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5X Fest features TikTok sensation Robyn Sandhu, whose poetry and music went from Surrey around the world

Robyn Sandhu
Robyn Sandhu's music has been enjoyed by many millions of listeners, despite having no support from the Canadian mainstream. Photo by Robyn Sandhu/5X Fest.

It’s hard to believe that Surrey poet and singer Robyn Sandhu has never done a solo show. With Punjabi-language hits such as “Inception” and “13 (Thirteen)” generating 6.5 million and 2 million views on YouTube, respectively, Sandhu has enjoyed amazing online success.

His voice was included in now-deceased Punjabi superstar Sidhu Moose Wala’s version of “Challa” earlier this year. Mixed and mastered by U.K. producer Josh Sidhu, it attracted 9.5 million views on YouTube.

On Wednesday (June 14), Sandhu, a former international student, will finally take the stage on his own at the Beaumont (316 West 5th Avenue) in Vancouver. The event, 5X Storytelling: An evening with Robyn Sandhu, runs from 6 to 8 p.m., featuring his poetry. It will also include prose, stories, and verses from emerging poets.

Watch Robyn Sandhu’s video for “Inception”.

Sandhu made his mark initially on TikTok, sharing tales of his migration from Rajasthan to Canada. He first lived in Terrace before moving Surrey. Now, five years later, Sandhu has more than 400,000 TikTok followers and 165,000 YouTube subscribers.

His music videos often showcase the beauty of Metro Vancouver. For example, “Inception” begins with a lengthy segment in West Vancouver’s Lighthouse Park.

In a recent interview with Postmedia, Sandhu said that he doesn’t include guns or violence in his videos or lyrics.

“This doesn’t mean I don’t think people shouldn’t do those things if they feel it represents them, it just doesn’t represent me,” Sandhu told veteran journalist Stuart Derdeyn.

Watch Robyn Sandhu’s video for “13 (Thirteen)”.

As part of the event at the Beaumont, Sandhu will join broadcaster Tarannum Thind in a fireside chat. In addition, writer and critical race feminist Preeti Kaur Dhaliwal will deliver an opening reading.

5X Fest begins with Desi-Futurism

This year’s 5X Fest theme is “Enter the Portal” to experience a world of South Asian creativity.

The opening event on Tuesday (June 13) is Imagining a New World With Desi-Futurism: A Workshop. It runs from 6 to 8 p.m. at the Beaumont, featuring multimedia artist Ruby Singh and 5X Press editor-in-chief Jeevan Sangha. According to the festival, Desi-Futurism is inspired by Afrofuturism.

Earlier this year, the Juno-nominated Singh told Pancouver that one of his musical projects, Ruby Singh and the Future Ancestors, was named in this way to get people thinking more about generations to come.

“I always love being in the present, but knowing that there’s this past that informed us and this future that we are informing,” Singh said.

Watch the video for “Big ‘Ol Bang” by Ruby Singh and the Future Ancestors.

On Thursday (June 15), the festival presents 5X Pride at Village Studios (1024 Davie Street) in Vancouver with a DJ set by Bianca Maeli (No Nazar, LA). Desi drag queen Jolene “Queen” Sloan—who embodies Bollywood divas Deepika, Aishwarya Rai Bachchan, and Rekha—will also perform.

Expect the crowd to erupt to Jolene’s “Kajra Re”, which Aishwarya made famous in the 2005 hit Bunty aur Babli.

“If you’re doing that song on the stage, you wear the same sort of outfit that she’s wearing with the same kind of hair and embody her character from the movie,” Jolene told the Georgia Straight last year.

Watch this 2022 CBC story on Jolene “Queen” Sloan.

Music and art celebrations in Surrey

On the weekend, 5X Fest will present two major events in Surrey. The city has witnessed a massive surge in South Asian arts and culture in recent years.

On Saturday (June 17), there’s a free 5X Block Party in Surrey Civic Plaza from 2 to 9:30 p.m. Register through Eventbrite to take in Babbulicious, Bhalwaan, Signature By SB, Cartel Madras, and other homegrown artists.

The final event on Sunday (June 18) is the 5X Art Party at 4 p.m. at the Surrey Art Gallery & Surrey Civic Theatres at the Surrey Art Centre (13759 88 Avenue). In an interview on CBC Radio One’s On the Coast, festival general manager Harpo Mander said that four South Asian artists from the Lower Mainland will each occupy one corner in an exhibition called Four Corners. In addition, the event will feature poetry readings and music by Angit Kaur.

Festival organizers emphasize that there will be zero tolerance at any event for sexual harassment, homophobia, transphobia, sexism, racism, and religious discrimination.

Joining Mander in the On the Coast broadcast was the festival’s executive director and founder Tarun Nayer, who’s best known as a musician with the band Delhi2Dublin. He said that some of the world’s biggest music producers are in Surrey, but they attract no representation in mainstream culture. This is despite generating billions of streams online.

On CBC, Nayer questioned why none of these homegrown artists have been invited to perform at the Vancouver Folk Music Festival or Vancouver International Jazz Festival.

Moreover, he noted that Punjabi actor and singer Diljit Dosanjh’s recent set at the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival was comprised of music recorded in Surrey. Dosanjh starred in the Punjabi rom-com Honsla Rakh, which was filmed in Surrey and became a box-office blockbuster.

Photo by Anand Mahopatra
This year’s 5X Block Party will be held at Surrey Civic Plaza. Photo by Anand Mahopatra.

Surrey bursts with creativity

Meanwhile in a post on the 5X Fest website, Mander has described Surrey as “the real star” of Honsla Rakh.

“Not only is Surrey home to wonderful on-screen talent, but there are a ton of talented creatives all across the city who are incredibly capable of pulling off internationally recognized and acclaimed projects in more capacities than one,” Mander wrote. “Not to mention, Surrey is basically the hot summer vacation spot for the biggest Punjabi superstar in the world.”

Yet in spite of the creativity in Surrey, she stated that mainstream media still mostly portray the city as dangerous.

“While every major news outlet in Metro Vancouver is quick to report on crime in Surrey,” she noted, “very few of them have chosen to spotlight the film, interview local talent from the film, or speak on the new records the team has set.”

It’s a message that Nayer echoed on CBC. He, too, emphasized that Surrey is safe and incredibly culturally vibrant.

“It’s about time we dropped that stigma,” Nayer declared.

For more information and tickets to 5X Fest events, visit the website. Follow Pancouver on Twitter @PancouverMedia.

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Charlie Smith

Charlie Smith

Pancouver editor Charlie Smith has worked as a Vancouver journalist in print, radio, and television for more than three decades.

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The Society of We Are Canadians Too created Pancouver to foster greater appreciation for underrepresented artistic communities. A rising tide of understanding lifts all of us.

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The Society of We Are Canadians Too created Pancouver to foster greater appreciation for underrepresented artistic communities. A rising tide of understanding lifts all of us.

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We would like to acknowledge that we are gathered on the traditional and unceded territories of the Coast Salish peoples of the xʷməθkwəy̓əm (Musqueam), Skwxwú7mesh (Squamish), and Səl̓ílwətaɬ (Tsleil-Waututh) Nations. With this acknowledgement, we thank the Indigenous peoples who still live on and care for this land.