Changing brands, shifting sites and sights

A reflection on 5X Festival’s programming challenges

When Delhi 2 Dublin founding member Tarun Nayar was appointed Artistic Director for Vancouver International Bhangra Celebration Society (VIBC), it was clear that the annual City of Bhangra Festival would be undergoing some major changes.1

We are Bhangra - poster for City of Bhangra festival 2011

The 2011 poster for the City of Bhangra Festival.

Since 2004, not-for-profit VIBC has brought Punjabi dance, music, and folk artistry to Vancouver. Vancouver and neighbouring city, Surrey, are home to among North America's largest and most diverse diasporic Punjabi communities. VIBC has striven to raise the visibility of bhangra – the popular dance and music form from Punjab that rapidly became the dominant expression of Punjabis in diaspora2 – in Vancouver, to declare it part of the multicultural fabric of the uniquely diverse Canadian city.

This public performance of bhangra originally served as an assertion of the Punjabi diaspora's belonging in the Canadian public, as Canadian multiculturalism is predicated on the ability to both perform a common public identity (i.e. Canadian-ness) and contribute a minority expression that is different-but-not-too-different enough to enrich the mainstream public.3 The 2011 poster for the event played on this theme, displaying six people standing in an elevator: two South Asian, two black, and two white, with text reading "we are Bhangra." The point was to show that bhangra, despite its South Asian origins, could belong to everyone.

We are Bhangra - poster for City of Bhangra festival 2011

The 2011 poster for the City of Bhangra Festival.

The relaunch of City of Bhangra as 5X Fest shifts the attention back to the Punjabi community, telling its audiences they can now come to Surrey to experience the festival's banner event. The multi-site festival holds its main Block Party in Surrey, with smaller art/music events in Vancouver. This new festival reveals how South Asian diasporic popular culture, as its communities grow in size, feels much less of an urge to perform multicultural compatibility. This sentiment is epitomized by the proud declaration on the front page of 5X Fest's 2019 edition website: "This one's for us." But who, exactly, "us" refers to is a much more complicated issue.

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Shot of the Vancouver Art Gallery front plaza from 2016 City of Bhangra Festival. Image via Facebook, used with permission from VIBC.

City of Bhangra Festival, under Nayar's artistic direction, was transformed in 2018 into 5X Fest – 5X referring obliquely to the five rivers of undivided Punjab. What began as an assertion of Punjabi presence and belonging in urban Vancouver morphed into a sampling of South Asian artists – who are popular on social media – gathering and performing for South Asian audiences in Vancouver and Surrey. The process strongly parallels the development of bhangra in diaspora, as early Punjabi immigrants to Western cities performed bhangra as a way of retaining folk roots amid Western life. Second-generation Punjabis merged bhangra with Western popular styles until the creative form eventually returned to Punjab as a popular, mass-mediated style. Bhangra has since become the iconic expression of a global, cosmopolitan Punjab: a move from traditional, to hybridized, to globalized.4

City of Bhangra addressed the immigrant anxiety of losing their home culture, while 5X Fest moves forward from the original dream having been realized. As Nayar explains, "I think the goal was to sort of be like, ‘Yo, we're here,'….to the mainstream, non-Punjabi community. And everyone knows that we're here now."

Longing and Belonging: 1990s South Asian Film and Video

To a great extent, City of Bhangra succeeded in bringing bhangra to the Vancouver masses, though Nayar and VIBC felt it was time for a change. 5X Fest largely discards the previous multicultural efforts of City of Bhangra and turns inward, asserting that the South Asian community in greater Vancouver has grown so much that it now deserves to focus on itself.

Nayar believes that no organization exists to serve that emerging scene and bring people together in person: "You know, you're following people on Instagram, but where do you go to experience this, you know, promised land of heightened, woke, South Asian culture, right?" Pop art collective dontdoze, which collaborated with VIBC for the third consecutive year, aimed, in director Ricky Sidhu's words, "to provide entry points to participation from others in this underrepresented community of South Asian creators."

The result is a festival measuring the pulse of South Asian popular culture – one that bases its programming largely on the data-centered metrics of the social media era: followers, hits, likes, streams, and so on. 2017 (pre-5X) brought New York Times-bestselling poet Rupi Kaur. 2018 brought internationally touring Punjabi singer Sharry Mann to headline the Block Party. 2019 would have brought Punjabi singer and "Drake of Surrey" Sidhu Moosewala had the RCMP not blocked his performance due to outbursts of crowd violence at Moosewala's recent events.5 Dana Gee's 2017 article in the Vancouver Sun captures this number-focused sentiment well: "It's kind of weird when you consider the size of the audiences that Bhangra artists pull in. A recent Diljit Dosanjh concert in Abbotsford had 8,000 people in attendance. Local DJ Intense has 60 million views on one single. So there are the numbers."6

BFunk dancing with singer Jaz Dhami at the Surrey Block Party on June 15, 2019. Image via Facebook, used with permission from VIBC.

BFunk dancing with singer Jaz Dhami at the Surrey Block Party on June 15, 2019. Image via Facebook, used with permission from VIBC.

Regarding demographics, the relocation of the festival's headline events from Queen Elizabeth Theatre and front plaza of the Vancouver Art Gallery to Surrey Central City is telling. Punjabis in Vancouver are visible, certainly, but they have a full-fledged enclave in Surrey; 2016 census data recorded that, of the roughly 632,000 residents of Vancouver, about 13,000 were Punjabi speaking – 4% of the visible minority population of the city and 2% of the city at large7. Punjabi-speakers in 2016 made up about 20.5% of Surrey's roughly 518,000 in a city that is already over one-third South Asian8. VIBC sought to tell Vancouver, through bhangra, that Punjabis had arrived in the mainstream. 5X Fest moves its attention to where Punjabis are concentrated, boldly asserting that the party no longer needs the mainstream. Surrey is not just a suburb of Vancouver; it is one of the largest nodes of Punjabi diaspora. Surrey, artists like Sharry Mann and Diljit Dosanjh now know that they can get the closest possible thing to a back-home crowd, outside of Punjab, in Greater Vancouver. 5X Fest makes no reservations about targeting the global, 16-35 South Asian millennial demographic in Surrey.

But there are shortcomings to this ethnocentric, pop culture-focused model. Despite 5X Fest's best efforts to be all-inclusive – recalling Tarun Nayar's ideal of the "promised land of heightened, woke, South Asian culture" – it was easy to sense what kind of party crowd the festival was targeting.

The multi-room space Art Party component of the 5X Festival was curated by the dontdoze art collective and drew a predominately social media-focused crowd whose engagements with the artworks were largely through a smartphone screen. LA-based queer dhol player and beatmaker Malinder Tooray – who also collaborates across hip-hop and Afro-Caribbean musics – noted that the free Surrey Block Party felt too heavily masculinist Punjabi, and that LGBTQ+ members of the community approached sharing their feelings of exclusion with her.

While the Art Party and Womxn's Showcase, according to Nayar and dontdoze, were about representing the more progressive, differentiated ends of the South Asian community, the free Surrey Block Party – the festival's biggest draw – clearly catered to a more mainstream, heterotypical Punjabi audience. Nayar himself called the Art Party crowd "forward-thinking kids" and the Block Party crowd "the masses", as though to suggest which space was more inclusive.

There was also a dearth of black, indigenous, and East Asian people in attendance, despite many artists' incorporation of these communities' styles in their work. 5X Fest and dontdoze are unequivocally clear about their inclusive aims in their respective mission statements about the festival, but some events at times felt too insular, too focused on pop culture, and not engaged enough in offering a critical definition of inclusion.

Another issue speaks to the current culture of South Asian diasporic art as represented by the festival direction and programming.

From a survey of previous festival participants and popular South Asian artists on Instagram, it appears the current generation of artists is heavily drawn to mainstream Western popular forms: hip-hop, rap, DJing, beatmaking, and singer-songwriting. Visual artists focus predominately on pop and graphic art, fashion and merchandising, and items they can sell at pop-up shops. This, correspondingly, was how dontdoze presented the Art Party.

The panel talks on the festival's final day emphasized social media presence, self-branding, and entrepreneurship. It is certainly worth celebrating the achievements and visibility these artists have brought to South Asian minority communities, but whose voices are buried when programmers focus on the popular? To what extent are these popular artists tokenized as South Asians who are merely bringing an ethnic flavour to non-South Asian forms? What conversations about race, ethnicity, gender, and identity are sidelined beneath the gloss of popularity?

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Art Party on June 12, 2019 at Beaumont Studios in Vancouver. Image via Facebook, used with permission from VIBC.

5X Fest is certainly laudable for its success in bringing together South Asian artists in a short but intense summer festival. While City of Bhangra Festival reached a critical point at which it had to reformulate its identity, 5X Fest has its finger on the pulse of millennial South Asian culture, balancing bhangra with the numerous forms into which artists have branched out.

VIBC has been running a successful, sustainable festival for over a dozen years – one that has transformed with the times. But can it keep growing?

Tarun's own vision for the festival's future is to build a full-time team that can scale up the festival and begin pitching it to other locations. The difficulties for a not-for-profit organization to accomplish this go without saying. But the deeper issue lies within the programming for the festival, namely this: how can a festival geared towards a specific ethnic community balance popular programming with critical engagements of diversity and inclusion? The very identity of 5X Fest hinges on this question, and I look forward to seeing what they bring next year.

  1. This article focuses on the 2019 5X Fest, held June 12-16 in Vancouver and Surrey, BC. I also owe my sincerest thanks to Kiran Bhumber – whose incorporating me into her Art Party performance gave me insider access to this festival – and Simranpreet Anand. Bhumber’s and Anand’s feedback ensured I, an outsider, did not misrepresent Vancouver and Surrey.
  2. Laura Leante. “Shaping Diasporic Sounds: Identity as meaning in Bhangra.” The World of Music, Vol. 46, No. 1 (2004), 109-132.
  3. Satzewich, Vic. “Multiculturalism, Transnationalism, and the Hijacking of Canadian Foreign Policy: Pseudo-Problem?” International Journal, Vol. 63, No, 1, Diasporas: What It Now Means To Be Canadian (Winter 2007/2008), 43-62.
  4. Gera Roy. Bhangra Moves: From Ludhiana and London to Beyond. Surrey, England and Burlington, Vermont: Ashgate Publishing, 2010, 62.
  5. Carol Eugene Park. “He’s the ‘Drake of Surrey.’ But the City Said a Performance Would Be Too Dangerous. The Tyee, 3 July 2019, https://thetyee.ca/Culture/2019/07/03/Drake-of-Surrey/ (accessed 7 August 2019). An entire separate article could easily be written on Canadian media, Surrey, and the RCMP’s continuing suspicion of Punjabi artists and politicians, particularly the knee-jerk labeling of politically active Sikhs with separatism and terrorism.
  6. Dana Gee. “Metro Vancouver’s South Asian music festival brings back the Bhangra beat.” Vancouver Sun, 7 June 2017, https://vancouversun.com/entertainment/local-arts/metro-vancouvers-south-asian-music-festival-brings-back-the-bhangra-beat (accessed 7 August 2019).
  7. Statistics Canada. 2017. Vancouver, CY [Census subdivision], British Columbia and British Columbia [Province] (table). Census Profile. 2016 Census. Statistics Canada Catalogue no. 98-316-X2016001. Ottawa. Released November 29, 2017. https://www12.statcan.gc.ca/census-recensement/2016/dp-pd/prof/index.cfm?Lang=E (accessed August 8, 2019).
  8. Statistics Canada. 2017. Surrey, CY.
Conner Singh VanderBeek Conner Singh VanderBeek is a composer, pianist, and ethnomusicologist working on his PhD in ethnomusicology at University of Michigan. His research focuses on artistic and musical expressions of the Punjabi diaspora with special attention to how diasporic Punjabis, through stylistic blending, perform difference from and compatibility with mainstream multicultural Canada. He also performed alongside Vancouver-based media artist Kiran Bhumber at the 5X Fest Art Party on June 12, 2019. View bio.