L-FRESH THE LION: Just Being Who I Am Is A Statement
I’ve seen L-Fresh the Lion perform onstage twice. Once in 2014 at Karova Lounge, a small bar in regional Victoria, and earlier this year at the much larger Howler in Melbourne. At both performances L-Fresh burst onto the stage with an unexpected confidence, and won the crowd with lyricism based on keen observations of society and culture.
In L-Fresh the Lion’s most recent album Become he explores these topics further, providing opportunity for an audience to not only engage with music but continue to think about it afterward. Indeed, at one of his shows an audience member approached him and spoke of becoming more conscious of the impact her generation could have on improving the experience of others. L-Fresh described the experience as encouraging.
THE PIN. Born in Liverpool NSW, can you describe your childhood?
L-FRESH THE LION. Yeah that’s right. I grew up South-West Sydney, on the border of Liverpool and Campbelltown in a place called Glenfield. It was interesting growing up there because Liverpool has always been a diverse and multicultural place, whereas Campbelltown not so much - particularly when I was growing up. It was interesting living on that border and being a part of those two separate worlds. Totally different cultures.
My parents had migrated to Australia in the late ‘80s from Punjab, North India. My mum came out here because one of her older sisters moved out here first, and then my grandparents were like, ‘Okay, we’re going with you’. So all of my ma’s sisters and brothers came, except one, and settled in the same suburb. They were one of the first Southeast Asian families to do that in Glenfield. It was almost like we had our own little community.
When I went to school, that was my introduction to living in Australia. It’s not the same as what I’d known growing up. I got introduced to a whole bunch of different things, including music and hip hop in high school. That was when things just really melded together for me. I had a really cool upbringing. A lot of cousins around, a younger brother as well. We were just kicking it in Glenfield.
Did your parents ever give you advice on growing up in a culture different to their own?
L. Not in a very direct way; I’d get pointers. Particularly after 9/11, but even before that. You know, just watch your back, be conscious of your surroundings, know what’s around you. If people say this about your turban, this is what you can say back. You know, don’t fight, always smile. Just try and avoid confrontation. My parents were very much in that kind of mindset. Looking back now and observing my dad and my uncle and their generation, they never complained about shit, they just did it. It came from a place of: this is survival for us.
That’s the kind of mentality my parents had. When we had discussions about things it was from the point of view of, just get by. It wasn’t a point of view of understanding history or the influences or impacts other cultures. It was never about that; it was just survival.
Was there something in particular that drew you toward hip hop?
L. There are two things I remember. One song I am really passionate about that brought about a feeling of excitement towards hip hop was Tupac’s Changes. I was a big Tupac fan; everything he was talking about, the stories he was sharing, the way he was articulating them, researching his backstory, his mum’s story and the civil rights movement. I learnt a lot through that space and that made me excited about hip hop. The second thing is (I don’t know what moment triggered me to want to get involved in making my own music), I remember the title of my first song was World of Discrimination. So I think I must have been writing about my experiences with racism and it must have - for me - felt like a space where I could voice my thoughts and feelings, and feel like I could be appreciated for that. I was lacking that from elsewhere, so I turned to hip hop.
Is being on stage a statement for you?
L. I would go so far as to say in 2016, being brown, turbaned and bearded is a political statement. I would even go so far back as to say that the concept of being a Sikh - who has committed to a point where their identity is such a visual presence - was meant to be a political statement from it’s inception, when people could choose to articulate in Sikh culture. This is because we have always been minorities, and it’s never been a point of, ‘let’s not be minorities, lets fit in’. It’s always been, ‘we are minorities, we accept that and we don’t shy away from that’. If anything, we just do what we do and try our best to be contributors to society.
In the 17th century, there was a period of internal conflict and repressive forces impacting all people in Punjab and India. Punjab was a sovereign place and it was like, you can make a commitment to be part of a warrior force that will combat this and stand up for everybody. One of those commitments was to (physically) present this way, as a statement of your commitment to the ideal of upholding equality and justice for all. You’re not just doing it by saying you’ll be a part of it. It’s very much a political statement.
Now more than ever, definitely more than when I was a kid, I feel like it’s much more of a political statement, just being who I am.
Do you have a stage identity?
L. No, I don’t think so. I’m conscious of what it represents, how my actions reflect on my entire community. Considering that for a lot of people, I might be the first impression they have of a Sikh person. I’m conscious of what that means, and how that may impact my community. I also have faith that my parents and community have raised me to be a decent person - hopefully. [laughs].
As the ambassador for All Together Now, can you tell us what the aim of this charity is and how it goes about making an impact/change?
L. All Together Now is the only organisation in Australia that exists solely to positively address racism in Australia. It works on a bunch of different levels and has a variety of different programs. I came across with them when I was working in a youth centre in South-West Sydney. We ran a program on racial profiling, and we involved the police to discuss that with the young people at the centre.
I feel so much of trying to tackle racism means that we have to understand it from a systemic point of view, not a view that comes from an individual standpoint. When an organisation says they’re going to tackle racism it’s like, how and what do you mean? Let’s see how real you are about it. I feel there is so much work, not just that they have to do, but that all of us have to do.
What does it mean to be a man of colour in Australia today?
L. There are so many ways to answer that question I just don’t know where to start, but I’ll try my best. I can answer this question only from my individual point of view and not from a collective. For me, it means the need to have an understanding as to what is happening right now and to be conscious of what it means to be brown in Australia. If you’re not, then you’re missing what’s really going on - the bigger picture stuff. By that, I mean there is so much that exists within Australia that needs to be addressed from a systemic point of view. I go back to the point that since colonisation, a society has been built which was meant to serve some and not everybody.
Today, it might not be as public as that but I still feel the remnants of old policies are still there, in the mentality of our society and in the way that systems operate. By being conscious of this, I can come to understand what’s happening now and how, hopefully, I can try to play a role in breaking that shit down.
What choices and changes do you think our society needs to make to start improving it for the next generation?
L. That’s such a loaded question. I just don’t know how to or where to start with that, because there are multiple levels to it. From an individual point of view, it belongs to everybody: regardless of where you came from or what your background is. The philosophy of being open to others is important. Let me try to gain an understanding of what it’s like for others. To be a listener and to know when to speak up. I think so much can be gained from that. That would be an individual point of view....Such a loaded question [laughs].
THE PIN. This is our final question and it’s something we ask everybody.
L. Okay, what’s your favourite colour? [laughs]
THE PIN. If you could give your younger self one piece of advice about being in the skin you’re in, what would it be...and what is your favourite colour? [laughs]
L-FRESH THE LION. Wow. I like to feel like I turned out alright and that I don’t need to give my younger self too much advice. I kind of feel like everything has happened for a reason. Even if I look back and think maybe I shouldn’t have done certain things, if I looked at my younger self and said don’t do that, do this instead. That might take me away from the learnings I’ve had that have helped me get to where I am now. I don’t know if I’d want to rob myself of those experiences. If anything, I think it would be not being so much of a closed book as a teenager.
I think that has had impacts on me that I still feel to this day, where sometimes it can be challenging to open up. Which is quite interesting, because a lot of my music is really open and emotional and personal. But from the standpoint of a teenager, feeling like that as a young man, you have to do things a certain way to be considered a man...being conscious of what masculinity means and what impact that has, not just on me, but on society in general. It’s probably something that as a teenager I would’ve liked to have been more conscious of.
- This interview has been edited and condensed.
Photo credit: Christopher Woe