Not many 23-year-olds can say that they’ve hosted a radio show, been part of a slam-poetry team, starred in countless theatre productions, and released two EPs, but for one Richmond-born rapper with South Asian roots, these are just a few accolades on a performance-filled résumé that continues to grow.
Charismatic, upbeat, and poised to drop rhymes at any second, it might come as a surprise that Jasleen Powar, who goes by Horsepowar on stage, never planned to get into hip hop. It was the Bollywood enthusiast’s encounter at Café Deux Soleils’ youth poetry slam that first spurred her interest in the art of verse and balladry.
“I was too scared to get up there and read my stuff at first, but I started watching every chance I could,” says Powar on her cellphone from Victoria, where she’s finishing a degree in applied theatre at UVIC.
“I got to link up with a lot of cool people. They’d come up to me and say that I had a neat flow, and that it sounded like rap,” she said. “It wasn’t so foreign for me to rhyme and to vibe, but we weren’t allowed music so I guess I just did it my way.”
It wasn’t until Powar’s second year of university—in the thick of what she refers her “let’s fuck shit up” party stage—that she began experimenting with joke rap.
The first song she ever wrote, called “Dank Pu$$”, was produced by a friend who went by the name of Fascist. “It was a style he was down for, and it was super obnoxious and vulgar, but he was as invested as I was, so it was fun,” she remembers.
But much like an all-night college bender, it didn’t take long for the pleasantries to fade. “Joke rap only takes you so far,” says Powar.
“Saying shit to try and trip people up was fun, but it wasn’t really who I was,” she says, emphasizing that it wasn’t music she was proud of, especially because she wasn’t comfortable sharing it with her parents or young nieces and nephews.
“I needed to remove myself from that world, and ask what good music actually is and what it talks about,” says Powar.
Her latest release, a five-track EP titled Bollywoes, trades in tongue-in-cheek vulgarity for real-life experiences, chronicling the struggles a Desi girl living in suburbia. Loaded with samples from Powar’s favourite Bollywood movies, the EP starts off with the artist dropping verses at breakneck speed over a whistled tune on “www.desigurl.com”. It’s subtle, but a great way to ease listeners into a style that at times becomes much more aggressive. Take “Queen”, for example. Powar’s perfect blend of downright dirty hip-hop beats and flamboyant Bollywood samples will have you wondering whether you should be twerking or “installing light bulbs”.
Powar sticks to a mellow flow on “Hold Me Homies”, a coming-of-age track that drops references to her neighborhood in Richmond and the quirks that come with being the daughter of immigrant parents: “Us Desi girls trying to live this double life/parents came from the Ketha for a better life/all they wanted was for their culture to survive”.
Things really come alive on the EP’s last track, “Best Actress Award Goes to Rob Schneider”, as Powar rhymes about making it big over a hypnotizing blend of sitars and strings.
Of the EP, Powar says “It’s 110 percent me,” but she recognizes that she’s not the only one who can identify with the lyrics.
“My older family has this old way of thinking, and now you have these new age Indian kids who are trying to battle this hybrid life. It’s a struggle, because there are certain aspects of my culture that I’m not necessarily proud of,” she says.
“If I marry someone who’s not Punjabi, I’m not going to have that support. It’s not even just an Indian thing; I’m rapping about what a lot of girls who are children of immigrant parents are feeling.”
While she isn’t focused on pursuing a career in acting unless her Bollywood career takes off, her vision for Horsepowar is much bigger than just rap.
“I see myself as super big. I like interviewing, broadcasting, acting, fashion, and I want to create as many forms of art as I can under Horsepowar,” she says.
“I haven’t even gotten to where I want to sound and how I want to be perceived. I’m finding it and evolving, but I need to forget about views and likes and focus on the craft.”
While she hasn’t planned any shows for the near future, Powar plans to release another EP by the end of the year.