Rapper Sukhdeep Singh Bhogal still remembers the dreaded school bell at 3pm every weekday when his classmates would tease him as he lugged his backpack into his parents’ car.
It was the mid-’90s in south west Sydney, and the son of Indian immigrants stood out for embracing his culture, with his mum and dad’s Punjabi car tunes offering an example of that.
“I can remember my parents picking me up from school and they’d have Sikh music playing in the car,” Sukhdeep, aka L-FRESH The LION, told HuffPost Australia.
“Music of our culture that’s so integral to our way of life would be playing in the car and I’m sitting there with my mates and they’re laughing, saying, ‘What’s this shit?’”
Sukhdeep said he felt “the shame,” and was slowly persuaded his culture was “not cool.” This led to him abandoning Punjabi, the language spoken by his parents and the one taught to him from his birth.
“What I was lacking [then] was confidence in my culture and confidence in myself,” he said.
Now at age 31, Sukhdeep is reconnecting with the language, a move sparked after a “life-changing moment” of realisation when visiting the Golden Temple in Amritsar, Punjab.
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“I just had a real life-changing moment and a realisation moment where I was like, ‘Okay I know what I need to do. I need to re-immerse myself in my culture and I need to build that.’”
He’s now used music to reflect on his journey of cultural and personal self-discovery, with his latest song, ‘Mother Tongue’ instrumental in that process.
“Mother Tongue is my personal journey with language. It recounts my story of being fluent in my mother tongue language of Punjabi as a kid and English being the second language introduced to me after I was born in south west Sydney,” he said.
“Then losing my language as I got older, I suppose as a combination of wanting to fit in and the pressures that come with not being cool and your culture not being cool.”
With his song’s release, Sukhdeep has asked fans to share videos of themselves speaking in their own mother tongue.
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“Know yourself, know your culture, know your roots, know your language,” he said is his message to his younger listeners, “because all that stuff is so valuable and is so important to you and who you are and who you are to become.
“Don’t feel the pressures from the outside world to have to abandon all of that stuff.”
Mother Tongue is out now ahead of L-FRESH The LION’s upcoming album, South West which drops on July 17.