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AP Dhillon’s Quest for a Global Punjabi Music Movement

Over the past two decades, Coachella has evolved from its roots as an indie rock haven into a celebration of some of the biggest sounds around the world. Last year’s event showcased superstars including Bad Bunny and Blackpink as headliners, and this year’s lineup is keeping the momentum going with a wide swath of genres, from K-pop to música mexicana and more. 

Indo-Canadian singer and rapper AP Dhillon wants to make sure that Punjabi music benefits from that platform, too. Dhillon is set to perform at Coachella on Sunday, one year after Diljit Dosanjh reportedly became the first artist ever to play a completely Punjabi set at the festival. (Fellow Punjabi Canadian rapper Nav will take the stage right after Dillon’s set).

Dhillon’s rise in recent years comes amid a time of major growth for music out of India. Spotify reported earlier this year that consumption of Indian music on the platform has grown about 2000 percent worldwide since the streaming platform came to the country five years ago, and Dhillon thinks a Punjabi music explosion isn’t far behind. 

Speaking with Rolling Stone before his Coachella debut, the singer talked about what to expect for his upcoming set, the recent single he dropped last week with U.K. rapper Stormzy, and turning India and the rest of the world onto Punjabi music. 

You’re about to play the biggest gig of your career. This is your first Coachella, and you’re high up on the bill for a first-timer. Are you nervous at all or is this just another show for you?
It’s huge. I’m performing alongside a lot of artists I look up to. I’ve never even been to Coachella, so I’m excited to see some of the music. This can’t be a regular show — your fans are there, but there’s fans for a lot of other artists who are there waiting for the next show. I won’t say I’m nervous, I’m excited. This is huge for our culture, our people, for people who speak Punjabi and India overall. It’s a big deal for us to have slowly built our music to this level. I hope it inspires kids born in India or immigrants from these countries. It brings the culture together. 

Going deeper into that, you’re the second Punjabi artist to play Coachella; the first came just a year ago. What do you see as the significance of your set, both for Coachella and for Punjabi music overall?
I think it makes sense. There’s a lot of Indians in the U.S., Canada, all over. That’s a huge new audience for [Coachella]. The way we’ve seen Latin music growing, that’s where I think Punjabi music is going to go more and more. But it goes both ways. We get to connect with this side of the world. We get to perform for an audience that might not understand the lyrics, but they’ll like the music, the energy, the flow. I listen to a lot of shit I don’t understand, but I still vibe to it. Latin music — I don’t understand what the fuck they’re saying, but it’s fucking cool. 

Do you think Punjabi music can reach the same kind of audiences that Spanish-language genres have now?
Yeah, I think we’re at a stage where the artists are before Bad Bunny’s [level of fame]. Our music is at that stage right now, and it’s gonna hit the next destination. It’s going to help our people,  it’s going to help other artists make their come-up in the future, too. 

Is that your goal? To reach Bad Bunny’s level of international superstardom?
Well, yes. The whole goal is to bring our music to where Latin music is, to be honest. There’s a lot of similarities, culture-wise. I feel like slowly we are progressing. We’re taking it to the next level. Those little things — even the record that I dropped right now, that’s a small step toward a bigger picture. I hope that opens up windows not just for me but for the next guy and the next guy. That’s the goal.

You just released “Problems Over Peace” with Stormzy last week. That’s your first collaboration featuring a major western artist. How did that come together?
When I first moved to Canada, a friend of mine from Mali introduced me to the U.K. rap scene, and I was like “Yo, this is fucking cool.” Around 2016, 2017, I heard Stormzy, and as a fan, I love his music. I made this drill record. It felt short. I needed someone on it. I figured the one guy who could really pull through was Stormzy. He delivers every time. We had a mutual friend reach out and then the rest is history. He sent me his verse, and fuck, it’s cold. It’s hard. I’m happy with it ,because sometimes collaborations really seem forced, like labels making this shit happen.

For the people you’re selling on catching your set this weekend, what should they be expecting for your show?
My set’s going to have a bit of everything. I  go from trap to pop to rock. You go around the world, watching that 45-50-minute performance. It’s a lot of different kinds of music, there’s a lot of good stuff there. It’s a new sound, man, it’s a good energy. That’s what they should expect right now. This will be my first time playing guitar on stage. I’m going full rock star mode. 

I know we’re at the point where we’re introducing a sound. If somebody has never listened to Punjabi music, the way they imagine it is very different. I want to go beyond the typical way of doing Punjabi music. That’s why when I work on a drill beat, I perform the way a drill artist would, so if a Stormzy fan listens, it won’t sound too odd to them. 


Do you think these audiences need that more familiar reference point for the music to click?
Right now we’re at the stage where we’re educating our own people on this music. It’s not just a battle between bringing the sounds to the western side, or the U.K., or wherever. For example, I’m about to release a rock record, right? A Punjabi rock record. I haven’t heard a Punjabi rock record, ever. That’s a tricky step to take, even for my own fans. They’ll be like, “What the fuck are you doing, man? You were releasing fucking hip-hop.” But I I got bored and I thought I need to try something different. I feel like that could inspire a few people who will just take that and run with it and make a whole career out of that.

What’s it like making a Punjabi rock song when you don’t have a reference for it yourself?
You have to be daring. You don’t know how people are gonna react to it. It might go over everyone’s head because it’s not the sound they’re used to. But there will be few people who like it and there will be a few people who will get inspired from it. I feel like I started this whole synth-pop wave. Now every album I hear in India has synth-pop.  What can I do differently now?

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