Most students wait until after graduation to start making their mark on the world, but Jasleen Powar already has something to sing about. Graduating with a BFA in theatre on June 15, the 24-year-old Powar has been making waves as Vancouver rapper Horsepowar, thanks to a trio of independent album releases, gigs at high-profile music festivals like Rifflandia and South by Southwest, and the kind of media attention most emerging artists only dream about.
But it’s her unflinching rhymes and powerhouse Sikh-Canadian “Desi girl” persona (a term for girls born outside of South Asia but still upholding traditional values) that have earned the attention of the likes of CBC, Nylon, Vice, Rolling Stone India and The Georgia Straight. Horsepowar was also profiled in the Postmedia newspaper chain on June 8, with this feature of her running nationally in the Vancouver Sun, The Province, Calgary Herald, Edmonton Journal, Montreal Gazette, Calgary Herald and Ottawa Citizen.
As GQ India recently wrote when they named her one of the “Indian rappers to have on your playlist,” Powar is “what you get when you allow an opinionated slam poet with a (dare we say, unhealthy) obsession with ’90s Bollywood to take the microphone.”
In the nine months since it was released, her 2015 track “Queen” has earned nearly 65,000 YouTube views—not too bad for a suburban Richmond girl who, like many daughters of immigrant parents, looked to university as an acceptable way to move out before marriage.
“I wanted my independence, and UVic was far enough from the Lower Mainland but close enough for my parents’ comfort,” Powar explains about why she came here to study theatre. “It’s the same duality I write about in my music: being a Desi girl and having a lot of respect for my parents’ upbringing, but finding their views so backward from how I feel as a Canadian girl in 2016.”
Indeed, UVic’s acclaimed theatre program turned out to be an ideal fit for Powar, who left high school with both a theatre scholarship and a burgeoning reputation as a slam poet. It was here on campus someone first suggested throwing beats under her poetry, and where she did her first live rap performance (at Felicita’s), but UVic is also where she realized the true value of studying theatre.
“Everything you learn in theatre is so useful for whatever direction in life you choose to go,” she says. “It teaches you how to take a leadership role and manage a large group of people, how to work cooperatively and how to have the confidence to just get up there and do what you feel.”
Powar singles out her time working with applied theatre professor Kirsten Sadeghi-Yekta as a highlight—specifically the outreach program at the downtown Salvation Army. “I did a couple months at their rehab centre doing weekly writing workshops with men who had been released from prison,” she recalls. “It was a really interesting experience for me as a young woman of colour to be working with all men—and all white men—trying to teach them something about writing. But part of applied theatre is learning to think on your feet; by contrast, I’m about to teach two spoken-word workshops at a Langley middle school, and I learned all that in theatre.”
Recently back from a trip to India that saw her performing in Delhi and shooting a new music video (that had Nylon magazine noting, “Horsepowar’s ‘Hi Everybody’ got right what Coldplay’s ‘Hymn for the Weekend’ got wrong”), Powar is confident that everything is going according to plan. Her March appearance at South by Southwest music fest saw her performing not only solo but also as part of both the Canadian and South Asian hip-hop showcases.
“It reassured me that there’s a niche and a demographic that have never felt represented in rap before. Sure, we have [Hindu rapper] M.I.A., but that’s just one person and one story—I can tell a whole other story, and people feel a connection with me.”
Powar links that connection with both her upbringing and her theatre training. “In high school, the brown kids didn’t think I was brown enough, but when I started pulling out these stories about being a Desi girl, people began to connect. There’s so many of us out there—not just Indian or South Asian, but any first-generation children of immigrant parents living that dual life: what our parents want for us versus what we want for ourselves. And my forte with this whole Horsepowar thing is performance, which brings me back to the theatre world.”
When asked about how she’s making all the right moves—being featured as the poster girl for the 2016 Vancouver international Bhangra Festival, for instance—Powar simply puts it down to hard work. “The internet is a really useful tool, if you use it right and are strategic . . . the cool hunters are always out there looking for the next someone, and they’re always talking.”
She also credits her overseas supporters. “India has a billion people—that’s a lot of people who can connect you with someone else in the world—and it has shown me a lot of love. GQ India released my EP on an exclusive stream before I even released it for download, and that was really cool.” Powar pauses and smiles. “India’s got my back—I love it!”
This story originally ran in the June 2016 issue of UVic’s Ring newspaper