Interview: L-FRESH The LION
At 27 years of age, L-FRESH The LION has quite the list of achievements. Musically, he has released two albums, headlined some of Australia's biggest festivals and received a nomination for Best Urban Release at the ARIAs last year. His sound is like no other, inspired by the US hip-hop movement of the late 1990s/early 2000s, along with his cultural and ancestral background of the Sikhs from Punjab, India.
Sukhdeep Singh is as well-known for his activism as he is for his unique sound. As an ambassador for not-for-profit organisation All Together Now, L-FRESH is dedicated to eliminating racism through education. He also works part-time coordinating the youth music program at Songlines Aboriginal Music - and he has a law degree. It's hard to believe L-FRESH had a spare moment to catch up with us.
We were lucky enough to talk with the Australian hip-hop artist ahead of his WOMAD performance.
BNKR: You're now known as L-FRESH The LION, but it wasn't always this way. In your earlier days you were Fresh MC. How did the 'Fresh' aspect come about?
L-FRESH: Music started as a passion and hobby in high school. It was one of those things that I didn't really express with many people until I had a few songs under my belt. I shared it with one of my friends in school and he ended up becoming one of my biggest encouragers. One of the phrases he would consistently use was "hey that's fresh, that's really fresh".
Why did you choose to extend your name?
In the tradition of what hip-hop artists tend to do is they give themselves a name and carry that on. I didn't really have anything other than Fresh MC, so I used that, and born out of that was the acronym to what Fresh stands for [Forever Rising Exceeding Sudden Hardships]. At some point when I transitioned from [music being] a hobby ... to something I can start to look at from a standpoint of trying to become an artist, I revisited it. I thought about how else I can better tell the story of who I am. It began L-FRESH, and the L came from my faith and cultural background and [by] putting that in I wanted to give more of a stance than just to have the obvious MC title. One thing that hip-hop is, it's not subtle, it's never been subtle; it's always in your face. After doing my first international support tour ... I realised people weren't going to know what the L stands for unless they enquire. So it became L-FRESH The LION.
What attracted you to hip-hop as a genre?
When I was listening to hip-hop as a teenager it felt like I was having conversations with the artists, and that's what appealed to me. I was listening to music of my favourite artists, like Tupac, and when I heard their music it was like they were telling me their life stories. I was very much relating to the themes and the overwhelming positivity in the face of their struggle. In hearing these stories I got inspired to write my own music, I had an opportunity to give back to the conversations I was listening to. That interplay made it appealing to me, even though it was an interplay that was completely fabricated in my head. It's something I really cherished as a teenager who felt like their voice wasn't being heard.
You mentioned that Tupac is one of your earlier hip-hip memories. Are there any other musicians that stand out as influencers who have helped to shape the sound you have today?
The first one is my dad. My dad is not a professional musician by any stretch of the imagination, but when he was a kid he introduced me to playing the Double L, which is Indian hand drums. It's not common knowledge but the Sikh community has a longstanding tradition and connection to music ... my dad encouraged me to know the music within our culture, within our faith. I think that was - and still is huge influence on me ... when I think about where my understanding of movement, rhythm and also tone and articulation, it comes from that.
When it came to hip-hop as a teenager, Tupac I pay respect to, he was definitely the biggest influence for me. As a kid growing up in Western Sydney, we kind of adopted Tupac as our own. Every now and then I'll catch someone [at home] blasting Tupac out of a speaker, 10 to 15 years later. We adopted the West Coast King and made him our own in Southwest Sydney. And then, through that introduction listened to an endless amount of artists and musicians, not just within hip-hop but outside - it expanded my musical influence.
You're an ambassador for not-for-profit organisation All Together Now. As something very close to your heart, how did your involvement with the charity come about?
I had been working in the community development and human rights field for eight years before I was able to focus on music full time. I was piecing together an event in Western Sydney where I wanted to touch [not only] on the issue of race, but how that played out ... [for] young people in their everyday realities. One of the biggest issues they felt they were facing was linked to the issues of race and their interactions with police. We ended up piecing together a forum and got All Together Now on board to provide some context around race and racism in Australia. It was a really cool event we were able to put together with the young people, police and local government. I don't know if we had ever done anything else like that in Sydney, where it was the young people talking directly to the people who were policing them.
It's been many, many years since I've been engaged with them and having conversations with them, learning about what they do and seeing the impact that they have had. It's a good vibe, and it's an organisation I am still passionate about supporting as I think it's really, really important work.
When it comes to live performances you consider each show to be individual, a moment in time that cannot be repeated. Do you jump on stage with any preconceived ideas or plans?
We, as a team, go in with an intention and a feeling of what we would like the performance to be and how we want to steer it. That's our preparation. But each time you deliver on stage there are so many elements that you can't control, so many things that can happen in the moment, that won't happen at another show.
Some of the most memorable performances are the ones [where] moments happen we are not sure we will ever see again. For example, at one gig my DJ decided to crowd surf, something he had never done before. He ended up doing it twice in one song, and the second time he jumped through a hula-hoop that someone was holding up. We can try [and] set that up but it won't happen again. Moments like that can't be caught.
Can you tell us anything about your upcoming WOMADelaide set?
It's definitely going to be a lot of high energy, something we are known for. What that means for the people in the crowd is they are a part of the show as much as us on stage. Movement is a big thing for us, [we've] got to get people to move physically, but also to move mentally, spiritually, emotionally as well. We share some thoughtful ideas and vibes at the same time as wanting everyone to have a good time in a peaceful and safe way. The show encompasses all of that. It's a physical workout; it can be a bit of a mental and emotional workout without even realising.
We are going to play songs from my first two albums but hopefully some new material as well...we'll see how it all goes down.
You've headlined major festivals around the country, something I can only imagine to be huge milestones for an artist. However you've also achieved incredible things outside musical performances such as talking at TEDx and appearing on The Project. Can you pinpoint a highlight of your career to date, musically or otherwise?
Good point. I think there are two highlights for me. I was in L.A. last year and played a show at a conference for celebrated Sikh art, culture, music and film. Performing in a completely different country was, and has always been a spin out for me. This show in L.A. was really special because I remember seeing kids at the front, knowing words and seeing the look on their faces was something special to me. I never would have thought kids on the other side of the world would be vibing like that. I don't know what impact I've had over there.
Similarly, I was performing at a Sikh youth camp in Sydney. I played one of my songs and I don't know how it happened but again, in the spontaneity of the moment, all these kids ended up on stage with me. Fifty kids all aged 14-15 years and younger on stage as I played 'Get Mine'. We were all getting low together, that was insane.
Both those moments, music, performance, festivals and those things are amazing and I never take them for granted. Every opportunity is one that could be my last. WOMAD could be my last show, you never know, for all intents and purposes, you are very grateful for every opportunity. WOMAD and Groovin' the Moo, wow, that's hitting the pinnacle to some degree. But it's moments like that where you get to see the impact that you are having on the next generation of people - particularly for me it was young people from my community. Growing up I didn't have anyone to look up to in a musical standpoint ... that was from the same country. So to be in that kind of position and see the look on the kids' faces, there is a real level of confidence they have now moving out into the world that might not have been there before. It's an 'I get goosebumps on the back on my arms' kind of moment. Like wow, okay, that's pretty special.
Words: Ellie Aitchison