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B.C. artists taking centre stage as Punjabi music takes off

Punjabi music taking the world by storm and its new sound is based in Canada
Music producer Ikky photographed in Toronto, Wednesday, Feb. 28, 2024. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Cole Burston

Ikwinder Singh is too young to remember the last time Punjabi music was on the cusp of breaking into the mainstream in Canada.

The 23-year-old producer was only a baby when rapper Jay-Z joined British-Indian artist Panjabi MC on 2003’s “Beware the Boys (Mundian To Bach Ke).” The track drew attention for its distinctive combination of bhangra music and a killer hip-hop bassline, inching up the music charts and offering Indian listeners hope that a new scene was emerging globally.

And then pop radio moved on to the next big sound.

“It’s one of those things no one was ready for,” supposes the Toronto-raised music creator, known as Ikky.

He suggests that North American record executives of that era may have been caught off-guard by the song’s success and that not enough Punjabi artists were primed for crossover careers.

Singh doesn’t waste much time wondering what could’ve been. He’s confident that today the story is different.

Over the past few years, a new generation of Punjabi performers has emerged from Canada with a unique fusion of cross-cultural influences that could’ve only come from this country.

The Punjabi wave, as some call it, is a blend of the Indo-Aryan language with elements of global hip-hop, R&B and trap music. In Canada, its popularity is led by an array of names including AP Dhillon, Karan Aujla, Gurinder Gill and producer Ikky.

These artists, helped by a tight-knit community of music professionals, have scaled India and Canada’s charts, launched major tours and left some in the industry wondering if Punjabi music is on the cusp of its breakout moment akin to what “Gangnam Style” and “Despacito” did for Korean and Spanish-language pop music.

This weekend, two rising stars of the Punjabi-Canadian music scene head to Halifax for the Juno Awards, where they vie for the fan choice prize alongside pop’s biggest names, including the Weeknd and Tate McRae.

Karan Aujla, whose track “Softly” certified the British Columbia-raised singer as a hitmaker last year, will compete with rapper Shubh, a Brampton, Ont.-based artist known for his streaming hits “One Love” and “Cheques.” The fan choice award is handed out at the end of Sunday’s CBC Junos broadcast.

This is a pivotal moment for the Punjabi genre, which has never been represented in the marquee Junos category, which aims to capture the zeitgeist. Aujla holds a second Juno nod for breakthrough artist this year.

All of this comes as the genre’s profile continues to rise in Canada.

One of the most symbolic moments happened during last year’s Junos in Edmonton, where AP Dhillon made history as the first Punjabi music act on the broadcast.

The Victoria-based indie rapper’s flashy delivery of his single “Summer High” was designed to usher in a new era for the genre. But it was upstaged by a topless protester who crashed his introduction by Avril Lavigne. Despite the unexpected turn of events, Dhillon’s presence signalled how quickly the scene was being taken seriously.

Then last summer, Warner Music Canada announced a partnership with its India division to launch 91 North Records. The Canadian label was designed to foster a generation of local South Asian artists and better link two sides of the world. The label’s first release “Making Memories,” a collaboration between Aujla and Ikky, debuted at No. 5 on the Billboard Canadian Albums chart.

In February, Punjabi rapper Sidhu Moose Wala debuted at No. 9 on the Billboard Canada Hot 100 chart nearly two years after his shooting death in India. His single “Drippy” became the latest in a run of Punjabi-Canadian chart hits.

Outside the country, the Punjabi music industry has taken notice. Next month, India-based performer Diljit Dosanjh launches an arena and stadium tour that rolls through five Canadian cities, starting in Vancouver and ending in Toronto.

“This is just the tip of the iceberg,” said Toronto rapper AR Paisley, who appears on “Drippy.”

“With what’s happening, we’re going to see a lot of young and talented artists on the come up.”

Music producer Gagundeep Singh Randhawa said it takes looking back a couple decades to understand how Punjabi-Canadian music reached its current status.

For the longest time, Punjabi artists relied on folk music instruments — such as the tablas and tumbis — for their sound. He said that meant even rap songs such as “Beware the Boys” sounded like traditional music, which often relegated them to Indian weddings and other cultural spaces.

It took the work of people like Jazzy B, a Surrey, B.C.-based performer who found success in the mid-2000s, to fuse electronic and hip-hop elements in a new way that inspired a generation.

“He brought a different flavour,” said Randhawa, who works under the name Gminxr (pronounced G-minor).

“He shifted the scene. But after him, it just went back to folk.”

Nearly a decade passed before Punjabi music was reinvigorated. He credits Moose Wala’s early work for launching the current wave with its blend of the Punjabi language and trap music.

Moose Wala’s career got underway around 2017 while he was an international student living in Brampton, Ont., and his reputation spread through online forums.

Randhawa said the rapper’s music opened his ears to how Punjabi songs could break barriers and find broader audiences.

Around the same time, an influx of young students was moving from India, which the Victoria-based producer said offered him further motivation.

“Coming from this small city, where it’s predominantly white, and all of a sudden seeing Indian people everywhere, it was a big change,” Randhawa added.

Meanwhile, other changes were taking place in how people consumed music. More Punjabi music fans were gravitating to paid subscription services instead of solely YouTube, where the genre first thrived.

In response, the streaming platforms began to support more Punjabi-Canadian artists, placing their new songs in prime real estate. Spotify began positioning Dhillon and others on its New Music Friday Canada playlist, exposing their sound to listeners who never heard Punjabi music.

By the time COVID-19 restrictions were easing, those streaming numbers were proving themselves in concert ticket sales. Dhillon’s Out of This World Tour kicked off in late 2022, drawing crowds to the 19,000-seat Rogers Arena in Vancouver.

Live Nation promoter Baldeep Randhawa said he’s confident Punjabi music can draw far bigger numbers in the coming years. To make that happen, people like him are working to secure the right artists for the biggest venues, offering them technical support that puts them on a level with global stars.

“We’re giving them the same opportunities that someone like Drake would (have),” he said.

“They’re able to play these professional venues (and) do it with a vision they like and want. When the audience is coming to these shows they’re leaving in awe of the level of production.”

The Live Nation promoter has already witnessed the positive impact of these massive concerts on the local Punjabi-Canadian community.

“I’m watching so many people come into these rooms for the first time,” he said.

“And I remember hearing a kid say ‘I can’t believe someone with a turban is playing this stage.’”

What Canada’s Punjabi music wave still needs to thrive is more domestic support from the major record labels, say many who watch the scene.

While Warner has thrown themselves into the mix full force, Universal Music Canada and Sony Music Canada have yet to announce any significant investment in the genre or its performers.

Paisley is confident it’s only a matter of time.

“Some people in the industry have taken notice, but I think there’s some (who) are still trying to turn a blind eye,” he said.

“It’s going to take more of an in-your-face moment. We’ve had a couple, but maybe it’s going to take a couple more.”

One of those moments may have happened earlier this month at a concert in Mumbai. Pop superstar Ed Sheeran shocked his fans by bringing out Indian star Diljit Dosanjh — the artist who’s touring Canada this spring.

Together, they sang Dosanjh’s hit “Lover” with Sheeran chiming in to perform the chorus in Punjabi. It was a moment that earned positive attention on social media and suggested that Sheeran has his eye on the burgeoning corner of music.

Paisley said collaborations like these will be key to the Punjabi wave’s crossover success. He would like to hear more songs between the genre’s stars and big names in Latin and hip-hop music, as long as they feel authentic.

“I think we’re stronger together than we are apart,” he added.

Producer Ikky agrees. He recently released “Ikky’s House,” an EP that plays around with genre conventions and introduces the Punjabi language into the pop sphere with help from Punjabi and English artists.

His production work aims to blend his perspective growing up in Canada with positive cultural values established in Punjabi music. It’s a concept he’s still working on, and something he believes will take time for the rest of the world to catch up to.

“We’re still in a very early stage of global domination,” he said.

“First to India, we had to prove Canada is the home of Punjabi music. Now that we’ve succeeded, we have to prove to Canada that this is Canadian music.”

“After that, we’ve got to tell the world.”

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