I confess that I am not the first person to approach the topic of Punjabi YouTubers. The Globe and Mail published a story on JusReign, Superwoman, and AKakaAMAZING more than two years ago, asking them why comedy and why the Punjabi community in GTA is so open to it. The word “Sikh” is not mentioned once in the article.
Sikhism is a religion abundant with iconography. Every gurdwara has the three images of Guru Nanak Dev Ji, Guru Gobind Singh Ji, and the Harminder Sahib (Golden Temple) in Amritsar. The Khanda is everywhere: on turbans, on doors, on shirts, on boxing gloves, on hood ornaments of boxing gloves. Our three well-publicized YouTube figures have rich imagery in their videos as well.
JusReign and AKakaAMAZING are fairly overt with their use of Sikh imagery. JusReign, since he sports a turban and beard, is visually identifiable as a Sikh, while AK doesn’t keep his hair and beard but posts commentary and parody of political events in Punjab, and fills his videos with images of strong, armed Sikhs fighting for the faith. For JusReign, this is a matter of cultural awareness; his main aim is to debunk the hostility directed towards the figure in beard and turban through comedy. This means speaking as a representative, intentional or not, of Sikhism from a thriving diasporic community.
One of JusReign’s more ridiculous Sikh culture spoofs from his Punjabi Christmas Album video. In this video, he sings of Christmas: remember baba Santa Claus, remember his sacrifice — all in the style of Sikh kirtan, or holy music. At one moment, he shows an image with caption “Dhan dhan baba Santa Claus” (blessed old man Santa Claus), which pokes fun at honorific, albeit cheesy images of Sikh Gurus. In interviews, JusReign explains that his main motive behind parodying brown culture is to raise awareness of it. Discrimination is a huge concern for North American Sikhs post-9/11, and Sikhs have frequently been attacked, called “Osama” or “terrorist” just because the image of the beard and turban is conflated with that of the extremist Muslim terrorist. Through comedy, JusReign hopes to breed compassion.
AK’s output concerns political Sikhism for Sikhs rather than cultural awareness for outsiders. He confronts pressing issues in both Brampton and Punjab: murders in Brampton, and political corruption, water shortages, and drug use in Punjab. His videos carry a nationalistic undercurrent supporting Punjabi sovereignty and the creation of an independent Sikh nation, Khalistan (if you want to know about Khalistan, read The Nation’s Tortured Body by Brian Keith Axel. Opening a discussion on Khalistan would require a separate blog entirely). Some videos show fake newscasts in which Brampton and Punjab are combined to be one ethnic and political body, even though the two are geographically separated. In reporting the news of either region side-by-side, AK creates a sense that the events in Punjab directly impact the Brampton community, which, ultimately, they do. AK, in this way, is a product of the Brampton Punjabi community, which is vicariously tied back to its homeland. Dixie Gurdwara openly supports Khalistan, and the diasporic yearning for its own nation is the most visible in Brampton when compared to other North American Sikh communities I’ve encountered.
The single greatest trauma in contemporary Sikhism is 1984, when the Indian Army, under the order of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, stormed the Golden Temple in Amritsar to capture the Khalistani militant separatist Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale. This campaign, Operation Blue Star, was launched on the anniversary of the martyrdom of the 5th Sikh Guru, Guru Arjan Dev Ji, founder of the Golden Temple. The army launched a full scale attack on the holiest site in Sikhism, killing hundreds within the compound. In retaliation later that year, Indira Gandhi’s Sikh bodyguards assassinated her, triggering riots that resulted in the deaths of thousands of Sikhs. Artists like AK and hip-hop Can-Sikh Humble the Poet have put out several videos and songs commemorating the victims of 1984. AK in 2010 put out a video called “When Lions Roar II” in which he, his sister, and Brampton’s east district MPP (member of provincial parliament) Jagmeet Singh of the NDP (New Democrat Party, a social democrat party) read firsthand accounts of 1984. Charity funds in support of victims of 1984 are present in several gurdwaras in Brampton, and pictures of shahids, or martyrs, holding automatic firearms hang in the langar hall of Dixie Gurdwara. The memory of this event is a burden on the Sikh collective conscience, an acknowledgment that a faith whose primal creed contains the words “without fear” and “without hate” has had to confront racism and marginalization in its spiritual homeland. Guru Gobind Singh’s dying words, known in scripture as the Guru Maneyo Granth, includes the line “raj karega Khalsa” — the Khalsa shall create a nation. This is a belief held by many in Brampton, and Sikhism places heavy emphasis and honor on its shahids, many of whom died for Khalistan.
Lastly, I take a look at Sikh imagery in Superwoman’s channel. Superwoman focuses more on developing a general audience, posting videos like “Types of Teachers in School” and “Types of Farts” while still honoring her brown roots by making “My Parents React to…” videos, where she dresses up as Indian parents and pokes fun at her social media output. It’s safe to say that Superwoman’s channel is the least consciously Sikh; though she is a product of the community, she concerns herself much less with the politics of Sikh representation that JusReign and AK focus on so much.
- 50 Random Things About Me: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nrXdEoUl2Q8
Lilly Singh aka Superwoman is undoubtedly Sikh; beyond the name “Singh,” her wrists are tattooed with ਨਿਰਭਉ (nirbhau, without fear) and ਨਿਰਵੈਰੁ (nirvair, without hate) — text from the mool mantar, or primal creed of Sikhism. She also collaborates extensively with Humble the Poet, and the two released their music video for the song “#LEH” earlier this month, which criticizes the self-centeredness of social media in relation to consumerism of status symbols (on a side note, I attended Humble’s birthday party a few nights ago and briefly met every single YouTuber I still want to connect with. Small world). Humble is seen wearing a Sikh pride shirt: See a Singh, salute a Singh. All Sikhs have the middle name Singh (for males, lion) or Kaur (for females, princess), and devout Khalsa Sikhs (known as amritdharis) let go of their family name and take up Singh or Kaur as their proper last name. Clearly, Superwoman is proud to be a Sikh, whether or not she focuses on that aspect of her life in her channel.
These three YouTubers cannot avoid (and clearly choose not to avoid) their Punjab-Sikh identity, though the degrees to which they choose to represent it on screen varies from person to person, and even these images range from displaying Sikhism as a benevolent religion to a noble order of warriors to a victimized minority group whose home is under attack. In the coming weeks, my plan is to interview each one on this matter to see where they politically and personally situate their channels within the community of Ontario Sikhs and global Sikhs.