Hip hop to take stage as part of 3-day festival's focus on contemporary Sikh film and art

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Sikh artists, authors and filmmakers will celebrate their talents and heritage at the annual Sikhlens Arts & Film Festival  in Orange County. 

The 3-day festival will kick off with an opening gala Friday, followed by seven clusters or programs that will focus on "Sikh-centric" issues, including Sikh youth and representation in Hollywood, and global communities. The festival ends with a concert finale featuring performances from Sikh American hip hop artists and creative musicians. 

The festival's film screenings will explore a number of social issues —  including injustices faced by Sikh Americans during the Bellingham Riots and in the Punjab region of  as well as an in-depth look at one Sikh American rapper’s identity crisis and journey to self-discovery. You can see the full calendar of screenings on the festival's website.

The Last Killing

Shining a spotlight on contemporary Sikh culture and arts

Ravin Kohli, one of the founders of Sikhlens, says South Asians are still underrepresented in the media, whether it’s advertising, television or the arts.

“We’re still underrepresented and our stories out not being told by us, yet,” Kohli told KPCC. "I feel like it's still coming from other people's perspectives of South Asians in America," she said. 

Kohli said she feels progress has been made in the past few decades, but says there's still a long way to go.

Recently, Sikh American designer Waris Ahluwalia made headlines after appearing on a GAP ad in which he poses alongside a model, wearing a black turban. The sight of the influential Ahluwalia in his turban in an ad for a major American company brought surprise and some proud responses to the company's Facebook page. It also sparked a debate on the representation of Sikh Americans in the media.

"If it was more common to see South Asians in general, we wouldn't have the shock or backlash that other people might have towards South Asians," said Kohli. "We are moving, progressing, but we have a ways to go." 

Another Sikh artist, cartoonist Vishavjit Singh Walla, recently dressed up as Captain American while wearing his turban and sporting a traditional beard, to raise awareness about Sikh American identity, which won him a feature on Salon.com and an appearance on FXX's "Totally Biased" show: 

Totally Biased: Hari Kondabolu Reports on Sikh Captain America

South Asian hip hop is big in L.A.

Kohli said that many people don’t realize that there’s a thriving South Asian music scene in the U.S.

“I think people automatically think of Bollywood when they think of South Asia, but there’s a thriving music scene within the U.S. and the underground music scene as well,” said Kohli.

That South Asian music scene is alive and well in Los Angeles.

Jagmeet "Hoodini" Singh, Mandeep Sethi, Humble The Poet, are just some of the many hip hop artists who have made a name for themselves in the South Asian music scene. 

Jagmeet Singh goes by his emcee name "Hoodini" or "Hoodinididit." A well-known Sikh American hip hop artist, Singh was born and raised in L.A. to South Asian immigrant parents from Punjab, India. He's performed at past Sikhlens festival — in 2012 he received a special Creative Sikh Award for his contribution to the creative arts as a Sikh American. 

He said hip hop in South Asian is something that is fairly new to the community. 

"Within the Sikh American community, this is something new. This hasn't been done as of 10 years ago. I don't think a lot of people know how to react. More people are starting to get used to it," he said. 

Hoodini & KinG

Singh said that he has never encountered any stereotypes from other hip hop artists. Rather, he said some of the stereotypes come from within the Sikh American community.

"Most of the stereotyping comes within our communities. Within the South Asian or Sikh American communities," he said. "I have honestly not received negative attention from non-South Asian rappers in terms of being a hip hop artist."

Jagmeet 'Hoodini' Singh talks about the emergence of Sikh American hip hop artists in LA

Satnam Narang, a first generation Punjabi American poet and hip hop artist, has also performed at Sikhlens in previous years. 

"In just the last 5-10 years, I’ve come across many South Asian hip-hop artists," he said. "It’s refreshing to see and it’s something I hope continues."

When he was 16, Narang recalls being one of the only South Asian artists at his high school. At the time, rapping was really all about the "braggadocio and impressing the ladies," said Narang. 

But his perspective quickly changed, after going through personal hurdles and losing a loved one to suicide.

"Stop Cryin' Yo!"

In 2011, Narang released his song "Stop Cryin' Yo,” written in response to the growing number of suicides happening in the LGBT community. Proceeds of his song benefited the nonprofit organization, To Write Love on Her Arms.

"As someone who has struggled with depression, self-injury and thoughts of suicide, I felt it was important for me to channel my feelings into music and do whatever I could to help others,” Narang said.

Film and music — from Sufi to spoken word; turntable to tabla

This year’s Sikhlens music and film and lineup represent a diversity of styles, said organizer Kohli. 

“From reggae, funk, hip hop, Sufi music to documentaries and narratives — you’ll find South Asian artists who are doing amazing things. It’s just a matter of shining the spotlight on them,” she said.

Last year, Sikhlens added a new segment to the festival by introducing a "Sikhlens Showcase"— an event where Sikh American artists perform original pieces before a live audience.  

During this year's showcase, artists will pay tribute to those affected by the mass shooting at the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin. 

This year’s lineup will include performances that run the gamut from spoken word and pop music to classical Indian music performed on traditional tabla and Santoor instruments, among many other styles.

This story has been updated.


Sikhlens Sikh Arts & Film Festival will take place Nov. 22-24 at the Dodge College of Film and Media Arts at Chapman University in Orange.

Sikhlens Sikh Arts & Film Festival

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