When I was young, I had this strange feeling that the whole world was watching me. Now, this is before I heard of the Truman Show or before Ryan Seacrest monopolized reality TV. This was at a time in my life when the only exposure my three siblings and I had to the outside world were Friday night Punjabi classes, Sunday visits to the Gurudwara, public school, and, sigh, Bollywood.
So I would, in accordance to my own grand delusions, create my day-to-day routine as if I inspired the world's curiosity. I imagined families gathering distant relatives to huddle around their television monitors, voyeurs eager to catch a glimpse of me and my life.
If exhibitionism was a religion, I apointed myself its pope. I dedicated my life to proper posture, righteous decisions, and judging my classmates for their transgressions of inexactitude. I would sit up straight and keep my chin perpendicular to my chest, and try to perfect this 90 degrees angle in all aspects of life. In math class, on my pink BMX, during evening prayers, and while picking apples in my parents' orchard, it was quite the troublesome burden.
It was a burden that I wholeheartedly accepted as one of the befitting hardships of my youth. My classmates must have thought I was strange, perhaps I was. I don't know if I thought my escapism encouraged audience interest or if the lack of interest encouraged more and more outlandish escapes, but whatever it was, my relationship with my audience was cyclical, my mind the responsive medium through which the content of my life was broadcast to the voracious world.
This is all to say this was not the reality. My imagination went beyond exhibitionism, voyeurism, and well, Mark Roberts. It surpassed the absorbing drawl of reality TV, where the producers hold the rights of production and content, and the audience holds only the right to viewership.
Behold, Lilly Singh and Kanwer Singh, better known to the Internet as Superwoman and Humble the Poet respectively, ideological heirs of my imagination.
It was disconcerting to sit across from online personalities without a monitor between us. They are innocuous in the physical space, wearing jeans and t-shirts; but online they have the raw force of Priyanka Chopra and Abhishek Bachchan.
This attraction is not dependent on one specific talent; instead it is the greater sum of their content, personalities, and dedication to their followers -- the holy trinity of my childhood devotions. Their work tells viewers they aren't alone, that moral stories can be feel good ones. Their angle is to universalize content so it can be shared with all and understood by all.
Of course, universalizing content is a hard thing to do. It's hard not to break the population down by gender, location, ethnic background, accessibility, economic class. It's their honest, emotion-grabbing approach to content that has allowed them to turn a passive audience into a cult following. One-sided engagement? Leave that to Kris Humphries.
Our interview was scheduled at 1 p.m. on Sunday, the night after Humble's epic birthday celebration following the release of their hit song and music video. We were talked out, danced out, and well, overall tired.
Raji Aujla: How did this all begin?
Humble the Poet: At the beginning of May I went to LA to shoot a video and it lined up with Superwoman's trip to L.A. So we hung out together for a week as she helped me with my video shoot
Superwoman: Please insert here that I'm a very good friend [laughs]
HP: A very very good friend! And when we talk, I always respond by saying "Leh" [in Punjab it's a common phrase roughly comparable to "whatevs"]. And she had the idea that we should make a song called "Leh".
SW: I have to say that I do this a lot. A friend will be talking about something, and I'll always say, we should do something about this. Or we should make a video about this. It never really happens. This actually happened because Humble actually followed up.
RA: So why did you follow up?
HP: I thought it was a wonderful idea. Not everybody gets to collaborate with her.
SW: Leh [laughs]
RA: There were a bunch of firsts in making this: Superwoman, you've taken a big step into the music scene, Humble into music for the masses. Was the collaboration an equal one?
SW: Well, yeah, I wrote my verses. In terms of writing, Humble wrote his verses as well as the hook, which is the best part of the song. In terms of workload, I do feel at times, he did more work than me.
HP: I think when you look at this holistically; in the long term you're going to see all of the exposure the track garnered came from Superwoman. At this point she doesn't have to do anything but tweet the track once released, and it picks up. That's a result of three years of groundwork, which I think is incredible. The analogy I think is that she's the gun and I'm the bullet. We'll constantly be looking at what we both can bring to the table where she excels in certain departments and I excel in others.
RA: What did each of you bring to the collaboration?
HP: I think I brought the experience; Superwoman is a ridiculously talented content creator who posts constantly, although the medium is extremely different. If one of her videos doesn't get a lot of views, she can redeem herself in the next. There's just not as much pressure in YouTube production as when you're releasing a musical track. In music, you put out a song and it's going to get played over and over and over again, so you have to make sure it is everything it can be.
SW: I know the video platform so so so well. I know the perfect mixture of how comedic a piece has to be, what the video has to be like, what the song has to sound like, to make it successful.
HP: There was no head butting. She knew what her fans were going to like and we worked from there. We were able to look at the context. It really felt like the labor was perfectly divided.
RA: This project is unique. There were no record producers, radio stations, anything that supports you in a traditional way yet it was very successful. Do you think there's a new model coming into being in terms of artistic production?
SW: Independent content these days can be more successful than previously because of the power of social media. However, there are still systems in place to make sure independent artists don't get as far as signed ones. I was confident because of my past experiences with everything that I do, we would be able to tweet radio stations and they would get bombarded with tweets to play our song, but clearly, it doesn't work like that. You still need x amount of money, x amount of people behind you and a record label to have your song on the radio, in North America at least. And we've been into countless meetings where they've told us that it doesn't matter how many hits you get, if you're not with a record label, radio will not play your song. In other parts of the world, we have been on mainstream radio stations. Singapore, India...
SW: Yup [smiles]
SW: This track has been overwhelming all over the world, and even with my colleagues in the YouTube community, they've really showed their support and have shared it. But there are definitely some obstacles in terms of the traditional.
HP: Of course if you said this 20 years ago, you had none of the resources we do today to distribute your song. If you wanted to have the world hear your music, you could only play at smaller clubs and salons. Internet became that equalizer. But still, a lot of us tech folks lose sight of how powerful traditional media still is. Our generation still places a higher value on television than on YouTube. The next generation, 13 - 14 now, they don't care, I don't think they see the difference. There's still a lot of places, especially in the States, that haven't caught up yet, they're still paper and pen, listening to the radio, buying CDs. So that's something we didn't even take into consideration. I mean we can do it, but for us to successfully do it, that means we'd have to dedicate ourselves to this full time. We created "Leh" by dedicating the last six weeks to work. We're kind of at that crossroads where if we wanted to break through the next boundary something else in our lives would have to suffer.
RA: We're now able to connect with the outside world without being there, which only makes connecting in any human way more difficult. How do you manage to make your connection with your audience so affecting?
SW: I first started making videos by playing the Indian girl and now I realize you don't have to do that. The reason "Leh" is so successful is because it doesn't speak to a niche market, I mean Humble wears a turban but he doesn't just speak to Sikh people. All the concepts in "Leh" are extremely universal. People will have an emotional attachment to it because it applies to them. That's how I make my content as well. I mean, I can make a video called "Indian Girls on their Period" and immediately Indian girls will be like I connect to this so much and other girls will say this doesn't apply to me. But we all get our period in the same way, and if you just take out the word Indian, suddenly those same people who thought it doesn't apply love it.
RA: And in music?
HP: I still think comedy is the go-to way of connecting. The best way to disagree with a point is by showing the humor in agreeing to it. I once had the idea that rather than make a music video directed to the first world where people rap about nice cars, what if I made a video in the third world boasting about having running water or a working toilet or two parents, right? I'm doing the same thing any other rapper would do: I'm drawing attention to what other people in the world don't have by putting it into another context for people.
Then there's the emotional aspect. You see all those dove commercials making girls feel beautiful and talking about insecurities, it tugs on an emotional artery. There's a lot of real ass shit, but we're not really feeling it, we just wanna sit on Twitter and hashtag it. When LeBron James' trade is trending more than Gaza, then you have to start asking why. It makes sense, of course we're living lives so short on free time, we just want to veg, and we don't want stress about kids dying and stuff. People are working 40-50 hours a week. They wanna hear about what LeBron's doing or what Kim Kardashian's wearing.
RA: Do you shape your content around this?
HP: My three rules are: Shake your ass, shake your heart, and shake your mind. I'll try to do all three in one song. With "Leh," like Superwoman said, it's very universal. I hope it can be timeless as well. Instagram will be relevant in 10 years. Keeping things very broad will appeal to a broad audience, and keeping things timeless requires a substance that will keep it alive. During a live Q&A somebody said don't make sell out music, and I can't help but think, if you aren't making music for the masses, than keep it to yourself. If you're making music for the people, then pay attention to what they want.
SW: Amen to that.