Portrait

How hip-hop offered a language for a Sydney Sikh and lead him to take the name L-Fresh the Lion.

By Maxine Beneba Clarke.

Rapper L-Fresh the Lion

Sukhdeep was a teenager, growing up in Western Sydney, when hip-hop came a-calling. He was losing his Punjabi. Increasingly speaking only English. Probably accidentally on purpose, he concedes, looking back. Australian schoolyards can do that to brown boys: taunt them to renounce the very things that make them whole. It was Tupac Shakur who came searching for Sukhdeep. Rapped himself across the radio waves, and offered up another tongue. “He was the one, you know. Without him, I wouldn’t be doing this thing.”

I ask what his parents thought, back in the day, about a nice boy such as him turning all Flavor Flav and Chuck D, swaggering Wu-Tang Clanned in the language of the streets. “I had to bring them on the journey with me,” he says, earnest dark eyes beneath navy blue turban, midnight black beard glinting with the first flecks of silver. “I explained that I wanted to use hip-hop as a tool to connect with our cultural legacy. It took a while to bring them round … but that’s the thing about hip-hop: there’s a place for everybody. My dad is low-key to the 10th power, you know,” he chuckles. “But he had this vision for me, related to the Sikh community. He said, ‘You can connect with the young people, and articulate things that we can’t. They’ll listen to you.’ But they didn’t want me to be misguiding people, or leading them away from the essence of Sikhi.”

He called himself L-Fresh the Lion. I’m thinking the L is like the T in Ice-T, like the B in B-boy, like the DMC in Run. I’m thinking Fresh is like the Flash in Grandmaster, like the Shady in Slim, like the Prince of Bel-Air. And Lion, like the Dogg in Snoop. Only this rapper’s moniker runs deeper than that. Lion is a nod to Sikh majesty, to naming ritual. And Fresh is an acronym of Sukhdeep’s making: Forever Rising Exceeding Sudden Hardship.

“I started in my bedroom, at the computer, just learning how to make a beat. With a shitty $10 microphone from Kmart,” L-Fresh fondly shakes his head, conjuring his clueless hip-hop-hungry younger self. “I didn’t know what I was doing. I just kept writing. Every day. Every day. Every day. Every day.” He nods his head back and forth, simulating creative frenzy. “Even now, I try to get back to that time, focus on what I want to say. Just me and my words. Getting back to where it all started.”

He’s back at home now, under his parent’s roof in Western Sydney, after a hiatus living in Melbourne, touring internationally and, most recently, a sojourn to New York. “It hit me one day: I’ve gotta go back home. It’s time. I’m going home. And it’s good. It feels right at this point. Fully appreciating family.”

L-Fresh finished a law and arts degree in Sydney, that good-child thing offspring of brown migrants do. Treading water in nine-to-five conservatoria, until we persuade our loved ones that doing otherwise won’t end the world, or we buckle under the sheer weight of hammering ourselves into a shape we don’t fit. “I came to Melbourne to do an internship in a music and entertainment law firm.”

The waiter at the Fairfield cafe where we are having breakfast brings a small pot of black tea, places it in front of L-Fresh. He gently lifts the lid, bows his head down, inhales. Steam curls up around his face. Satisfied, he leaves the tea in the pot to brew a little longer. “I couldn’t sit in an office space. Even wearing that button-up shirt every day. I was like: Get it off! Get it off! ” He motions loosening a tight tie.

L-Fresh found himself employed full-time at the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre in Melbourne’s west, developing their first youth program. “They were based in Footscray. I thought, ‘Footscray, where have you been?’ It was like a combination of Liverpool and Parramatta. It felt like home. I brought all the principles I learnt from Western Sydney, and from hip-hop. The first thing I did was ring up all the young people who had been through the centre and say: ‘How are you, what are you up to, are you still around, what do you want to do?’ They created the program, and then we made it happen. We had a music group. I got to jam with them every Wednesday. Folk from Ethiopia, Pakistan, Afghanistan. People bringing in songs they knew from home, and teaching them to the rest of us. It was incredible. Someone would play something and I would think: ‘That is so dope, I’ve never ever heard a rhythm like that before.’ And then they started getting booked to perform and just … the elation, you know?”

L-Fresh ran the program for a year. “My gut was telling me I needed to go home. Music was taking off as well, so I was working five days a week, and then off touring weekends. But it was hard to leave, because I fell in love – I fell in love with the people.”

Back in Sydney, L-Fresh has been engaged as an ambassador for the AFL, in a move he’s been told makes him their first non-sport ambassador. The music side of things is still syncopating, calling him all over the country, and then the world. In 2016, his album Become was nominated for an ARIA. Late last year, YouTube flew him to New York as part of their Creators for Change summit. “It was huge for me. To have a music video premiere in the USA. The home of hip-hop. It was my first time in New York. I told myself, ‘Don’t be that dude: don’t do the hip-hop tour. People live here. These are their lives. They’re not here for my entertainment.’ But I could see how hip-hop was born there. How anything is possible in a place like New York.”

How is his family now, about the permanence of hip-hop in his life? “I read this quote once. It wasn’t a Sikh quote, but it really resonated with me. I am a warrior, so that my son may be a merchant, so that his son may be a poet. And that’s where I am. My parents and my grandparents had a different struggle. But now, it’s time for me to stop and tell all of our stories.”

He tells me about the first time he played his song “Never Alone” to his mum. “It’s about all of these people that influenced me. Ancestors. You get to the end of the song, and you find out that they’re all women. She was just listening to the song. And when she realised…” He laughs: “She was talking super loudly, because she still had the headphones on … and I list all of these famous women ancestors who inspire me. And right at the end, I name her.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Apr 7, 2018 as "Lion heart". Subscribe here.

Maxine Beneba Clarke
is the author of The Hate Race and Foreign Soil.