The docuseries ‘First of a Kind’ on Prime Video shows a clip of singer AP Dhillon sitting on the stairs of his Gurdaspur home two days before leaving for Canada in 2015 and strumming a tune on his guitar. “I remember shooting the video and telling him that he is going to become a big singer one day and only I will have the privilege to listen to him sitting by the beach,” his father Rashpal Singh recalls. And almost prophetically, it has come true.
Amritpal Singh Dhillon went to Canada with two suitcases. He worked odd jobs during the day, spent his nights making music, slowly collecting money to buy basic equipment for his garage studio. This marked the start of Amritpal becoming AP.
“In the beginning, nobody wanted to work with me. All the labels told me it ain’t gonna work. So, I had two options. One is give up and listen to their advice; the second is to do what my heart tells me to do,” he says in the series, adding how he decided to prove everyone wrong. It was in Canada that he met fellow bandmates Gurinder Gill, a singer, and lyricist-singer Shinda Kahlon. His slew of singles — ‘Fake’, followed by ‘Faraar’ — in 2019 paved the way for his first hit, ‘Majhail’, in June 2020. He followed it up with ‘Excuses’ in July, which became a hit in India and Pakistan. Both made it to the Official Charts Company (UK Asian and UK Punjabi Chart). His “desi geet” and “trap beat” have since made him one of the most streamed artistes in the world. His latest single, ‘With You’, charted in the top 40 Spotify Global Charts, the highest ever for a Punjabi song. It is no coincidence that AP’s career coincides with Swedish audio streaming giant Spotify’s foray into India in 2019.
His understated vocals set AP apart from most of the high-on-adrenaline Punjabi singers — the softness accentuated by his play of “sophisticated pop, smooth R&B and catchy hip-hop”. In 2022, ‘Excuses’ by AP (even though a 2020 release) was the most-streamed song on Spotify in India, with over 19 crore streams in the year, followed by Ali Sethi’s global hit ‘Pasoori’ and Arijit Singh’s ‘Kesariya’. In March this year, he became the first-ever Punjabi artiste to perform at Canada’s coveted Juno Awards. In an article for CBC Music, music critic Jeevan K Sangha called his appearance “a historic indication of a new era of Canadian music, where a Punjabi act can be celebrated in the mainstream...” He had performed alongside the likes of Avril Lavigne and Tate McRae. “I am happy that this brown skin is finally getting recognised,” AP had said on the red carpet.
If his 2021 India tour went houseful even in non-Punjabi-dominated places like Goa and Hyderabad, a year later, he was touring North America, with thousands of goras attending his shows alongside desis and grooving to his music, if not singing along. At the New York leg, he had top American rapper Nas introducing him as the “newest, greatest artiste in the world”. This journey to global fame and recognition was done in just four years, and this is what makes AP’s rise extraordinary.
A quiet child growing up in Gurdaspur, music was his only means of expression. His passion owes itself to his father’s interest in music and poetry. “Our home was always reverberating with the melodies of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Bade Ghulam Ali Khan, Jagjit Singh and Pankaj Udhas. Amrit imbibed it all, but was always clear about his own interests. Whenever he was performing at school, college or anywhere else, he would pick up the guitar and hand over the harmonium to his friends,” says his father Rashpal Singh, a civil engineer with the Punjab Government’s PWD (B&R). However, AP never thought of taking up music professionally. “He assumed that as my father had never allowed me to take up music as a career, even I would not appreciate Amrit becoming a musician,” shares Rashpal.
‘Brown Munde’ was certainly the game-changer in AP’s success story. Featuring singers such as Sidhu Moosewala, Steel Banglez and Nav, it spoke of the amplified reach of Punjabi/South Asian singers sweeping Bollywood; on a larger level though, it was an ode to the diaspora. In no time, it became an anthem for all the brown boys. The song remained at No. 1 on the Official Punjabi Music Chart Top 20 in the UK for months in a row. AP Dhillon — the man, the band — was branded a hitmaker. The album that followed, ‘Not By Chance’, reaffirmed that his music was no fluke.
‘Brown Munde’ also made the industry sit up and take notice. “I felt Punjabi artistes could become global stars. His music was appealing to not just those who follow Hindi or Punjabi. The vibe of his music, the quality of music production were all as good as global sounds, just as K-Pop or Latin music. He made us sound truly international,” says lyricist-producer Bunty Bains.
Canada-based lyricist Gill Raunta says the musical treatment of ‘Brown Munde’ was amazing. “Here was a guy whose singing style was a total shift from the ‘folk gayaki’ of Punjab,” he says. This was reiterated by DJ-broadcaster Bobby Friction in the series. He recalled how when he first played AP on radio, people asked him what that was and why they were singing like this.
“It sounded very unusual to me at first, but had such a catchy tune and it grew on me. This is what set AP on an upward track. The video amplified the song. There is no denying that he marketed it well and made it reach wherever there were Punjabis. ‘Brown Munde’ secured his place in the Punjabi music industry,” Raunta says.
Something similar had happened with AP’s father. Rashpal recalls: “I would hear his songs so many times and not quite like them initially. It wasn’t my kind of music. But then, I found myself listening to them all day in my car. In fact, before Amrit went public with his music, we had a discussion on this. He told me that there was a huge gap between world and Punjabi music. He said the world was listening to something totally different. Why can’t we mould Punjabi into that music, he asked me. He said he wanted to bring global recognition to Punjabi.” And AP did it.
Navprit Kaur, who teaches political science at Kurukshetra University’s Institute of Integrated Studies, is an ardent student of popular culture and Punjabi music. She feels that more than talent, today’s Punjabi musicians are a result of democratisation of the music industry. “If the cassette industry dictated terms earlier, the reach of an artiste today is no longer bound by an institutionalised system. There are reels and there are influencers,” she says.
Hungarian scholar Julia Szivak, who has researched Bollywood and Punjabi music for several years now, would like to make sense of AP’s success in the framework of global cultural flows. “The Punjabi music industry is robust and the music is widely popular in India and abroad. There are two factors behind it: first, the Punjabi diaspora is getting bigger and prouder. Second, the popularity of Punjabi music is not confined to Punjabi communities, partially thanks to Bollywood. Canada is one of the leading locations of Punjabi music production these days.”
She says the Punjabi music scene in Canada has been especially vibrant. “Just think of Moosewala and his impact on Punjabi communities globally. There is an audience, a production ecosystem and curiosity as well.”
At the recent launch of 91 North Records, a joint venture between Warner Music Canada and Warner Music India that aims to support artistes of South Asian heritage, Warner Music India’s MD Jay Mehta said they aimed to not only celebrate the musical styles of artistes with South Asian heritage, but also leverage the market potential of uniting two distinct fan bases.
Rashpal Singh recalls how one day, AP called him and said: “In the end, we will all be stories, and that he wanted to do something that brings the world together.” AP is doing his bit. And the father couldn’t have been more proud.
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