Humble the Poet Is Here to Shake Up The Status Quo
Kanwer Singh, aka Humble the Poet, is a man of many talents, with one goal: “to shake your ass, shake your heart, and shake your mind all at the same time.” It’s a motto we can get behind, and with his most recent vid, simply titled “I Will”, Humble makes his case for why he’s one to watch in 2018.
In keeping with our sustainability focus for the month of April, Humble is woke AF, down to the location of the film set; “I Will” was shot at his friend’s Go Clean’s Shop, a waterless car shop in Toronto. The narrative of the film also explores eco-consciousness in that the kids are wearing what appears to be trash; signifying the disposable, unsustainable future that they’re inheriting from us. It’s bleak, but there’s a silver lining—Humble is quick to point out that all of us can do what we can to reduce our carbon footprint, no matter how small the gesture. He radiates optimism, encourages education, and warrants all kinds of praise: this is Humble the Poet.Let’s start with your video, “I Will”, since it’s about to come out. Can you talk about the process of coming up with the idea and then bringing it to fruition with the video?
I’m a massive fan of Missy Elliot videos from back in the day. Every verse or every 20 seconds, there’s a whole new scene. I really like that. As the music industry went through it’s own changes, having these grandiose videos with larger than life stuff happening, it kind of felt like music videos were impacted too. As a kid, I was recording everything on the VCR and memorizing songs just from watching the visuals. I remember going onto Internet forums and writing treatments for different videos, so as a music artist myself, we started shooting on handheld, Canon digital cameras and working our way up. It’s been a couple years, I’ve worked with so many different people and I’ve finally found a team that’s committed to putting the art first, and trying to do things whether they make sense or not. I released a video in July for the first track off my project called “Hair”. It was a lot of the same veins, we celebrated the diversity of women, not just from an ethnic perspective, but also a body type perspective. We celebrated different archetypes, different energies, different attitudes. It really worked out really well. What can we do next, and share with us your creative vision? I started doing a lot of research and looking into different fashion magazines. I was heavily inspired by the 1979 movie, “The Warriors”. There’s a lot of videos I’ve seen inspired by it. It has an aesthetic of gang culture to it. And every gang, all dresses the same. So some of these gangs have matching vests or matching makeup. I wanted to create a team where I wanted to have different gangs, and give it another element of style and use that to tell a story. To tell stories about cultural appropriation, the idea of that term affluenza, the dog-eat-dog taking over. Cancer survivors are in the video, and these are the biggest gangsters probably ever. I have my niece in the video, I have children wearing garbage and discussing the idea of ‘what are we leaving our next generation?’ We’re leaving them a lot of unsustainable and disposable things. That’s where we’re headed with everything we’re doing. I wanted to explore and showcase these ideas without coming across too preachy. I wanted everything to be below the surface, but still engaging and entertaining. That was the premise of it, having a fantastic team that filled in the gaps when I couldn’t A little homage to Trump. And other ideas that we had. We started pre-production in August, and we got the video done by February. It was a very long, slow process.
Yeah, I feel like combing the semi-heavy topics that you bring up with this whole casual style with the Missy Elliot references, it makes it more palatable for people to digest, rather than being so serious and preachy.
It’s like finding the balance between the pill and the applesauce. I used to have this dog, and I used to give him his medication wrapped in cheese—I kind of look at this the same way. I used to be a school teacher, and it was the same thing working with little kids. You have to be very mindful of what you’re trying to provide them, but also the way you package the information. It’s the same idea here.
It comes across.
Yeah, and I’ve been very fortunate with all the people I work with and the opportunities I’ve had to be able to create art and music and not really have to be realistic about it. I also have a bestselling book.
That’s like a rare thing. Most musicians don’t also have that other outlet to keep them going.
They don’t, so that book’s been my sugar momma. I’ve been able to throw money into a music video and not have to worry too much about if it’s going to come back. Trying to encourage that freedom amongst artists in my immediate circle, but also in the Southeast Asian community, and artists from Toronto. Toronto is having an amazing run right now in music, and in the deepest parts of my heart, I don’t think it’s a temporary wave. Everybody that’s coming out is so diverse. You hear Shawn Mendes, Drake, The Weeknd, Tory Lanez, PARTYNEXTDOOR, Alessia Cara. Everybody is just something completely different. It’s not like we have this one sound that the city is producing and it’s going to fade away, I just really want to contribute to this and stick my tentpole in it and add another foundation.
In Toronto, is there a lot of political discussion? Do you guys consider the Trump problem? Is that part of the discussion when you’re thinking of things you want to address?
I mean, yeah—the video I released in September was a tongue-in-cheek piece on, I mean, coming to New York I get mistaken as someone from the Middle East and not only that, I get hated on. I don’t have the option of saying, “I’m not Muslim, leave me alone!” That doesn’t really serve any purpose. So we made this spoken-word track with kids performing, and being like, “Muslim’s invented brushing my teeth, I hate brushing my teeth! Muslims invented school, I hate school!” It came out really fun and in there, I had half-made “Make America Kind Again,” “Make America Humble Again”. Trying to convey that message, I think I realized I’m only 50 percent of it. When I try to come across as tongue-in-cheek, someone from the far left takes it as a flag they want to wave, or someone from the far right takes it our reason to hate. In Canada, we kind of have a front row seat to all of this. We can watch it and be unaffected. I try my best to be less judgement and more understanding of it. Definitely I’ve probably gained more support after someone like Trump’s been in power. He’s inspired people to find their back.
The Trump effect.
We might not have had to stand up for ourselves when Obama was in charge. I come from a culture and heritage that doesn’t seek out safe spaces, we’ve had a history of existing as the oppressed so we don’t really…we thrive in that chaos. I’ve found value in that, and our political situation in Canada—we have a guy with a beard and a turban running for Prime Minister next year. We’re having a lot of firsts of our own. It used to be tongue-in-cheek to say Canada identified itself as not America, and this became an opportunity.
As in, Canada is proud not to be American. [Laughs]
Now we know where they’re headed, let’s move in the opposite direction. We have the premier group ahead of our province, she’s represented the LGBTQ community. It’s so normalized for us. We just see her as the politician that she as. Healthcare, same sex marriage, we’ve had these things so normalized.Do you feel like you’re in a different world in LA?
I feel like I’m not getting a good representation of the U.S when I go out there because they kind of exist in their own bubble. Europe can be the same thing in so many different ways. Discussions are there. The beneficial discussions are when we look at this as an opportunity to learn, rather than something simply to say, the world is coming to an end between something that hurt people’s feelings. Look, this has waken up a lot of people. Let’s use this opportunity to be grateful. We might have been too complacent.
I liked your sweatshirt too, “Woke is the New Basic”.
Woke is the new Che Guevera t-shirt. I don’t need to know what it means. I don’t need to respect history behind it to claim it. It’s very similar to Che Guevera and what he represented for people with the t-shirt in the 90s. I released a music video in 2010 that said “Stay Woke”. I know Childish Gambino re-popularized it with his song, so starting to see being heavily active on social media and YouTube and having a younger fan base, I see how they’ve re-appropriated the word to “Stay Woke” about things they have no knowledge about. Existing in their echo chambers. Kind of being tongue-in-cheek about referring to what they think of as woke is basic. And to be honest, it caused a bit of rift between the team at one time. The art director wasn’t sure if it was offensive. I said, “I’ve been around too long to be offensive.” I think it’s important for people to realize that when we’re trying to push brand new idea into the world. Those that cling to the past, any type of fundamentalism in any way shape or form, they don’t butt heads with us anymore, they just absorb us and commercialize us into a product, thus making us one of them. That’s not something people realize. They’re always looking for a conflict. That’s what I think happened with “woke”. If you were woke, you wouldn’t call yourself woke. That’s the oxymoron of it all. How can I take it to another step? What I’m trying to encourage is, so often I get thrown in with the uber-left and what they represent. I’m trying to encourage people to be self-aware and exist in the gray. Things aren’t black and white, nobody is bad or good. It’s in the gray. Both sides need to be poked at and made fun of a little bit, so they can laugh at themselves.
I also feel like when you get in the most trouble is when you take yourself too seriously. You’re just going to embarrass yourself.
Definitely. I think throughout my journey as an artist and meeting different artists, seeing a lot of people acting how they think they should be acting, instead of just being yourself. Who would have thought that would be such a difficult task. I felt, this would be a great, fantastic way to do it in a subtle message. If it has a discussion, great! If not, it’s cool.
Yeah, it really prompted conversation, so I guess that’s all you can ask for.
Yeah, we just want people to feel it. They’re so inundated with so much information and so many headlines, and stuff designed just for their attention. It’s not designed for performance. What can we do to at least get people to stop, pause, and think for a second?
Yeah, I think we’re all desensitized. It’s scary.
We’re distracted, overstimulated. Completely.
A lot of amazing stuff is coming out of Toronto. What’s the vibe there right now?
We don’t have to leave the city to chase our dreams, which is a brand new idea. I think in the next 15 or 20 years, we’ll continue to polish our resume as a world-class city. Hopefully after me, the next generation of artists don’t even think of the idea of leaving home to make it happen. I don’t think people in NYC need to leave to pursue their dreams. I want Toronto to be the same way. Again, going back to the environmental aspect of it, with the kids, really covering them in garbage was to talk about the idea of fast fashion. There was a stat that said the average person in Canada throws away 80 lbs of clothes a year. It really comes from the idea of, I’m no longer going to buy something and wear it regularly, I’m going to buy it and throw it away after 4 uses or an Instagram post or something. Me going to a Christian Dior show at the museum and finding out that back then, the culture was the opposite. You found a handful of really nice outfits, and you wore it. That was your Sunday outfit. It’s not a sustainable model for your wallet or the environment. It’s not a sustainable model for your self-esteem. You’re spending so much time trying to keep up. Creativity trumps fashion. Work with what you got, work around it. The irony for me is working with different companies, and even in the video shoot with the kids, we had Nike sponsors. All the kids were wearing Nikes. It was awesome for them because they got to keep all the clothes and shoes. My closet is full of so much stuff that I get for free from companies, but it’s more than I’ve ever needed. I still go back to my broke artist years when I was living off two pairs of shoes. It was more than enough. Having family back in India and seeing how they live there, they eat the same food everyday, wear the same shoes everyday. People hear don’t realize that a lot of this is born out of consumerism and making money. Nobody is paying attention to what the long term impact will be.
Everyone has such a short vision, and they can see the next five years ahead, but they aren’t thinking about the next five generations.
That’s the challenge. If you’re talking to a 17-year-old, they probably have 10 or 12 years of memories, how can you tell them what the next 20 years are going to feel like?
It’s so irrelevant to their life in that moment. But the culture of consumerism and being taught from birth that you need things or in order to validate your existence you need to look like everyone else, what kind of message is that?
Yeah, you see those elements. I work closely with Lily Singh who is a very popular creator on YouTube, and I’m watching a video where she’s asking her followers to name her zit. Before her, were there any other famous females that would ever do that? There was always this, “I woke up like this.” Not being mindful of what message that was actually sending. Even if it wasn’t overt, if you’re heroes are always looking flawless all the time, you don’t see the human side. You don’t see them without their makeup, or vulnerable. What message is that sending us about how we represent ourselves? We represent ourselves best when we know who we are and aren’t afraid to be vulnerable.
If you could tell your younger self advice based on all of the things we’ve talked about, what would you tell your younger self?
Trust the process. Just keep sharpening your sword. Nothing is more important than your craft and your art. I feel like my younger self probably had it better than I did. I made a short film where I had my nephew play my younger self. I traveled back in time to give him advice, and ask him to flip it the other way because he had a better grasp on life. My 8-year-old self was writing for the sake of writing, my 17-year-old self was editing videos with no plans of showing it to anybody or seeking any validation. All I’ve been trying to do is recapture that, go back to my formative years and capture that authentic enthusiasm. We put in so many hours doing all this stuff, and it wasn’t for a paycheck or an audience’s approval. It was because we loved it. Birds don’t sing chain music, they just sing what they want to sing. A lot of artist I’ve met are just obsessed with what they view, and it goes back to that why. I’d probably have to learn more from my younger self, and my younger self could learn from me. I’d probably leave the junk for the future and older self. How it feels matters more. I’ve been very fortunate in my career on so many different levels. Meeting wonderful people, and having a bestselling book puts me in a situation that a lot of artist aren’t in. I just have to remind myself not to take myself too seriously, and have fun with this. Being able to be that artist that can make a spark in your brain the way you want, and not have to worry about what you get back from it. I’m trying my best to do that.
Stay tuned to Milk for more rising artists.