How AP Dhillon and his tribe are giving Punjabi music a funky facelift

Their songs now incorporate genres like hip-hop, afrobeats and dancehall

1248206037 Rock star: AP Dhillon performs at this year’s Juno Awards in Vancouver | Getty Images

Everyone knows that it is almost impossible to release a Hindi film without a Punjabi song in it. But now, there is a parallel paradigm shift in the way theth (the pure form of the language) Punjabi songs by artists from the Pind, or the rural part of the state, are being consumed globally. At the forefront of this is Amritpal Singh Dhillon, aka AP Dhillon, who hails from Gurdaspur and is settled in Canada.

Dhillon comes across as a shy pindwala who smiles often and is happiest when he is doing what he does best―sing.

His song ‘Brown Munde’ (2020), which made him a global Punjabi sensation, gives an idea of how people of colour struggle to thrive away from their homeland. He sings:

In our Lamborghini trucks, we travel directly to Hollywood

Songs of Indian boys are heard by the whole of Bollywood

Our music has made waves, we do not want any fame

We know how to sing, and also know how to write

Dhillon represents the Canadian dream―a boy from a small Punjabi village with big dreams goes to Canada and becomes a music sensation. “Millions of us have gone to Canada, America, UK, Australia, everywhere…. And it is just everybody’s story. You start from nothing and then you make something out of it,” says Shinda Kahlon, Indo-Canadian rapper, singer, and writer of ‘Brown Munde’. The song became the anthem of the ‘brown mundes’ living abroad. There has been no looking back since.

In AP Dhillon: First of a Kind, a recently released four-part docuseries on Amazon Prime Video, Dhillon and his team―Kahlon, Gurinder Gill, Kevin Buttar, Herman Atwal and Gminxr―retrace the singer’s journey from Gurdaspur to performing to a full crowd at Rogers Arena in Vancouver.

Apart from Dhillon’s innate ability to combine the pind’s rustic charm with western music, what is striking is how determined he was to bring his culture to the world while remaining true to himself. He consistently uses the pure form of Punjabi, his recent release ‘With You’ being an example.

In a rare peek into the mysterious singer’s life, the docuseries captures Dhillon’s concert preparations, stage shows and his rise to fame. However, other than a few details about his humble beginnings, it offers little on Dhillon’s personal life. Every time he visits India on a tour, he heads to his village to meet his father and grandmother. He does not share much about what happened to his mother, but says that it was his grandmother who brought him up. A civil engineer, Dhillon comes across as a shy pindwala who smiles often and is happiest when he is doing what he does best―sing. Apart from his ode to the browns of the world, his music largely focuses on love pangs and heartbreaks.

DJ, TV and radio presenter Bobby Friction says that Dhillon represents the generation in Punjab that has grown up with social media, and was able to translate that [duality of existence] to the South Asian diaspora. That generation of musicians that Friction is talking about is now enjoying immense popularity abroad. Put it down to the peppy beats, relatability, or fun vibes, but Punjabi music has found fans everywhere that it has reached, especially in Canada.

In the last decade, the number of Indians who became permanent residents in Canada rose by 260 per cent, from 32, 828 in 2013 to 1,18, 095 in 2022, according to a report by the National Foundation for American Policy (NFAP). For many Punjabis, going to Canada to make it big became the ultimate ‘Canadian dream’, resulting in the country turning into a haven for aspiring musicians and singers from Punjab.

Sidhantha Jain, head of marketing at the talent management firm Represent, says that Canada is not just a hub for Punjabi culture, but also serves as a springboard to launch artists to worldwide fame. “Remuneration for top artists has seen a significant boost, and investments in music production have become larger and more sophisticated,” he says.

Jain says that this popularity has led to a marked increase in world tours and stage shows in diverse locations like Latin America, Africa, and East Asia―places we previously never envisioned Punjabi music reaching. “Punjabi artists are complete 360° packages, and the value they introduce, along with the potentially untapped market they represent, is enormous,” he says.

When singer-songwriter Kamaljit Singh Jhooti, better known as Jay Sean, started his career in the UK 20 years ago, Punjabi music was very niche. “Over the years, it has developed from traditional bhangra and become more adventurous and unique, incorporating genres like hip-hop, afrobeats, and dancehall,” he says.

Social media has further escalated the popularity of Punjabi music. Recently, actor Vicky Kaushal posted a video of him dancing to singer Riar Saab’s song ‘Obsessed’, and it immediately went viral. Soon, a score of others was sharing videos of them dancing to the song. Saab says that he and his collaborator, Abhijay Sharma, had the feeling that they had created something special, but Kaushal’s video took it to the next level. “Punjabi as a language has a natural flair, which is why there has been a pan-India acceptance of Punjabi culture,” he says.

Another indication that Punjabi music had arrived globally was when Diljit Dosanjh became the first Punjabi artist to perform at Coachella this year to a full-house audience. This year, Dhillon, too, made history as the first act to perform entirely in Punjabi at the Juno Awards. In fact, the late Sidhu Moose Wala was another musician who was popular among the Indian diaspora in Canada and the UK. In the month following his death, Moose Wala became the first Punjabi artist to make it to the Billboard Global 200 Chart with his song ‘295’.

When Moose Wala was shot dead last year, Dhillon was one of the several Punjabi musicians to receive death threats, which forced him to flee to Canada. “Sometimes I wonder if it is all worth it… staying away from my hometown and my family,” says Dhillon in the docuseries. “But then I think of the love I have received so far.”

Perhaps Moose Wala himself has an answer to his question. As he sings in ‘295’, “Tell me son, why is your head down? Don’t be discouraged here, the world tests the path you have taken.”