] about how back in the day, when going to war, you’d see Sikh warriors on horseback carrying their [Rabab] instruments…I mean, what warrior goes into battle with a musical instrument?,” he asked the crowd rhetorically. “It just speaks to how infused music, poetry and the arts are to our community.
“I’m doing my best to learn my language; to tell the stories of my ancestors…to share values, to touch on important things like social justice,” he shared. “Hip-hop has taught me how to be a Sikh.”
This telling of stories and embracing of heritage was also strongly inspired by a conversation between the artist and an Aboriginal Elder who talked of his desperation to reconnect with his true identity through his native language. Sharing with L-FRESH about all the work he had done during his life, and the pride it brought, he admitted there was still one thing he desperately needed to do…to learn his own language.
“I feel like my soul is still out there somewhere,” the Elder shared.
It was a discussion that also prompted the artist to remind himself of the opportunities and privilege he has been given in life — a ‘luxury’ that he says has allowed him to pursue his passions within the arts.
“Had my parents and grandparents not built up this amazing platform here in Sydney, I wouldn’t have had the luxury [to follow my dreams],” he said on the night.
“It’s like, yes I have the confidence to pursue a career in the arts, and it might not be seen as a stable career choice, but at least I know that worst case scenario, if I fail, I’ve tried. I have a law degree and an arts degree, so it’s like….why not dive into something I’m passionate about?”
When it comes to young Sikhs reclaiming their cultural identity, and the power of arts, L-FRESH wants young men and women to know that the most important thing is that they explore and enjoy creativity. “You don’t have to be a professional at it,” he stressed. “Express yourself, even just for yourself.”
MANAGING MENTAL HEALTH AS AN ARTIST
Although L-FRESH has become a highly visible and respected voice within both the Australian and international music scene with millions of followers, the artist still has his struggles; namely, with anxiety. As he shared on the night, and also for his chapter in Reasons To Live, creating a support network and learning how to develop the right tools and strategies to manage our weaknesses, is in fact, one of the strongest things we can do.
While L-FRESH says he is still learning how best to manage his anxiety, he finds that giving himself permission to disconnect from people or situations when he needs space, as well as getting off social media, has been a huge help. “Being honest with myself about when I don’t have the energy to do something and giving myself space [is important], whether that’s public appearances or hanging with people,” he said.
The artist also credits ‘good friends who I can call day or night,’ boxing, a healthy lifestyle and opening up to the right people, as being key components of keeping his anxiety at bay. As he explained to me last year in an interview we did together for my book:
“I think some of the greatest things we appreciate in life—particularly in the world of art—come from a space of expressing deep emotion; and even very masculine men do that, you know? It’s natural, and we have to break that stigma of expressing ourselves; because if stigma is what’s holding us back, then we’re the ones suffering. I know from personal experience that opening up can be super challenging, but nothing could be more important. The last thing we want to do is live life to suffer—we’re here to enjoy and appreciate it!
Want to read Part 2, featuring Sukhjit Khalsa’s journey? SUBSCRIBE to receive an alert when it goes live!