Kanwer Singh was born and raised in Toronto, Canada, and worked as a school teacher for a few years before he decided to quit his job and embrace spoken word and poetry full-time. He loved the job but felt that poetry was his true calling. At the end of 2010, Singh left his job and became Humble the poet, an MC, poet, songwriter and soon enough, a YouTube phenomenon. We caught up with him for a quick chat during his latest trip to India for The Lost Party, a multi-genre arts and music festival held between February 26-28 at Salter Lake in the Sahyadris, Maharashtra. Excerpts:
Did your family support you when you decided to leave your job and become a poet full time?
I have two older sisters, my father and mother. They are all wonderful and very supportive people. I get my social side from my side, I get my introspective side from my other side. My father doesn’t speak much, but when he does, it’s worth saying — so I probably get that from him. My mother is very in tune with her emotions, she is a very wise individual. So, I am bits and pieces of all of them.
Who were your childhood heroes? Who were you watching on TV, listening to on the radio or on mixtapes? Who were you reading?
My favourite book is the Autobiography of Malcolm X. I didn’t really have any childhood heroes but in terms of artists I loved Lauryn Hill and André “André 3000” Benjamin of Outkast.
When did you come up with your motto, “Shake your ass, shake your heart, and shake your mind”, and how did you initially go about doing just that? When did you decide to embrace video as your platform, and what were the difficulties, if any, in doing so?
“Shake your ass, shake your heart, and shake your mind” is all about making people feel. Sometimes it’s not about having them dance, it’s about making them think about doing everything and having people feel on all different levels. No single feeling is more important than the other, so I just try and create things that connect with people.
Embracing video as a platform was influenced by YouTube and watching videos. Compared to other social media, YouTube was a level-playing field that allowed me to put my stuff out there without much resistance. And if people dug it, they could watch it. That was probably my favourite thing. The difficulty that comes with that is creating videos and editing videos, and it’s difficult for someone who travels as much as I do.
Your moniker…How did you choose it? When did you realise that you’d started to get really famous?
I always used the name “Humble” and it evolved to “The Poet” when I realised that I wanted to create work that would stand the test of time it — like all greats poets like Kahlil Gibran, William Shakespeare and Edgar Allan Poe. I still dont think Í’m really famous. Getting recognised is an interesting thing but the powerful thing is that it allows you to have a voice for people who might not have a voice. But then again, the worst bit probably is that people tend to forget that you are a human being and every once in a while you get mistreated by somebody who thinks that it’s okay to forget that you’re a human being.
You’ve said this in an interview: “The beauty of hip hop is that it’s not inclusive, it never has and never will be. If you want in, you need to kick down the door and announce your presence. Then, willfully accept any challenge by anyone trying to push you out. I don’t concern myself with it, I’m a creative, more than just a rapper, I can hold my own with any artist on this planet, I’m not here to fit into the culture, I’m here to evolve it.”
Does it seem that over the years, in the UK, Canada and now even in India, the Punjabi community has creatively made its own space in popular music with the help of hip hop, that is not mainstream but has been appropriated to showcase Punjabi culture. You’re not just a rapper, you’re an MC; what led to that decision?
The UK, Canadian scene that you’re referring to, that also exists within the Punjabi community in India… I agree that is not really the community I make music for. I get it and I appreciate it. I didn’t grow up with a lot of bhangra music so I don’t work heavily with bhangra artists but I do appreciate them. As an artiste, my job is to look at the type music I grew listening to with and contibute to that artform which was boom bap hip hop that came out of North America. The decision to become an MC emerged from that, just feeling indebted to that art. I just wanted to pay it back.
Tell me about your book, Unlearn. What would you say have been your most valuable lessons from teaching elementary school, doing slam poetry, getting on YouTube and writing this book?
Both Unlearn and my second book, Beneath The Surface, are a collection of my thoughts and reflections on this adventure of being Humble The Poet. It’s to help other people put their own journeys and experiences and emotions into words. The most valuable lesson is that effort is the only thing that matters and the energy you put in is the only thing that will help you get any energy back out. A lot of people believe in getting disocvered and a lot of people believe in chasing fame — I’m just on a journey to bring ideas to life and whether I am doing slam poetry, making a video on YouTube or write a book, that’s all I want to do.
You’re a proud Sikh with a delightful taste in fashion, and you remind me of Waris Ahluwalia, because you’re both mighty fine to look at. What do you have to say about the constant misplaced racial profiling against the Sikh community in America that Waris has been subjected to? Has that happened to you anywhere in Canada, or outside?
That’s happened to me in America plenty of times and that happened to me recently, in Trinidad, where I was searched for the second time an hour after clearing security. I also made a little video about it.
America sells fear and they need to point at someone for people to be afraid of. There really isn’t much evidence that people who look like us are a threat to anyone but it’s a very easy, visual way of making people stand out. What they do to us at airport security is to make other people feel better, feel safer. It’s about saying that ‘these people are different and we are going to make them go through certain things’. I guess what they didn’t anticipate for us, or a few of us like Waris or myself to become public figures and to have a voice that can extend beyond a local level, and that they have to answer for the choices they’re making.