Sex, race and representation: Horsepowar unpacks her journey to Lil Miss Canada
The rapper discusses music, identity, Drake, Megan Thee Stallion and her own ‘WAP’ anthems
Beyond the 6 is a CBC Music series that highlights hip-hop artists and scenes across Canada. Toronto is widely known as the country's hip-hop capital (and a central spot for music in general), but many cities and communities east to west, north to south, have long had highly successful underground hip-hop scenes or are now developing their own.
This month, we talk to Horsepowar, a Vancouver-based, Indo-Canadian rapper whose new EP is filthy, smart and laugh-out-loud funny.
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Jasleen Powar has a busy afternoon ahead of her. After this interview with CBC Music, the rapper known as Horsepowar is going to get a COVID-19 test. She's been skateboarding a lot and she's not sure about the all-over aches. It's a very 2020 question: is it a cold, pulled muscle, aging or COVID? (Spoiler: it's not COVID. Her test came back negative.)
COVID-19 has wrought a special kind of havoc for Powar. She returned to her hometown of Vancouver in March after almost two years in the United States, and on July 31, despite the pandemic, dropped her new EP, Lil Miss Canada.
Editor's note: explicit language.
Despite its name, Powar says the record isn't really a "political piece. It's actually a breakup album where I shit on my ex every track," she laughs.
Throughout the interview, every time Powar laughs or moves her body, her Zoom background pixelates briefly before returning to its vibrant whole. Filling the screen behind her is an opulent gold horse's massive hindquarters, its majestic tail a perky flume cascading between its round cheeks. This literal interpretation of horsepower is funny and provocative, a trademark of many Horsepowar songs dating back to her 2013 four-song debut, which included tracks like "Percs n Merkins" and "Pabst Smear" that were widely considered joke raps.
Powar grew up in Vancouver, and at 14 turned to writing following the accidental death of her older brother. She cultivated her voice in high school as a slam poet before attending the University of Victoria. When she graduated in 2016 with a degree in theatre, she also had multiple EPs to her credit as Horsepowar, a "loud, brown, and proud" rapper with a penchant for sampling Bollywood songs and beats.
By 2018, Powar had secured a job in the U.S. as the host of a show called The Curry Shop for the popular First We Feast site and its YouTube channel. It was a pivotal time to be living in America but not be American.
"It was just always like, 'Oh, that's the Canadian," Powar laughs. "When Americans think of Canada, they don't think that it's so big. They think, oh, you're from Toronto, because Drake, and Canada's tiny. I'm like, 'Actually, I'm from Vancouver' and some people don't even recognize that. Like, oh damn! Somebody even said to me, 'You're the real Miss Canada' and then that stuck with me and I eventually changed to Lil Miss Canada."
It's a title that's as much a declaration as a question mark, and Powar is eager to explore all its facets. Over the course of Lil Miss Canada's six songs, she tackles sex and hook-up culture, internalized misogyny, racism, drugs, heartbreak and belonging. It's often wildly explicit and hilarious. On the title track, Horsepowar introduces herself as "a hot-headed bitch with a tongue ice cold/ brown skin with a thick ass, yeah she from the north." When Powar spits out "I'm a feminist, but I f--kin' hate you bitch," her delivery is priceless.
But just because some of Horsepowar's songs are considered joke raps, that doesn't mean they're all a joke. Powar is serious about her music and about having fun with it.
"In the beginning, I did a lot of vulgar, obscene raps that I actually took down and people were like, 'Oh, that's joke rap,'" Powar says. "Yeah, I joke and I rap, but I think you stop thinking it's high-quality art because it's a joke? Like the Oscars, they don't treat it the same, but actually, comedy is so much harder to nail than something dramatic because people are waiting to laugh and then there's this expectation that you have to hit. Stand-up comedy is one of the hardest arts and I think it's almost a bigger skill that no one really gives credit for. Das Racist really paved the way in the beginning. This politically inclined content that has humour, it's witty but because you associate it with joke rap, it gets downgraded… I think that kind of screwed Das Racist over because people didn't take it as seriously. And as much as people hate on Kanye West, and he's insane at some things, he's really talented at being witty and straightforward comedic in his raps but carrying the musicality and the bars to the point where you're like, 'Oh, we don't even classify this as joke rap. This is just smart rap.'"
Mr. Canada, please let me be the first lady of OVO because you have no women on your f--kin' bill.- Horsepowar
Lil Miss Canada is a persuasive argument that Horsepowar deserves to break through. "Have Him," one of the best songs on the album, is a quasi response to (and heavily samples) Brandy and Monica's iconic 1998 duet "The Boy is Mine," with Horsepowar savouring lines like, "I don't need him, I done had him/ if you want him so much you can have him/ hoe."
Sex is also a frequent subject in Horsepowar's music, and not just about the pursuit of it but the pleasure of it. Throughout Lil Miss Canada, Horsepowar's appetites are specific and deliberate, and her swagger is deadly. On "Perfume," she's fully in charge: "My style is more than the fabric/ this beat already a classic / yeah, I'm crazy like batshit/ 'cause I like it rough, real graphic." On "Bad 4 Ur Health," Horsepowar goes full femme fatale, warning, "Got you drowning in my pussy Joffre Lake [a B.C. landmark]."
Frankness about female agency and desire have long been themes in Horsepowar's songs, and Lil Miss Canada's arrival on July 31 was a perfect precursor to the Aug. 7 release of Megan Thee Stallion and Cardi B's late summer 2020 anthem, "WAP" (wet ass pussy). Powar doesn't even question if there is something cosmic afoot allowing for Lil Miss Canada and "WAP" to drop in the same lunar cycle. She's sure of it.
"It's always happening, whatever the cosmos are writing in the stars, I get these moments where it constantly happens. And the funny thing is, I haven't been able to really break down whether or not I actually like the song because what it gives me, the liberation that it fuels, is just enough to make me be, like, 'That song! I love it!'"
Powar's enthusiasm for "WAP" and its merits sparks a compelling tangent that's worth following if only to understand how her mind works. She wants to talk about "WAP" and the subjectivity of art, so she recalls a recent realization she had about clouds (if we don't like a cloud, Powar says, "we don't hate on the cloud, we just move on from the cloud"), then back to "WAP" ("I have another song called 'Pisces' where I talk about my own 'WAP'"), and affinity for Megan Thee Stallion ("a fellow horse" with whom she'd love to collaborate), then Drake, whom she connects back to "WAP."
Editor's note: explicit language.
"Even yesterday, the Drake song ['Laugh Now Cry Later'] dropped, and the video is him at the Nike headquarters doing all the sports and I was dying," Powar laughs. "He is doing my dream video. I've been actually planning a sports video but obviously I do not have the budget of Nike headquarters. He's on a Sea-Doo of some sort, like a jet ski in their manmade river, and then he's underwater boxing, like, oh my God, I need Drake. Drake, where are you? I need to pen a letter to him and then somehow have it go viral where I'm like, 'Mr. Canada, please let me be the first lady of OVO because you have no women on your f--kin' bill, and also your whole career is based off of raps about women and raps for women, so where are the women?'
"But everything I feel like is aligning where things pop off and I'm like, ahh, I'm on that wave, I'm on that page in the greater scheme of things," Powar continues. "So it feels really good to have a whole strong feminist viewpoint of wet ass pussy. But it's also so funny that there's so many thinkpieces. Literally no one even second guesses any man for saying anything about his dick or having multiple women, even if he's a dad or not.... But at the same time, it's just funny that we're so caught up on that song when there's so much shit going on in the world and people are focused on that. But it's amazing to see that [WAP] power through and everyone come together and be like, 'Well f--k your stupid thought process of thinking that this is the biggest issue when there's so many other bad things happening, and that this is actually not bad and honestly, we need to normalize 'WAPs.'"
I'm vocal, I'm a Pisces. I gotta cry about it. I gotta tell everybody, so here I am.- Horsepowar
It's a fascinating blur to follow Powar's synapses as they fire, and it's easy to understand why rap is her chosen form of expression: the quick word association, mental agility, creativity and ability to foster connections between seemingly disparate things in order to offer more clarity, a deeper truth, or a funnier, more deadpan delivery.
So far, Powar says, mainstream rap hasn't, or won't, make space for her. In part, she's pigeonholed because of the joke rap, but she also believes it's more than that.
"Because I'm a Punjabi girl who sometimes uses Indian sounds or uses Indian words here and there," Powar says, referencing her older music. "They'd be like, 'Oh, this is kind of like world music. It's like cool world music.' There's a stigma around it, where it's not as cool as mainstream music. There's this niche of world music, this perception that it's just this side category. But, I grew up listening to world music. If you want to talk about anything that's not North American, it's the world. And the fact that I promote being loud, proud and brown."
Editor's note: explicit language.
Horsepowar probably wouldn't be programmed at a mainstream hip-hop event, Powar says, but she might be part of a South Asian showcase. This is something she likes doing ("It's given me such a platform to start having these conversations in the community") even as she longs for her chance at the mainstage. Her influences are Drake and Kanye, she says, and others would hear that more clearly if they didn't focus so narrowly on her appearance.
This continued othering is exhausting, but it's also its own kind of familiar violence. After all, Horsepowar was crucial in helping Powar reclaim her identity and confront internalized white supremacy.
"Being the South Asian girl — in the beginning, I did rap a lot over Bollywood samples and I wore a lot of clothes that mixed sweatpants with Indian outfits," Powar says. "That was also just a time for me to really find the liberation within being a South Asian woman, whereas [before] I really did try to assimilate. In certain aspects of my identity, I wanted to be a white person. Now I would never think that, but going to UVic and being the token brown friend — and almost wanting to be the token brown friend, because it's like, 'If there's more Indian people here, then I'm not special anymore.' You want to be put on a pedestal because that's how the world works. But then you realize the pedestal is actually not a pedestal, it's just a separation and you're seen as this thing."
All of these experiences inform aspects of Lil Miss Canada. Even the album art is a wild collage of images manifesting Horsepowar into existence. At its centre: a photo of Powar as a child posing with the aforementioned Mr. Canada, future rap mogul, Drake. They're set against a backdrop of Toronto's CN Tower, and the pair are flanked by two different images of a grownup Horsepowar: one showing her in a sari, and the other in a black, sleeveless top. A tiny Canada goose and beaver hover atop the red block lettering of the album's title.
The Canadian stereotypes — lumberjack, beaver, white guy in plaid — are a fantasy of whiteness. Powar recalls booking a Molson Canadian spot during Canada's 150th anniversary. The premise was highlighting "Great Canadians."
"Problematic, but I took it because I was like, 'Oh, sweet, money,'" Powar says. "And at this point, if you're gonna call me a great Canadian, I'm going to accept that not because I like what your brand stands for, but because I am an artist and need money."
She saw her role clearly even then. "I was the literal diversity checkmark box in that campaign. There were four other people involved but they were all four white guys." Powar remembers specifically deciding to use the opportunity to showcase her Indo-Canadian and non-white friends, grill tandoori chicken and wear a special Indian outfit. When the video went up online, Powar says, the comments had to be deleted and disabled.
"It was just white people, white dudes probably in their mom's basement being, like, 'I'm never drinking Molson Canadian again if this is who you think is a great Canadian!' I wasn't actually hurt by these comments because I thought it was just so comedic but people are really that dumb."
Lil Miss Canada is in on the joke, but she's also punching up. The title is an invitation to interrogate, reflect on and confront the violence of Canada's colonial, genocidal and racist infrastructure.
"We're focusing on the States and the Black Lives Matter movement, but what does that look like in Canada? Because there's obviously a forgotten community of Black people here. We just think, 'Oh, there's barely any Black people in Vancouver, but there are and it's so harmful to even think that because we're just erasing whatever existed here. I need to also express that I know I'm on Indigenous land. I might not actually be Lil Miss Canada, but everyone who feels that they are Canadian, and wants to feel accepted and belong in this country is Little Miss Canada and I want to showcase stories that we just pretend don't exist."
So the album has its political and social influences, but it is fundamentally still a breakup record, too, and Powar is not shy about the sum of Lil Miss Canada's parts. After all, tragedy plus time equals comedy, right?
"My ex is from the States and I remember so many times, I was 'the Canadian chick.' And then I wondered, 'Am I the Canadian chick because there's other bitches?' And, story checks out, I probably was, so then I wrote six songs and he's probably like, 'F--k, this girl does not stop writing about me.' I'm vocal, I'm a Pisces. I gotta cry about it. I gotta tell everybody, so here I am."
We see you, Lil Miss Canada. And we hear you.
Hang out with me on Twitter: @_AndreaWarner