The Art Of Storytelling: A Conversation With Sikh Knowledge
It feels like I've shed some weight. Even though I was hyper-independent in what I used to do, it just feels like I'm aiming to please less and I'm aiming to live more. Now I'm looking backwards in our heritage and I'm finding this swell of creative energy and ideas.
Sikh Knowledge wears his heart on his sleeve. The Toronto-based and Montreal-born DJ, producer, and vocalist adorns his arms with tattoos of Gurmukhi script, MPC pads, Punjabi folk instruments, and a Gravediggaz logo. Self-described as a DJ with a narrative, the story inked on his arms was on full display in front of a captive audience at Toronto’s La Piscina bar on a frigid December night. Packed in far past fire capacity, the crowd was there to witness Sikh’s monthly Punjabi Folk Dub Sessions where he mashes together the likes of Balwinder Safri and Keith Murray, Jay Dilla and Diljit Dosanjh, while paying special tribute to 80s and 90s British Bhangra.
On paper, one might not see the how the threads of Sikh’s soundscape fit together, but the head-nodding hip-hop production blended with warm Punjabi vocals that harken back to childhood house parties and basement jams has struck a nerve with listeners in person and on social media. It’s both the familiarity of his selections and the unpredictable way in which he mashes them together that allows Sikh Knowledge to connect with the South Asian diaspora that grew up sharing elements of his narrative.
In between DJ gigs in the Greater Toronto Area and the US, Sikh Knowledge spoke with me to discuss how place informs his creativity, the importance of cultural preservation, finding joy in expression, balancing life as a creative with a full-time job, and his vision of a borderless Punjab.
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Noyz: I was going through your Instagram captions and you talked about the difference between style and fashion. You said fashion is commodifiable, and it’s something that can be sold to you, but style is based on things that you go through. What do you feel are the conditions that you've gone through that have given you your style?
For me, I think first and foremost, it's poverty. I'm quite privileged in a way, so I can never truly be poor, but I've been well below the poverty line several times in my life. From that, you do things like you thrift, you sew. I sew my own clothes. I'll wear some new stuff every once in a while, but when you thrift, you get items that resonate with you, and then that segues well into the second point.
I've always been very queer in my style. For me, it was always a sense of something dramatic about what I would wear that would help me feel more seen because otherwise, my sexuality or how I identify as a queer artist would systemically be unseen.
For our background, the original style was a turban. I've been wearing a turban for most of my life. Even if it was just a plain black turban, it taught me a lot about owning my heritage. Bearing the style takes a certain amount of courage. Having worn a turban was a perfect segue into just having my own style. It works its way to music too.
Noyz: You’re originally from Montreal. You've been in Toronto for a good period of time now. How do you feel where you are geographically has affected your creative process?
Sikh Knowledge: A lot actually. I feel like growing up in Montreal, I was able to be brown and Sikh and queer and live out my influences because we were under this oppressive rubric that was French and Catholic, which was admittedly really oppressive. Being brown, queer, and liking music that was traditionally created by disenfranchised Black and Latino people, it was all just oppressed.
Then moving to Toronto, Toronto's politics are particularly more complex in the English-speaking world in the sense that you have these big geographic regions that are segregated. You have Peel region, and then Scarborough, you have the core, you have North York, and there's cultural regions, different accents. I found that when I moved to Toronto - no shade on Brampton at all - I was treated as people would have treated a brown boy from Brampton.
Even though I was an excellent dance hall DJ, it was almost like, "who is this brown boy coming into these queer parties in downtown Toronto, spinning dance hall?" Then I would subsequently get treated as if I was an appropriator in a way, even though each and every set I was paying homage.
It's influenced my music because it's made me more aware of what I'm playing, who I'm playing it for, and it's helped me understand that it's important also to communicate some humility to what I play. I do appreciate the argument that people are out there appropriating all the time, and I can't separate myself from that narrative. I pay homage to the greats who I love and actively give it up to the originators of the music. It's influenced me in that way.
Then also in terms of the sound, being in Toronto has helped me stay close to the West Indian side of things that have influenced me, whereas in Montreal, I was closer to the Jay Dilla and hip-hop side of things. Now I'm at the stage where both of those things I'm proud of and I try to carry with me because it's what makes me me. I'm not trying to be like Montreal, I'm not trying to be like Toronto. I think that's when you come to my set, you hear this through-line that's very underground hip hop and still very West Indian and Punjabi at the same time.
Noyz: Do you ever feel like you have to compromise certain parts of yourself when you're playing to certain crowds? Can you fully embrace the Punjabi side of your identity or the queer side of your identity?
Sikh Knowledge: Oh, man, that's such a good question. I think only recently, I've found the strength to be fully myself, and still, every once in a while, I get nervous in front of a crowd when I'm DJing and I'll turn to a friend and I'll say, "I don't think they're going to get it," because sometimes they don't.
I spent years in Montreal playing to the crowds because I thought I was one of them, and then I spent years in Toronto playing to the crowds because I thought I was one of them. Then recently I came up with the strength to be like, "No, here's my narrative. Take it or leave it." I think that's a beautiful transition.
I think with maturity, I know how to deliver who I am now, and I can explain it better because I don't think someone with a mixed heritage like myself has been afforded easy transition into being understood. I'm just living that out these days.
Noyz: What goes into making a good mashup? What are the similarities or the parallels that you see between dance hall, hip-hop, and Punjabi music that allow them to become good source material for mashups?
Sikh Knowledge: I think a good mashup speaks to who you are. Diplo, a DJ that I really respect and admire for how prolific he is, actually made the most basic mashups, but when he was pulling them out, people were just floored by the fact that it was a very clean mashup. I don't want to hear “Cotton Eye Joe” on something Whitney Houston did or vice versa. That's just not me and where I'm from.
In terms of what I do, I really try to channel an era and a time and a place where I'm from. Punjabi music is interesting right now because it's splintered in many different ways. That's a beautiful thing. I don't think that's bad. I came up in an era of Punjabi music that was dominated by England, and that Punjabi music went everywhere and mixed well with everything. Then, recently, newer Punjabi music sounds like it's on hip-hop beats that I liked 12 years ago. It's new Punjabi music, which is still dope. I like the story behind it. It's made by sufferers, for real. People that come to the western world for an education, take out some lines of credit for some equipment, make songs with their friends, and those songs blow up. I love that. That's the song of hip hop, but I hate those beats. I can't stand those beats [Laughs].
I'm here trying to channel who I am. If they think “Freestyle” by Jordan Sandhu sounds hard, wait till you hear it on “G.O.D. Pt. III” by Mobb Deep. That sounds hard as fuck. It sounds modern even. What makes a good mashup I think is if you dig inside yourself and channel the era.
Personally, I can't stand mashups. I only recently started to do them. I just thought they were terribly basic, but then I found them interesting when I was able to blend things that I actually wanted to hear. I'm there these days spinning DJ sets where I'm playing folk Punjabi music on Company Flow, and it works and people get it and I'm like, "Cool. These people have never heard Company Flow before and I'm feeling good DJing this, I'm feeling resolved." That I think makes a good mashup. Then you just have to own it. You got to get up there and you just got to own it.
Then of course, if we're talking about British Bhangra music, you have to talk about dance hall. That's my pocket, that's where I live. I've just been bringing that more and more and trying to mutate that set.
Noyz: I feel British Bhangra was a cool blend of different immigrant cultures that were thrown into this part of the world far away from home, but combined what was around them to make something brand new out of it.
Sikh Knowledge: Right. Honestly, I think it was more ahead of its time than we thought. Because if you go back and you listen to these Bally Sagoo remixes, they're not just Bally Sagoo remixes that channel reggae. You’re listening to all the reference points and the detail that went into one Bally Sagoo remix and you're like, "This works today. This is a thing today." Even Johnny Zee, the vision of all the references in Johnny Zee's music and the way it was produced, is just amazing to me.
Noyz: You refer to that era as the lost generation of the Punjabi diaspora. Why do you feel it's important to go back to that time period in your sets?
Sikh Knowledge: For me, it keeps me alive. I'm not going to pretend that I belong to this era of Punjabi music or Punjabi people because a lot of new Canadians come through, and honestly, their Punjabi and aesthetic is different. They weren't exposed to this. A lot of them weren't exposed to the same type of giddha and bhangra folk that I was exposed to, which I find wild because it was all just Punjabi. They were exposed to a whole other brand.
I call us lost because other than a wedding or maybe if you're in the UK at some throwback daytime parties, I don't know who's updating that music or playing it regularly to celebrate it for what it was. I'm trying to keep my definition alive because, without it, it's almost like I didn't exist. I can go to many spaces and events, and if I can't connect, it's almost like I don't exist.
Punjabis are spread all over the world. I think we digested music through different lenses and I'm trying to keep that very commonwealth Canadian lens alive through the late '80s, even late '70s before I was born. I'm trying to just keep that alive. I feel great when I play that music. I feel healthier.
Noyz: When I see you DJ, I can tell that you feel it in every part of yourself. Just visually watching you - not even paying attention to the sounds - I can tell you're fully embodying the music.
Sikh Knowledge: I feel like I'm not faking Jax when I'm playing that music. I'm fully just trying to be healthy. When I can get up and feel resolved, that's when I’m at my healthiest. I referenced Diplo before. Who's to say that mashing Whitney and “Cotton Eye Joe” doesn't make him feel healthy?
Once I was talking to Humble [the Poet] and I was like, "Maybe we're all just animals sending out mating calls so we can find like-minded people." Here I am blending a lot of underground hip hop with Punjabi music, new and old, and folks are coming around and I'm finding people that are like-minded and it makes me feel good. Socialization is a pillar of health. I have the right to live that out.
When I'm up there doing my thing, I am thoroughly, genuinely 100% authentic, and just happy to share that vibe. I think that's what makes a good set. If you could see the DJ be happy, sometimes it doesn't even matter what's being played, you’re getting into it.
I was proud because last set that I had at La Piscina in Toronto, I had a bunch of non-Punjabis come at eleven o'clock and stay until 2:00 AM. They stayed the whole time. I'm really proud of that because DJ spaces in our culture were reserved for hetero men. That makes me uncomfortable because I'm not a heterosexual man. Growing up, I've always wanted these spaces and these gigs and stuff, but it was very uncomfortable for me for many reasons, and now here I am, and it's a safe space for a bunch of people to come through and enjoy this music. That adds to the authenticity. I think cis women and queer people and trans people felt the same way because, unfortunately, I think our macho, very chauvinist background made those spaces pretty threatening. I'm happy to say that with my gigs, I could say, "Yo, this is a trans-inclusive space. It's a queer-inclusive space." You're going to come and be on best behaviour and people get it.
Noyz: For most of the time that I've known you, you've been working full-time as well as doing art. Do you feel like not having to depend on art as being your sole means of income has just allowed you to just focus on the creation and focus on what brings you that joy rather than feeling like you have to cater towards the commerce aspect of it?
Sikh Knowledge: No. I think I'm blessed that I have what's considered a good job. I think my day job is long-lived. I think it's going to be in demand, but I haven't been blessed with a wallet or any stability for a long time. I love what I do as a speech-language pathologist but it's been quite traumatic, to be honest.
For some reason, I picked one of the whitest professions, and I find that every couple of years, I go through this really low period in my mental health where I don't know who I am with respect to this profession that I've dedicated myself to because of so many racist experiences and limitations and very gendered experiences, and it just bogs me down. It drains me, and then I find that I can't create.
My plans right now are to maybe open my own clinic, a small one that I could manage myself, stay afloat, pay bills, save a little money, something to be proud of where I could practice the way I want with a focus on Black and brown people, and new students and new clinicians that are Black and brown, so they have a comfortable environment because I know what that was for me. Then that would give me more opportunities to DJ on the weekend, hire support so I could do a show on Thursday night or whatever, keep the clinic open after hours, earn a little income so I could do gigs. Opening up this clinic might give me the ability to do that. It really has not been an easy road. I thought it would be, but it's not. It's a labor of love on both ends.
Noyz: There's a political aspect to just creating sometimes, even if the music itself isn't political. Do you find that preserving this era of Punjabi music has a political element to that as well?
Sikh Knowledge: Yes, absolutely. My Punjabi skills wax and wane. I wasn't blessed with a family that supports the culture in that way. I grew up being only verbally abused in Punjabi. There was no joy speaking Punjabi or anything like that. It was often uncomfortable for me and triggering to hear Punjabi being spoken in general. I also appreciated the music and the poetry side as a creative kid. Through music, that was my teacher. It's not like I'm the best Punjabi speaker right now, but I have enough wherewithal to appreciate the content of our oral traditions.
Me celebrating and preserving Punjabi as I know it as a speaker at my level is a celebration of good mental health, in my opinion. I think it's absolutely important to speak a heritage language at home for long-term reasons that are associated with your cognitive mental health. For short-term reasons, it gives you a sense of identity.
I think in this capitalist structure, we're always at risk of losing our identity, or it's always being greyed out or muted. I feel that every day going to work. I feel that going out. I just feel lost. I don't feel the freedom to weave in and out of concepts and language of who I am, and foods and manners of dressing and looking. I don't feel that freedom. Playing music that other people probably don't DJ with chest like I do, it's like a last-ditch effort for me to stay alive. That's what it feels like. That's why I guess I feel so happy playing that and hearing those things. Now, is it a political message? I think it is. I recently did an opening set for Ali Sethi in Detroit and half of the crowd understood what I was doing.
Noyz: I was actually going to touch upon that. You were going across the border, playing Punjabi music from both the India and Pakistan side. You said half the crowd got it, half of them didn't.
Sikh Knowledge: Ali was like, "What are you going to do?" I said, "The theme of my set is no border." He was like, "That's beautiful." What's interesting is that, unfortunately, partition caused this division in arts and culture.
As Punjabis, both sides of the border have been pimped and taken advantage of and hurt in a profound way. My Pakistani-Punjabi friends hear melodies and harmonies and hear lyrics that we only have insinuations of. When we hear them, it makes us feel resolved and happy. Then on the other side of that, we hear lyrics and melodies and harmonies that they've not only had only insinuations of, but have been directly and systemically reprimanded from hearing. When I got up there and was talking about a borderless vibe and we're just enjoying all kinds of Punjabi music, I think literally half the audience had no appetite for it. Also, there's other elements. It was a multi-generational audience, so I don't think they knew what an opening DJ did.
If the message is Punjab, I'm going to latch on to the lowest common denominator of the message, which is the older folks who have been particularly traumatized by that experience. It is a political message. Punjab is the bandage that's going to heal colonialism in the subcontinent, in my opinion.
Noyz: You've told me a story in the past where you were at a Reflection Eternal show and you were hit with inspiration. You were like, "I have to leave this show, I need to go make something right now." Watching you on stage, there's this sense of urgency in what you do. Do you ever struggle with overthinking? How do you balance that cerebral side versus just doing and letting the feeling guide you?
Sikh Knowledge: I think that's one of the blessings of being a DJ. I get to connect with the music without having a commitment to formally release music. Although I have a lot of beats under my belt that are my own and not mashups, I don't have very many formal releases. That's been actually one of my strategies to compartmentalize where my efforts are.
I'm not going to overextend and over-commit myself. That's not sexy. I'm going to do what I can in whatever lanes I'm in at the time. That sense of urgency is there because I'm truly, truly joyful to be doing that on stage. I want to truly experience. I want to be in the seat of my pants when I'm DJing. I'm trying to connect.
Noyz: It feels like you've tapped into something special where people are really connecting with what you're doing with the mash-ups in your DJ sets. Being an artist in the public eye for so long, what does this place in your career feel like for you right now?
Sikh Knowledge: It feels like I've shed some weight. Even though I was hyper-independent in what I used to do, it just feels like I'm aiming to please less and I'm aiming to live more. Now I'm looking backwards in our heritage and I'm finding this swell of creative energy and ideas.
Learn more about Noyz here.
Photos c/o Baljit Singh, Jodh Singh Bram, Jenny Jay of The Double Jay Collective