TW: Mentions of sexual assault
Born and raised in Montreal, producer and DJ Kanwar Anit Singh Saini, popularly known by his stage name Sikh Knowledge, grew up with music permeating his childhood. Music entered Saini’s life in many ways—through the ubiquitous influence of hip-hop in his city, visiting “South Asian” stores with Punjabi mixtapes and videos, and through the reggae and hip-hop mixtapes that his siblings or friends brought home.
Saini’s music, he explained in an interview with 5X Press, focuses on the intersections Black, Latino and Punjabi culture from the 1980s and 90s, but reimagined to be present day and modern. As someone who comes from a regional community whose music is often victim to culture vulturism, Saini recognizes that integration of music from other communities requires a level of care and intention.
Speaking of his early musical influences, Saini touches on a diverse range of genres and forms that comes up in his work today as a producer and DJ. “As a Punjabi-Sikh person, I definitely pay homage to Black and Latino originators of hip-hop and reggae. I tread lightly, I try not to appropriate, I give it up to these creators at the beginning of every set,” he said.
Access to music as a young person, means accessing healing for the artist. For him, tapping into a new genre or stumbling upon a folk Punjabi catalogue can provide a reprieve from the seemingly endless capitalist treadmill we’ve been put on. The artist further explained how adding a new spin on beloved classics can give young folks a point of access and a point of connection.
“I was 14 years old when I heard instrumentals at the end of the Ontario Rap City… when I heard that something snapped in me and I took all these influences and they started pouring out of me in terms of making beats,” he said.
“Everything that I listened to just started meshing with Punjabi heritage, language, culture, folk music, and I’ve just been obsessed ever since. I have to express that in every DJ set that I do.”
It was around this age that Saini began to explore the world of beatmaking, sequencing and making loops on a Casio keyboard while one of his friends recorded on cassette. As the years went on, the producer and DJ would scrounge whatever money he could to buy newer, slightly better equipment and eventually moved into making beats for artists in the underground hip-hop scene in Montreal. At the same time, Saini was also juggling his turbulent home and academic life.
There’s been so many bouts of depression in my childhood, growing up queer, being a sexual assault survivor as a child, a sexual assault perpetrator as a child, making my family understand how pervasive this was and how we had to heal and no one being on that journey with me, and having to figure it out on my own,” he said.
Trying to manage the demands of studying towards an engineering degree, and pursuing his love for music put a lot of stress and pressure on Saini’s body and mind. What he needed through it all, were spaces where he could be safe and be wholly himself. Saini ended up dropping out of his degree, pursuing a Fine Arts degree and now works as a Speech Language Pathologist, a journey he loves.
Pursuing music throughout these shifts wasn’t always easy, Saini operated with limited resources and capacity. Sometimes this meant selling his equipment to pay rent, or making something from nothing.
But still, his creative expression held him through every change and pivot.
“Being creative was always protecting me from something worse. I just needed to stay creative as a mechanism to heal and carry on. So as strenuous as my scheduling was or how hard this was, I'm absolutely grateful that I can live out my passions in this way.”
His journey towards accepting his queerness, though certainly not linear, was also instrumental in his growth as an individual and an artist. The South Asian community still has a long way to go in truly accepting, embracing and advocating for queer folks. For Saini, it’s clear that our community is in need of a reckoning, and a lot of healing.
After coming out at 17 years old, Saini’s family struggled to accept his queerness. Instead, they blamed his queerness on his experiences of sexual assault.
"I’m not queer because of these experiences, but these experiences preyed on my queerness and I had no executive functioning to deal with any of this,” he said. “Several people needed help because of what was going on in our family and my elders chose to look the other way consistently despite my cries for help, not just for me but for everyone involved. My queerness actually saved me and gave me the wherewithal to navigate my healing."
Existing at the intersection of queerness and brownness comes with hardship, but also with joy and resilience, Saini noted.
“[Queer brown people] are not a tragedy. If we need to fall apart, we’re allowed to and I’ve fallen apart several times and I’ve had people around me who love me and pick me back up. When you’re queer in a brown space and a brown family, you just carry on” he said.
In fact, Saini said the world can learn a lot from queerness and specifically, queer love and joy. “I grew up in an abusive household and like the epitome of queerness is feeling safe and secure and unconditionally loved. It’s not love from a parent or a person, but true unconditional love as a human being.”
Despite being someone who exists on the margins, Saini feels grateful that he gets to experience an all-consuming, beautiful joy through queerness—a feeling that has the potential to make the world a better place.
“To this day, I take that joy of queerness and struggle, because there is a joy to it. When you build a chosen family and you connect with people, I bring that to my DJ sets. So when I get up there, I feel like I'm absolutely authentic. I have nothing to lose. I'm gonna play what the fuck I want to play and I'm going to share heritage that I love that shit that has kept me safe.”
On June 15th at Village Studios, Sikh Knowledge will be hitting the 5X Pride stage along with Jolene Sloane, Bianca Maeli of No Nazar LA and more. Sikh Knowledge will be bringing an exclusive set to celebrate Pride.
“So I'm definitely bringing a set enriched with beautiful Punjabi sounds and a Dancehall style of DJ which is acting with you in culture. Not dropping more than 45 seconds a song because you better connect with it. Like a shot and move on. That's what we're doing.”
To celebrate Pride with us grab tickets at the link here. To check out our other events during festival week, go to 5xfest.com.
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