If Punjabi musician Sidhu Moose Wala was a “white guy singing in English,” he wouldn’t have been banned from performing in Surrey, says Tarun Nayar, executive director of the Vancouver International Bhangra Celebration, which hosts the 5X Festival.
The 29-year-old Wala “is the second biggest Punjabi star in the world,” said Nayar. “He’s the Drake of Surrey.” Indian-born and educated, the singer and lyricist now lives in Brampton, Ont. His latest video, released a week ago, already has 12.8 million views on YouTube.
Wala was one of the headliners for the 5X Block Party, a main event in the free four-day festival, billed as Canada’s largest South Asian youth event and “an exploration of South Asian youth culture.”
But a week before the festival opened, the City of Surrey told organizers that either they drop Wala, or the city wouldn’t let the concert go ahead in the city’s Central City Plaza.
The city said it made the decision based on an RCMP assessment of public safety concerns.
“As a result of this assessment, the Surrey RCMP advised the City of Surrey we did not believe future performances of Mr. Sidhu Moose Wala in Surrey are in the best interest of the public safety for the city,” it said in a statement.
It pointed to “other kinds of criminal activity violence” at his previous shows.
But Nayar said other artists have performed in the Vancouver area despite problems at previous shows. He pointed to Travis Scott, the rapper charged with inciting a riot during a 2017 concert in Arkansas. The charges were later reduced and Scott performed in Vancouver in January.
Nayar said 5X Festival made numerous attempts to work with the RCMP and offered to increase security or take other measures. “But we didn’t get any emails back at all — zero.”
“How is one supposed to do events in Surrey if the RCMP can just remove an artist from your lineup at the last minute?”
The Surrey RCMP told The Tyee that it had engaged with the festival organizers but wouldn’t comment on the specifics.
For Nayar, the forced removal of the artist shows the disconnection between Surrey authorities and its residents.
“I think that this is solely because he is South Asian, and there’s a perception of South Asians as being dangerous in groups.” About one-third of city residents are of South Asian descent.
The narrative has racist undertones, he added.
Media coverage of criminals like Bindy Johal and “the sort of gangsterism stuff that happened” in the 1990s has fuelled the stereotype of dangerous young South Asian men.
And banning Wala reinforced the racist narrative, he said, “feeding more flames into the fire that we can’t be trusted somehow, you know, that we don’t know what’s good for us.”
For many people in Surrey, Wala is a symbol of success, an immigrant from Punjab who made it, said Nayar. Some even call him “the Tupac of Punjabi music because he really is rapping about real stuff that is happening in the community,” Nayar added. “He’s a storyteller.”
The event went ahead with other performers, and attracted 5,000 to 7,000 people.
Nayer said the demand to ban Wala hurt the festival, which aims to bring young people together and celebrate the best of modern desi culture.
But participants staged their own positive protest, he said.
“The South Asian community showed up on mass and just danced to his music all day,” Nayar said. “It was sort of a musical dance protest, where it’s like, ‘OK, we can’t have the artist, so we’ll dance to his music all day.’ All of the other artists played his songs, people got his pictures, you know, people were tattooed with his face on their arms.”
This moment was a testament to the “resilience of the South Asian community in Surrey.”
“We have an extremely vibrant and creative culture that’s growing in Surrey,” he said. “Our Festival 5X is about giving that culture a voice. When the hero of the youth is banned by the RCMP and the city it just shows like a total disconnect between the people living in a city and the people running the city, which is disheartening.”
In a commentary, Nayer vowed to use the ban on Wala to bring change. “Security concerns are valid; they can and should be addressed,” he wrote.
“Criminalizing music, however, effectively criminalizes the youth who listen, drives a wedge into the community... 5X is committed to a different path, to collaboratively exploring these issues in our community. Starting today we’ll be working with politicians, stakeholders and the RCMP to generate discussion and community engagement.”