By ASJAD NAZIR
TORONTO-based Humble The Poet first connected to music walking to school listening to songs on his headphones. Hearing artists tell stories enabled him to discover his own and helped him as a youngster. This sparked the idea that he too wanted to create work that would help others better understand themselves, those around them and gain strength from that relationship. That is exactly what he did.
In the past decade the MC, spoken word poet, rapper and songwriter has delivered music that has found the hallowed middle ground between the artistic and commercial. His latest project Righteous/Ratchet shows off his amazing versatility as an artist with thought provoking songs that have universal appeal. Eastern Eye caught up with the cool Canadian to talk about his journey, music, poetry, inspirations and more.
How did you get your name Humble The Poet?
I went by the name of Humble when I participated in some rap battles. In one battle I won, I described myself as an evolution from the rapper to MC to the poet. So I kept the name Humble The Poet. When I started recording music I was in a room full of guys using my legal name Kanwer, when they asked if I had a rap name, I replied Humble The Poet. No one in the room liked it. I said it doesn’t matter what the name is, what matters is who is making the name. So we used Humble The Poet.
When did you realise you were really good?
I think anybody becomes good at something once they keep doing it. Probably after a couple of years after hearing what I used to sound like and what I was experimenting with. I heard all the mistakes I was making, but realised they were necessary to get a certain sound out. Even now with the new project Righteous/Ratchet I took a lot of risks, which some appreciate and others feel didn’t hit the mark. What they don’t realise is that you’ve got to take those risks to take things to the next level.
What do you mean?
You are not just born with a talent. I taught myself how to rap. I’m teaching myself how to sing and write songs. So I think the moment anyone thinks they are really good, they don’t put work into their craft and fall off. So I see the progress I am making since my first recording work almost 10 years ago. Great things are happening artistically and professionally.
Which of your songs is closest to your heart?
From the new project there is a song called Mrs Doubtfire, which discusses folks struggling with various mental health issues. I really wanted to create something that gave a perspective on what they are going through, so folks who may not connect with them can kind of get a picture. I wrote the song at a certain point in my life. It really touches my heart whenever I hear it and I am really proud of it. I’m proud I can still make music like that, knowing it’s not a track you will hear on the radio, but it’s one I get the most messages about from people saying thank you for telling my story. That’s extremely important for the work I want to do.
You work on a lot of unique projects. How do you select what to work on?
Over the years it has been different, sometimes I was broke and had to work on whatever was going to give me money. Now things are better and I work on things that excite, challenge and put me in a position I have never been in before. That will result in something I am proud of and will be fun. I am not waiting for something at the end of the road for me to start enjoying this life; I want to enjoy it now. I can do that by working with great people who are also passionate and obsessed with what they do and feed off their energy. So people I work with are amazing and if their vibe is good I will work with them as long as the projects are creative and unique.
Where do you draw your inspiration from?
I get inspiration everywhere. I try to consume as much art and as much life as I can. Talking sh*t with friends, watching films and music videos, meeting new people, walking around the city, and travelling to places like London, India and Sydney brings new ideas.
Where is the strangest place you have been inspired by for a song?
Most probably the dance floor of a typical Punjabi wedding, where these ideas started hitting me, so I kept dancing and slowly trailed off into the corner. I got my head down and let this idea formulate. Some friends came over and thought I was drunk or sad, but I wasn’t. I was distant because I zone out when I start building ideas in my head.
Tell us about your most recent solo song, Hair.
Hair was inspired by the various relationships I have had on this journey with different girls and trying to capture the beauty of the ones that didn’t last and maintaining the beauty of the ones that did. It was the last song on the project Righteous/Ratchet, but the first to release and became the foundation of it.
What can we expect next from you?
I will release a music video for every project on Righteous/Ratchet. I have a couple of songs ready for the second volume of the Righteous/Ratchet series. That should be out in the new year.
What does performing live mean to you and what has been the most memorable show?
It’s amazing because it’s one of those rare times you get to be face-to-face with your audience and see how your work connects to them. There are so many memorable moments. The first show I ever sold out was in London, right by Waterloo station. It was amazing to see folks in the audience rapping along to the words. I remember losing my own focus just watching them recite my lyrics better than I did, so I always thought that was cool.
What do you love about London?
I love how integrated and mixed London is. Once I was in McDonalds waiting for a friend and a black dude came up to me and said kiddah. He started chatting to me and his Punjabi was really good. I love the diversity and enthusiasm of the city. Folks in London are hardcore for what they love. When they love you they will show up to support you. That means a lot.
You have done some great collaborations. Who else would you love to work with?
I would love to work with Kanye West, André 3000 and Lauryn Hill. I also love DJ Khaled’s ear and the sounds he brings. He has a great track record, so I would like to see what he can do. Outside of that, maybe a rap track with Eminem.
You are called Humble The Poet, but how much poetry do you read in real life?
For me life is poetry. There are patterns and rhythms to everything happening in life and poetry in it. I got into spoken word poetry because traditional poetry you read out of books like Shakespeare, Rumi and the rest is limited because you never got the author’s perspective. It’s amazing how well the rhythms, patterns and vibrations work in life to create poetry.
Have your lyrical skills ever got you out of trouble?
Yes actually. I went to the Bronx in the area where hip-hop was created; where DJ Kool Herc spun a block party and for the first time, kept looping the break beats and yelling chants on the mic, which became the first instances of hip-hop. I went there to get education and pay homage. I went with Sikh Knowledge, Hoodini and Baagi. In the beginning the locals weren’t too friendly. I had to do a little rap to win them over and it really worked. They got friendly after that.
What are your big passions away from work?
I love riding my bike, learning new stuff, geeking out about space and learning about the universe.
You are a Bonafide rap hero. Who are your rap heroes?
I love André 3000. I don’t think I have heard a rapper come with such a unique perspective, every time he rhymes a verse. I love what Kendrick Lamar is doing. He is showing us that you can be a beautiful artist and at the same time kill it commercially. You can be successful with hard core hip-hop fans and with the mainstream. I think it’s a great time in hip-hop for that. I love what Drake has done for my city Toronto. I love what Cole has done for hip-hop and what Big Sean is doing for lyricism.
What is the musical scene like in Canada today?
I mean, Canada is running the music scene. You got Drake, The Weeknd, Nav, Alessia Cara, Shawn Mendes, Justin Bieber and we got Shania Twain coming back. We got PartyNextDoor, Belly and so many more. Canada is owning the international music scene right now. We are doing super well and it is amazing.
What is the best advice you ever got?
I got so much amazing advice. Most recently the one that stuck with me the most was something I heard, on Jay-Z’s new album when he said, “a loss ain’t a loss, it’s a lesson, appreciate the pain as the blessing”. I think that is extremely important because so many people are afraid to fail, not understanding that failure is a part of this process. It is a part of success and not the opposite of success. Beyond that it was stop taking people’s advice, trust your instincts, trust your gut and learn from everybody.
What music dominates your own personal collection?
Outside of the songs I am working on, which I have to listen to religiously everyday, to make corrections, I listen to everything that is brand new and coming out to absorb it. I have spent the past month soaking in Kendrick Lamarr’s album DAMN and loving Jay-Z’s 4:44. I love what Drake did with More Life – I loved that one of the biggest rappers on the planet came up with such a local sounding music project. I love it and it’s so inspiring for me. Outside of that, studying and learning from music from the 1970s and 80s. It’s beautiful learning about rock stars like Led Zeppelin and how they worked.
Why do you love music?
The impact that music has on us is organic and something I am super proud to be able to contribute to. Music has done so much for me and I feel like I am in debt to it. I am just trying to pay it back for what it has done for me. It transcends language, race and all our differences. We can all enjoy the same song for various different reasons. That is what I love about it. It’s so much more organic. You can’t plan it. You drop something and don’t get to decide who connects with it and that is the beauty of it. It’s just real in a world where everyone is faking it for social media, pretending, photoshopping and all this bullsh*t. It’s good to know you just can’t fake certain things like great music, which will still bubble up to the top not matter how much bullsh*t is coming out.