A man of many names, talents and dreams, South London born Raf-Saperra is a shining example of what it means to be ‘British’ in 2021. Raf has dedicated the past decade learning from the masters of Punjabi Folk – offering a succinct vocal presence in a new world of emerging artists, breathing new life – yet staying true to – the rhythms of his ancestors, all whilst directing some of the biggest videos for artists in his respective field.
We sat down with Raf this week to learn a bit more about him and his journey.
So we can get the core of yourself to The Basement, tell us a bit about yourself.
My name’s Raf-Saperra, I’m a Punjabi folk vocalist hailing from South London – the town of Streatham to be exact, and yeah, I’m just me. That’s about it.
How’s your week been?
Yeah it’s been alright. I had a video shoot two days ago so literally since then I’ve been banging out the edits so that’s probably what the rest of my week’s gonna be looking like. Just editing away.
When did you start making music?
In terms of making music, I’ll be totally honest, it’s been very recent. I would say November 2020 is when I stepped into the scene as a recording artist so as you can imagine I’m a baby to the music scene. But in terms of my exposure to music, and especially the kind of music I’m involved in – folk music and South Asian Folk music in particular, this goes back as far as 2012, maybe even 2011.
I remember it was just when I started Sixth Form, around that time, I started taking music a bit more seriously in terms of finding someone who’s tutorage I can be under, and start learning. I started off with a classical teacher, who was teaching Indian classical music, building my knowledge, with different skills, ragas or raags as they’re called in Indian classical music, and just building my foundation over them. And it wasn’t really ever a case of ‘rah I’m gonna become a singer’, or that I even wanted to do music or anything, but more about how I enjoy music when someone is doing a certain rhythmic cycle, because the word for the rhythmic cycle in Indian music is taal, and it’s a whole load of different taal’s sometimes. You’ve got 16 beat cycles, 7 beat cycles – you might have something which is like six and a half beats, so it’s all maths and science in that sense. And how do you enjoy this? You learn it.
I’d start by thinking this might be a ‘major skill raag’, or this might be a ‘minor skill raag’, and think what emotions evoke from certain skills, and even in terms of Indian classical music, it’s certain raags – according to elders, should be practised at certain times. You might have a pre dawn raga, that you have to wake up at like 3/4am to practise. And that raag might be a minor skill raag, for example Bhairavi, or Bhairav, which is a popular skill in Punjabi folk music, and one of my favourites. Now that I can sit here and talk about it, and to be fair a lot of people are seeing me like ‘rah this guy just done his debut in November and it’s only April 2021 and he’s blowing up quick’, but people haven’t seen the struggle, grind and discipline that’s gone in behind the scenes for a decade, or even more.
And then I guess from that you learned through doing?
Yeah it was one thing at a time, so like as I mentioned it was my classical teacher that first started teaching me, and around that time I was in between shitty jobs trying to make ends meet. I’m a huge fan of a UK music producer who’s a prolific name in the UK Punjabi industry called Tru-Skool, and through my grind and being within this very niche and small circuit of folk music lovers, one thing led to another I ended up meeting him at a music video shoot and I was fortunate enough to end up under his tutelage for some time.
I didn’t get to spend a lot of time with him, but the time we did spend together really opened up my eyes. That was maybe 2015, and directly after that my personal life kicked in, and I was forced to be the man of the house and all this music stuff went out the window. Going back quickly, one of my good mates saw me performing at an event called Bhangra Showdown in 2012 at the HMV Apollo. I think it was around 4000 people – the whole venue was booked and sold out, and it’s essentially a traditional Punjab night where universities compete. But over here a lot of people were doing PA sets, so they’d put a banging mix on and the Bhangra crew would dance to it, but what was different about ours was we did a live set – basically how it’s done in the village you know, a live drum player, live flutes and live dancing, and me, live vocals. I don’t know if this should go to print, cos it’s a bit of a controversial competition, but I was still in sixth form at the time so I didn’t go to a uni, so these guys just made some fake uni IDs and said I was with them, and we went on to won. There was a bit of politics after that and we got eventually got disqualified.
So at the time all of this was going on in the background, but when family shit kicked off I left the music scene and the only thing that gave me solace at that time was cinema and films. From 2015 til mid 2019 it was an uninterrupted passion, like the hyperbolic time chamber from Dragon Ball Z, my life was nothing but cinema, screenwriting, directing and photography. I had nothing to do with music. So how I see it, now that I’m in front of the camera and I’m doing music and my ting’s popped off, that’s why the audio visual package is very important with me as an artist cause they both represent me as a person. My videos look how they look because I’m directing them, and they sound how they sound because I’m singing. It’s been a weird journey to be totally honest.
So growing up who were your inspirations? Don’t have to be musicians or singers, who took a great influence in your life?
To be totally honest without trying to sound mad corny, the relationship I had with my mother, she was my homie and my biggest critic at the same time. Whether it’s because the line of music I’m in is obviously Punjabi but I’m born and bred in this country. When we’re going to school and talking to our bredrins we’re all talking in English, we’re writing and reading in English, and technically I’m a first generation child from this country cos my Mum and Dad are from back home. So naturally it was a very traditional Desi environment at home, but when learning Punjabi there are little things in terms of pronunciation that UK born children miss out on. So getting that traditional training from her like ‘you’re pronouncing this wrong, or like look this is how it’s written’ and getting my own schooling and criticism from her. Even down to when I was a kid she’d randomly give me a verse or a chorus from an Asian song to just sing. I’d never know why but she’d proper bribe man as well – she was like ‘If you get this right, I’ll get you that game’. I was like shit that’s a no brainer.
But from a very young age that helped me grab onto melody. I’d go to her like ‘Yo mum look is it like this’, she’d be like ‘nah you ain’t got it right go back and do that again’. I didn’t really know why she was doing that to be honest cause we’re not really from a musical family – we love music and I’ve had a lot of music around me whilst growing up, with a traditional South Asian family, my Dad much older than my Mum so we grew up with a young Mum and naturally we grew up with the music she was bumping. So in terms of musical influence, she was listening to a lot of groovy like old school Bollywood soundtracks, composers like Kalyanji, Anandji, Burman. Then at the same time she’s a young Mum so she was still bumping what was playing in the UK. I’m a 90’s kid but the influence, there was a lot of Quincy Jones and she really fucked with Michael Jackson, and because I’m the youngest of three siblings, I got to see the music they were into. My brother was listening to anything from Wu Tang to Black Sabbath, and then my sister was listening to a lot of UK Bhangra and there’s me, the kind of person I am in general, I was observing all of this and soaking it all in. Even if I didn’t like it at that time, the melodies, even the BPM’s, I had the good fortune of just marinating around all of this. Even that to some extent was training my ear.
One thing I would solemnly swear on, more so in particular with South Asian music, I always had a bit of a pull towards – even with western music, was always folk. Most modern genres today are connected with Blues, and I feel Blues is basically American folk. That has its own rich history you know, where did Blues come from, at what time did Blues really come from, and the people who were pushing it. The history’s there man, this was still very raw earthy music in a sense and it’s got his own pull, and I was always drawn towards that sound, whether it’s in Punjabi folklore, folk music, even the certain melodies that are in Punjabi folk music. If I had to give you some names from the Punjabi scene – we’re from West Punjab basically, which falls under Pakistan, so we had like a lot of Qawwali music, and I can’t really describe Qawwali as a genre within itself. The guy that we listen to most, is a person called Nusrat Faheh Ali Khan and yeah bro those very kind of macho, high octave but really soulful singing styles is something I was proper susceptible to, and it’s something I still try to maintain in in what I’m doing today.
Yeah bro 100%. There’s certain parts of my life I can only remember cos of the music, and when I hear that music again it all comes back
Takes you somewhere else bro.
So coming from then I guess your past few years, what’s been the most challenging part coming back to full time music. Would you say you’re full time music? Or a bit of a hybrid right now?
You know what it is, I’m just full time hustling bro. The reality is whatever I’m gonna put out there as a recording artist, my aim is for it to always be audio visual so I can’t really ever switch off as a director and not to say I don’t trust other directors, there’s a lot of capable directors out there, probably some better than me, but there’s no one I feel, within the capacity of UK Punjabi music, I don’t think anyone is able to get that marriage of keeping things unapologetically British yet at the same time, in terms of musically, keeping it so traditional, because it’s usually one or the other and what I feel I’m starting to do is build my own niche and it’s bringing a lot of attention towards me still. This shit sounds like something our parents were bumping on their vinyls, but the beats dope and the videos dope as well, so this doesn’t make sense – you have our attention, but it’s just making sure I’m not abusing that and I’m not getting too comfortable, you know I’m still a baby in this bro, you know, November I’ve got shit loads of work to be putting out, so for that reason it’s full time hustling and as far as I know bro, films, music, as I mentioned earlier I’m gonna be dropping a video with one of the biggest Punjabi artists on planet earth right now, Sidhu Moose Wala, and my involvement in that project is solely within the capacity of a director.
In terms of legendary producers like Punjabi MC coming out showing love, saying you know we wanna work with you, he’s got an album coming out so I might be featuring on that then obviously we’ll probably do a single together. So that’s what I’m saying, music’s still going on, and at the same time film wise, still directing bro even the last shoot I did, we’ve got Tion Wayne featuring on that. You can mention this, produced by Steel Banglez, featuring artist Tion Wayne, main artist Sidhu Moose Wala. Even at the shoot its culture bro, I’m celebrating the fact that I am a south Asian and UK has its south Asian culture, you ain’t from ends if you ain’t got it down with your local shop. You know what your local shop looks like, you know who Bossman is, it’s all community fam. Our London culture and our kind of hood culture is the same, you could be White, Black, Brown or Chinese and if you say ‘Wagwan’, you know ‘wagwan fam’. In the same breath, its pushing that to the world and I don’t think people have really seen that from the UK ever, you’ve got Sidhu Moose Wala then you’ve got D Double E, we had him in the video as well and you know, it’s a very big look but at the same time I just wanna push UK culture as much as I can. Despite me being a South Asian artist, mans from ends. I’m gonna show how a Punjabi artist from Streatham done it and do it in a way that’s pushing forwards the culture and pushing forwards the art, pushing forwards something for the streets ultimately.
Amazing. So when it comes to creating a new track, what’s your process like?
To be fair I’ve taken a very kind of traditional approach, I feel in today’s scene the guys I would say there’s been different changes over the years with Punjabi music, maybe in the golden era that late 70s early 80s, around that time the market was led by something else. It was more your live singing and more singer focused around that time. Then when UK Bhangra exploded I’d say from the late 80s early 90s, it became a producer led industry, it was all about who’s making the music, who’s the producer on it. Coming back to Sukshinder Shinda, the pioneer of that 90s sound, coming into early 2000s, so now bro the industry is very writer and lyrics led. Doesn’t matter how sick you can sing, it’s all about how dope your lyrics are. I feel that’s a huge hip hop influence that’s come over Punjab, cos Hip-Hop is essentially who’s the dopest MC. I’ve taken my approach more traditional, like the 70s and 80s era where there’d be a relation between a singer and a songwriter.
So the process with me is I’m all about the melody, I don’t really feel that this is a composition or a melody that, if I can’t pour it out from my soul, despite how people may approach it like oh you know, major skill songs are popular now – fuck that man. What can my soul pour out. I always focus on the melody first, once I like the melody I chat to the lyricist and we can start going. I’ll let the music make itself in that sense – what is the melody speaking to me. And through the knowledge that I’ve gained, is this a minor skill or a major skill, ok cool what emotions am I getting from this melody, then I relay that over to the lyricist like look bro, this is the kind of song that I want. This is the subject type, it might be all about gun chat, like this one needs to be all about blowing man’s heads off, this might be something like, my debut track was ultimately an alcohol track, it’s one for the clubs, it’s one to have a full on piss up to. But at the same time it’s balancing what I like with what the masses like, trying to find that nice balance and marriage between a product that’s true to me but still palatable to a wider, commercial market. Essentially everything I’ve made so far has been music that I’ve made for myself, but you know, that’s not how you sell either man. I wanna really take part. I’m still learning I’d say.
Are you directing all your own videos?
Yeah yeah. I don’t really like mixing the two, as in all my directing work is under the name and the director of Adeel Kureshii, that’s just what I credit all my directing work with. Yeah man to be fair whatever you more lean towards, you might not know who the fuck I am but you might see my video and if that captures you a bit more, or if you watch and like my vocals and my performance captures you more you might reach out to Raf but the benefit is, I’m both of them.
That’s like a Hannah Montana, Miley Cyrus situation. How did you find lockdown been?
Lockdown, you know what bro there’s been a lot of negative connotations attached and naturally there should be cause it’s been a fucked up time for everyone. But at the same time, the reason I’m on this interview with you lot is because of lockdown. So what happened is that Bhangra competition I was talking to you about, one of my guys who I didn’t know at the time he watched that and said listen, ‘You’re sick but you have this very distinct vocal tone that you can’t really learn and you should stick at music, cos with that tone you can do a lot of whatever’. I got back into it, because of him. He’s a songwriter as well based in Birmingham, and his point was, we connected after years later, he was like, sing, I sang after 3 or 4 years of no vocal training, I’d just been out of music and he was like bro you still have that tone, you can do it, he really gave me that push. He released an album that I featured one track on and it was a devotional album but that put some eyes on me.
Looking back it was nowhere near enough eyes, but that gave me encouragement to do a commercial track. We made the song, we made the beat, going back and forth in the studio now it’s time to shoot a video, I’ve got all my guys ready, I’ve never done this before it’s my debut, and literally two days before the shoot, things were moving weird. Everyone was shook in the first lockdown, no one knew what was going on, shops were closing, so literally two days before Boris calls a lockdown so I was like oh shit, im in this musical swing and I don’t know what it was but something encouraged me to, cos I wasn’t too into social media but I just put out a story saying do you want more singing videos from me on Instagram, and it was a private Insta, just friends like 300 people and people voted yes, so I was there like I’ll save my embarrassment in terms of the world and just perform in this small circuit. I started dropping covers to old school Punjabi songs, all during lockdown, it was just getting bigger and bigger. And being a natural introvert, the music industry is very extroverted, the timing couldn’t be better. I’m now not having to go outside, I’ve got the whole UK indoors and it’s not even any social media algorithm, like ‘let’s not post Friday cos people are going out Saturday / Sunday’ – bro it was nothing. Monday to Sunday everyone’s home and on their phones. I started banging out covers weekly and that shit spread like hot fire.
Because of the fact I was directing I worked with well-established musical artists as a director and now they’re looking at my shit like what the fuck that voice is coming from you. They were really supportive. I don’t know if it was a ‘like if my man’s fucking with him we’re fucking with him’, do you know what im saying. So one cover after another it blew up, then there’s this huge demand for an original song. So from March till September we did the covers, then October I recorded my debut, released it in November, that’s basically been the journey. It’s all been a bit of luck to be honest.
It’s very much just natural talent that obviously hasn’t been lost for time, you’ve been gone four years then you see the same guy and you’ve still got it.
Thank you, but now that music looks like a full time thing I’ve had to get back into serious training, coming like you know now it’s part of also, one thing I would say though now that music is taking a bit of a forefront my practise in music has kind of gone up now but my practise in films has kind of gone down, whereas if I didn’t watch at least six films in a day, I’d start feeling like I need my fix man like yo, like something’s off so I need to kind of find a balance for that as well. But you know then you got real life you got fucking families, you got your domestics so that takes up time as well man. Lets see where it goes.
Who if anyone inspires you style wise when it comes to fashion?
I don’t really have one person in particular, just what I would feel looks nice on me. Sometimes I get criticised for looking like a cartoon character but I like what I like. I would say there’s more of a New York, kind of American fashion sense going on. I fuck with Tommy.
Three favourite brands?
I’d have to say Tommy Hilfiger. I’ll be honest I’m not a brands guy like that man. Big up Primark. Tommy Hilfiger, Billionaire Boys Club and Moscot, I rock a lot of North Face as well. Those three I’d say. I’m more into, I’m very heavy on jackets. You know what I’m saying. Even the shoot I did with you lot my favourite outfits the one with the jackets, the Stoney jacket, that CP jacket. I’m not really driven by brands, if I look sexy, I’m like shit man.
How do you blend your British culture with your Punjabi culture?
No way to mix it, be yourself bro. I’m born and raised on ends, but we’re at yard doing up Asian. I’m a first generation Asian kid, mandem are out here having baths and showers, we had a bucket in our yard bro. you’d be crouching in the bath tub and you’d put that over yourself. No cap, I still prefer that way of, I still have my shower but I’ve still got a fucking bucket bruv. You are naturally British Asian, just be yourself.
Whats your feelings on the farmers protests right now?
It’s ridiculous, the fact is it’s been a year and now there are so many other things building up in India right now. The situation of covid over there is crazy, to the point where it’s almost, another issue at hand its diverted the issue away from farmers protests. But i’ll be totally honest, farmers are a huge part of Punjabi culture and Indian culture, one thing I feel is it shouldn’t become a Punjabi thing. Without me getting into detail, people are trying to pinpoint Punjabis as retaliating or being difficult, but this is a farmers’ protest of people all across India and they’re all sitting out there, it’s coming up to a year now. That’s their livelihood and they’re not even young bro, they’re like elderly people that are old enough to be our Grandfathers or Grandmothers. We need to take it seriously but the worlds in a fucked up situation, I just pray for everyone over there that’s the most I can do. I will continue supporting the farmer protest, I hope it works out in the people’s favour. the constituency, they select the government bro so please listen to the people that have put the government bodies in. Power to the People.
Have there been any struggles as someone of Indian heritage making music within the UK?
It depends how you look at it, I think things have been pretty smooth in terms of the music stuff. There can’t be any difficulty bro, its 2021. I’ve got the mic setup, my guys that produce, the guys who mix, there can’t be difficulty cos there is I feel like a new wave, sub youth kind of movement going on. Not just in Punjabi or in the UK, globally you’re seeing artists coming out of Africa that you’ve never seen before, and the video quality, and the kind of sound and visuals, youngsters all across the globe are taking it and that’s becoming the sound. There’s a bit of a transition in the traditional way things were set out with labels and stuff, nah man, I’ll make music wherever and whenever I can. Maybe a little bit with the directing side of stuff, yeah definitely. That’s been more of a struggle but I’m not one who backs down easy, only now I’d say I’m getting my foot in the door.
It’s great to hear old school Punjabi folk sound in your recent tracks, it’s kind of been missing from the scene, how do you plan on evolving it?
To be fair one thing I’ve always said is I don’t think I’m doing anything new, I just do what I like. I really like a Hip-Hop group, or label under Griselda records, in particular Westside Gunn, he’s a rapper from New York, someone who listens to that East coast sound in Hip-Hop, which is very prominent in my music, my Punjabi music, whether it’s the drum patterns or bass, I like my shit sounding like it was cooked up in New York between 93 and 96. That’s my shit. I’m gonna give you music that feels soulful, feels true to me, but we’ll evolve it by the way it looks. That’s my biggest USP in this game, there’s no one else that is a vocalist and a director. I call the shots.
You collaborated with DJ Frenzy, are there future projects with you two? Who else would you love to collaborate with?
Frenzy, that’s bro. We’re definitely gonna be working on some stuff, waiting for the right time. We’re in a good place right now, things are slowly starting to open up. I wanna work with producer wise, Sukshinder Shinda, Punjabi MC, in terms of artists, Sidhu Moose Wala, even outside of the Punjabi music scene, just working with artists over here, whether they’re uk artists like Steel Banglez, rappers I’ve grown up listening to, especially that south London beat, Giggs, Krept and Konan, artists we should value who’ve had their struggle in pushing UK culture, things are easy for us now bro. Things weren’t easy for these guys. Now it’s mainstream music, it is on radio, it is British. A few years back that wasn’t the case, Brits weren’t played on the radio like we are today. Essentially I’m here to work with anyone, as long as it’s pushing the culture forward, as long as the artists are being true to themselves.
Amazing. I think we’re done. That’s definitely one of the most inspirational conversations I’ve had in a long time.
Jheeeeeeeeez. I told you I’m gonna make this one painful bro.