When NME reaches L-FRESH The LION, the rapper, activist and cultural influencer is cruising home in his car, having just checked in on family, post-COVID-19 hard lockdown. As the multi-tasker chats about his new album, ‘SOUTH WEST’, he’s contemplating rehearsals for a live-streamed set – which seems symbolic, considering his brand-new record explores themes of diaspora and journeys.
Sukhdeep Singh – nicknamed “FRESH” – was raised in multicultural South Western Sydney by parents from Punjab, India, who esteemed academic excellence. As “a young brown Sikh kid”, Singh struggled with his marginal identity, negotiating casual taunts and the lurking threat of hate crime.
But, then, he discovered American hip-hop. Empowered, he began studiously cutting tracks in his bedroom. Still, Singh was determined to create his own niche – innovating, not imitating. “I’m a child of hip-hop, but an adopted child,” he laughs.
In 2014, as the socially purposeful L-FRESH The LION (“FRESH” standing for “Forever Rising Exceeding Sudden Hardships”), Singh dropped his debut album, ‘One’ – flexing underground clout with an intro from New York legend KRS-One – on the little-known Vienna People Records. Eventually, he signed to Elefant Traks, and opened for Hilltop Hoods in London. Singh consolidated his rep as a leader in Australia’s new diverse, individualist hip-hop movement with 2016’s ARIA-nominated ‘Become’. On the album, Singh addressed racism and prejudice and, with the track ‘Get Mine’, even delivered a bhangra banger.
“I’m a child of hip-hop, but an adopted child”
In the interim, Singh used his platform to advocate, speaking and performing at the United Nations Headquarters in New York on the International Day For Tolerance in November 2018. That year, he also served on the Australian jury for the Eurovision Song Contest – a fun, if a little unexpected, sidebar.
“Eurovision was an interesting one, because I’m not a Eurovision fan,” Singh admits. “It’s not a huge contest thing that I kinda follow, [or] that’s been a huge part of my life.” Nonetheless intrigued by competition’s devoted fandom, Singh found it “a pretty cool experience”.
Ironically, when Israel’s Netta won that year, he joined protests to cancel 2019’s controversial edition in Tel Aviv in solidarity with Palestinians: “It was a really interesting dynamic to one year be judging it, [then] the next year be calling for people to boycott it.”
Last year Singh performed in India for the first time, guest-starring on the rap reality show MTV Hustle – broadcast to over 35million. “The reception was crazy,” he recalls. “I never would have thought that I’d be received so openly and so passionately by people over there, and just the fans’ response and the industry’s response to my music was really passionate. It opened up pathways for me to start to really think about how I can expand my music to over there.”
Singh’s third album, ‘SOUTH WEST’ charts his growth even as he returns to his roots. “I definitely evolved in my understanding of myself, my style and my sound,” he says. “I feel like this is a new beginning for me, in many respects – because, while I’ve been making music and been doing OK with the albums that have come out before, I feel with ‘SOUTH WEST’, I’ve just started to find my sound.
“The goal was that I wanted to make songs and make music that could only come from me; like you couldn’t hear that coming from anybody else in Australia. I really wanted to embrace my authenticity and to showcase that through music. And the way that I felt I could best do that was to be very personal in the storytelling and also in the production of the record.”
The concept for ‘SOUTH WEST’ came out of Singh “wanting to have conversations with my younger self” – that’s evident from the opening track ‘Alchemy’, on which the MC expresses adult confidence, conviction and perspective.
“I was really that person who was conditioned to feel like my own shit wasn’t cool – when I say ‘my own shit’, I mean my own culture,” he explains. “I think it’s a by-product of living in a society in Australia that has the remnants of assimilation, a colonial backdrop and a foundation that doesn’t value other cultures with the same level of respect and doesn’t appreciate them in the same way and instead encourages you to abandon your culture in order to fit in, in order to be a model minority.”
Singh solicited studio veteran Kambui “Zig” Parker to executive produce ‘SOUTH WEST’. At an APRA AMCOS SongHubs event, he recorded ‘Aim Higher’ with US super-producer Mike Elizondo, who’s worked extensively alongside Dr. Dre, Eminem and 50 Cent – what he calls “a dream come true” – while his Elefant Traks labelmate OKENYO provided the hook.
“It was a really interesting dynamic to one year be judging Eurovision, [THEN] the next year be calling for people to boycott it”
Singh intentionally didn’t bring in feature rappers; rather, he decided on centring his own voice. The big feature on ‘SOUTH WEST’ is actually geographical: South Western Sydney asserts its communal presence, as Singh hones in on the question of belonging. Singh has always been proud of the area. He recalls, after a temporary move to Melbourne, people jokingly trying to claim him as a Melbourne artist. “I was like, ‘Nah, nah, nah – I’m South West Sydney for life’.”
Today, his home turf is associated with a burgeoning hip-hop scene. “For such a long time, South Western Sydney was viewed as part of a problem,” Singh observes, citing sensationalised crime reports. “You weren’t ever told, again, to be proud of the fact that you were from South Western Sydney. Instead, you were made fun of.” The subtext is clear to Singh: “A lot of that has to do with race, if I’m being really honest. I think a lot of it has to do with class as well.”
But acts like B Wise, Kerser and even Mount Druitt’s OneFour are countering stigmatising media narratives. “Everybody is owning where they’re from because you can’t silence us,” Singh extols. “We know our shit – like we know what our areas have taught us and what they mean to us… The boldness comes from decades of being written off. So now we’re gonna write our own stories. And you’re gonna hear it, whether you like it or not.”
‘Mother Tongue’, featuring longtime ally Mirrah, is a key song on ‘SOUTH WEST’. It’s about Singh’s loss of fluency in Punjabi, the language connecting him to his Sikh heritage and faith. “It’s a shame for me – I feel ashamed that I can’t speak my language the way that I want to. But, at the same time, I’ve just gotta be honest and own it that that’s where I’m at. Relearning it is really important to me.”
According to Singh, ‘Mother Tongue’ has resonated with listeners from both First Nations and migrant backgrounds, leaving some “in tears”. Indeed, overall, Singh’s hip-hop offers a critique of a hegemonic Western worldview. He’s prompting dialogue about intergenerational trauma, internalised racism, decolonisation, reclaiming and healing. And, in the music industry, Singh is committed to “the breaking down of barriers”.
Promoting ‘SOUTH WEST’ has proven tricky for Singh due to COVID-19, which initially delayed the album’s release. He has presented a documentary series, Road To South West, via YouTube, and he’s sitting on a video, filmed in Punjab, for ‘Village Boy’. But Singh has suspended plans for ‘SOUTH WEST’ pop-ups across South Western Sydney. He will now launch the album in tandem with the Delivered, Live virtual concert series on July 30.
“We’re gonna write our own stories. And you’re gonna hear it, whether you like it or not”
Singh is looking ahead, enjoying writing material in both Punjabi and English. “I just wanna keep making really cool music, especially now that I feel that ‘SOUTH WEST’ is somewhat of a new beginning,” he says. “I really do feel like I’m just stumbling on what my actual sound is and what my voice is now and I wanna continue to flesh that out on new music – once the ‘SOUTH WEST’ journey has been fully realised.”
L-FRESH the LION’s ‘SOUTH WEST’ is out now