How a people are represented through ‘The Arts’ plays a major role in determining how they are dealt with by the rest of society. Theatre, books, exhibitions and the like are experienced by all members of society, today more than ever as we move further into a digitally connected World. People who exist on the fringes of society or are from minority communities can find it incredibly difficult to have their voice heard or to be seen in a way over which they can assert control and largely this is due to the limited resources and audience they attract. But what if all of those marginal voices and individuals from minority communities could come together to see the art that represents them brought to life? And what if others who wanted to hear those voices could help make it happen too?
Humble the Poet, a rapper from Toronto in Canada has been performing live shows and releasing his music to a global audience since he left his job as an elementary school teacher. Over the last five years, this bearded, turbaned Sikh has been creating music that not only speaks for members of his community, but that is independently recognised in the hip hop world in its own right. His journey from aspiring rapper to respected artist has been played out online for all to see, through difficult times, joyous successes and everything in-between. And so it should have come as no surprise that Humble the Poet’s next public release would take his relationship with his audience to a deeper level.
Earlier this summer, Kanwer Singh a.k.a Humble the Poet released a sampler e-book titled ‘Unlearn’ which gathered some of his many thoughts, ideas and social commentary into a book form. His lyrical talent extended well to this different written format and in my opinion maintained the determined nature of his musical repertoire. Many others must have agreed because it was soon announced that a full edition of the book would follow accompanied with a new album. However, this new project required support; an opportunity, if you will, for those who had championed the teaser to put their money where their mouth was and pay for the book in advance. It is of course so much more than merely paying in advance for the book and album, it is a pledge to support an artist in his drive to create new work. It is an avenue for an artist without a record label, publishing agreement or corporate sponsor to produce work of a standard that would otherwise be out of their reach. Through the crowd-funding website Indiegogo, Humble the Poet is using the tools available in a digitally revolutionised World to reach out to his audience (and beyond) to find patronage for his art. And as he reaches the close of his campaigning period it is fair to say he has been quite successful.
Crowd-funding as it has been termed is not just for the independent and aspiring artist. Renowned director Spike Lee’s next movie found its initial budget through the website ‘Kickstarter’ and has made for interesting headlines over the summer. As with previous ‘celebrity’ artists looking to secure funds for their next work, Lee was criticised in some quarters for reaching out directly to the audience because as an established film-maker he was deemed to have considerable access to money. Most notably, an interview with Bloomberg TV’s Trish Regan went viral after Lee objected live on air to what he described as a premeditated attack by the channel. Lee convincingly argued that he was still an independent filmmaker whose work consisted of more than the studio feature films on his resume and the assumption of his financial status should play no part in his decision to reach out directly to his audience. Although that debate will go on, he found wide-ranging support on social media and the incident will have done no harm to providing greater exposure for crowd-funding artists work in the 21st century.
Historically, if an artist was fortunate enough to find patronage from wealthy benefactors, it did not come without a price. Some time would have to be devoted to working on commissions be they written, painted, or performed. In this sense Humble the Poet’s campaign provides much to satisfy every level of financial contributor from free-to-download tracks to a personal performance in your home. As a well-wisher and supporter of his work, my contribution to the ‘UnLEARN’ campaign on Indiegogo provides me with a myriad of ‘perks’ but with my hand on my heart I can say that they pale in significance to knowing that I will have helped someone from a similar background to look inside himself and express their inner voice as art. I’m no saint; there is history here. I first met Kanwer in the autumn of 2011 having watched him on youtube and listened to his free-to-download albums for a couple of years preceding this. It was before his first performance in the UK, and he kindly gave me an interview and spent a little longer walking around London with me than I think he had expected. A few months later, I met up with him again at the Believe Me Music Festival in Toronto where Naujawani.com was a sponsor for the showcase of so many talented artists that were emerging in the area.
Humble the Poet’s life journey in recent years has been a public one and whilst many people would recoil from the criticism and glare that comes from living in that way, he has instead decided to embrace it and bring those who wish to do so closer still to the journey. The truth is, it’s not his life’s journey alone; it never was. Perhaps he realises this. I don’t know if he does, but I do know that truly great artists recognise that their work is a manifestation of the journey of us all. It is ultimately how we as people – not a people – are represented through ‘The Arts’ and it is why we should never shy away from supporting the creation of such work.