'The future is so promising': how Punjabi Canadian hip-hop artists are taking over the world
From Juno performances to sold-out stadium shows, artists of this genre are becoming global phenomena
Written by Jeevan Sangha.
"Before 2025, we will have one Punjabi album topping the Billboard charts, that's for sure," says rapper, singer and songwriter Robyn Sandhu about the future of Punjabi hip-hop.
Sandhu, who's from Sri Ganganagar, Rajasthan, and now based out of Surrey, B.C., is among a new wave of artists who are blending the beats and cadence of the West with Punjabi lyrics, allegories and imagery — creating music that connects profoundly with generations of the diaspora in Canada. He's one of many who see a bright future for Punjabi hip-hop.
Growing up as a kid in Surrey — a municipality of Vancouver, which is home to the second-largest South Asian population in Canada — I remember walking the tightrope of appropriately expressing my love for Punjabi music. With the pressures to follow the model minority myth and avoid letting our love for our culture take up too much space, listening to Punjabi music was something we were encouraged to do at home, with our parents, and at weddings or cultural celebrations rather than in anglicized public spaces.
Today, I hear people unapologetically blasting Punjabi music in the same streets where I grew up. Punjabi youth, regardless of where they live, are taking an interest in understanding the metaphorical lyrics utilized by Punjabi hip-hop artists, and are taking it upon themselves to learn the language on a deeper level.
The past few years have been big for Punjabi Canadians in music. Rapper Nav, born Navraj Singh Goraya into a Punjabi Sikh family in Toronto's Rexdale neighbourhood, doesn't rap in Punjabi, but has broken barriers in hip-hop for brown artists in the mainstream who've come after him. In just the last decade, he signed to the Weeknd's XO Records, released five consecutive top 10 albums in the U.S., collaborated with artists including the Weeknd, Future and Lil Baby — and he co-signed now international superstar AP Dhillon, with Nav's cameo appearance in the video for the song "Brown Munde."
'I moved here with 2 suitcases and 1 dream'
Singer, rapper and producer Dhillon made history this year as the first-ever act to perform entirely in Punjabi at the Juno Awards. Born Amritpal Singh, Dhillon came to Victoria as an international student in 2016 and has rapidly solidified himself as one of the biggest rising stars in the world, with music that stacks Punjabi vocals over the R&B, hip-hop and trap beats of the West.
"In 2015, I moved here with two suitcases and one dream, and that was just to do something that can inspire people back home," Dhillon told CBC News on the Junos red carpet. "Immigrants that come into this country with the same hope that I had when I moved here."
Dhillon's 2023 Juno appearance is a historic indication of a new era of Canadian music, where a Punjabi act can be celebrated in the mainstream alongside the likes of Avril Lavigne, Jessie Reyez, Tate McRae and others.
"I'm happy that, finally, this brown skin is getting recognized," Dhillon said.
Dhillon's career trajectory has gone from releasing covers on Instagram to amassing a global following of 2.8 million followers on the same platform, as well as hitting 10 million monthly listeners on Spotify alone. One of his early singles, the 2020 track "Majhail," is an ode to the warrior-like nature of the men from Majha, the central region of Punjab where Dhillon was born and raised. The single quickly rose to popularity in the North American diaspora, with Punjabi lyrics layered over a sample of Fat Joe and Ashanti's 2002 classic "What's Luv." Three years later, Dhillon is selling out arenas around the world — all with an entirely Punjabi discography.
It's songs like "Majhail'' that have shifted the landscape of Punjabi music in Canada, connecting listeners with the R&B and hip-hop songs we grew up on with the language that we speak in our families. This fresh and distinctive style is sported by the likes of countless artists who have garnered massive fanbases around the world: Karan Aujla, Intense, Fateh, Shubh, NseeB and AR Paisley to name a few, all of whom were either born in Canada, or came to Canada as young immigrants or international students, documenting their experiences of migration, racism and coming of age through music.
'He put so many of us on the map'
Arguably the most influential name from this generation of Punjabi artists is the late Sidhu Moose Wala, who's known mainly by first name: an award-winning singer, rapper and songwriter who found immense success after his breakthrough track, "So High," in 2017.
Sidhu, who came to Brampton, Ont., as an international student in 2016, is known for blending Punjabi folk stylings and Sikh musical tradition with hip-hop while tackling socio-political and religious issues in Punjab, including calls for Sikh sovereignty.
Sidhu's legacy is expansive, demonstrated by the bridges he built between the Punjabi music industry to other flourishing global music scenes like mainstream hip-hop, grime, Afrobeats and more. His tragic passing in 2022 garnered condolences from artists around the globe, including a public tribute from Drake, who wore a T-shirt in Sidhu's honour at his OVO show in Toronto.
"He put so many of us on the map," said Sandhu. "I want to give all the credit to Sidhu Moose Wala for bringing this wave. And now it's our duty, the people who are coming in new, it's their duty to stay true to it. And the future is so promising."
'Hip-hop is the music of resistance'
The late 1980s and '90s saw an increase in immigration to Canada from India, a large subset of which, as University of Calgary teaching professor Harjeet Singh Grewal explained, came from the state of Punjab after the state-sanctioned persecution of Sikh people during the 1984 Sikh Genocide. Sikh Punjabi immigrants during this time grappled not only with the horrors of criminalization in Punjab, but also with the institutional racism they faced as newcomers to Canada.
"Hip-hop is the music of resistance. It's the music, the rhythms of Black life, the inherent resistance that Black people have in order to live their lives," said Singh Grewal, who teaches Sikh studies. "Hip-hop becomes an avenue of expression, because of what [Sikh artists] see as not exactly the same, but a world of shared similarities of experience."
I think Sikh youth are finding a home in rap. They're finding a voice in rap and a lot of times it's not even something they can particularly articulate.- Harjeet Singh Grewal, Sikh studies professor at the University of Calgary
Singh Grewal is currently working with Sara Grewal, a professor in postcolonial literature at MacEwan University, on a book that explores Sikh hip-hop in the global diaspora. Their interest in Sikh hip-hop arises from the ways that the Sikh community, both in Canada and India, face targeted discrimination, and how hip-hop acts as a tool to capture different shades of Sikh experiences.
"I think Sikh youth are finding a home in rap. They're finding a voice in rap and a lot of times it's not even something they can particularly articulate…. It's just that it speaks to them and they feel seen in what they hear," Grewal explained.
Grewal and Singh Grewal see the popularization of Punjabi music as a way to keep the culture alive on a global scale, and to ensure the telling of our community's stories. Punjabi hip-hop has made space for listeners to make calls to action, to process the events of their lives, and find comfort in a space where all aspects of their identity can coexist.
As Punjabi hip-hop artists play at some of the world's biggest arenas, they are also building bridges to the diaspora and beyond, all while fostering a connection to the culture that reflects the multiplicities that make up Punjabi-diasporic identity.
In the past few years, audiences have seen what was once considered regional music top global charts. K-Pop, Afrobeats and Latine music have solidified their presence in the international music space, and Punjabi hip-hop has all the ingredients to follow the same trajectory: high streaming numbers, an engaged global fanbase and international collabs that blur genre lines.
Our community and our musicians have so many stories to tell and so much art to give — not only in Punjab and Canada, but to stages across the globe.