What We Lose When POC Entertainers Crack Into The Mainstream

How Lilly Singh's Superwoman and Jasmeet Singh's JusReign navigate between two worlds.

Posted on

The first time I felt like a real person, I was having a beer and listening to Canadian poet Rajinder S. Pal read from his book Pulse. Both were new experiences — I was in my mid-twenties and had only recently started drinking, as well as going to poetry readings — but it was Pal’s words that were most revelatory. He spoke of watching his mother make chapattis, the rustling sounds of her chiffon salwaar kameez, her hands and sleeves stained with flour, a scene as mundane as it was intimate. A commonplace moment from my own life, watching my mother do the same hundreds of times, felt hidden from most of the culture I lived in. But in a pub in the southeast corner of downtown Toronto, I felt those two, disparate halves of my life — the Western and the Indian, a pint of amber lager and South Asian poetry — briefly fused.

It wasn’t until many years later that I felt a similar rush of recognition, but this time, it was while watching Lilly Singh’s video “Sh*t Punjabi Mothers Say.” Singh, better known as Superwoman, is of course the wildly popular YouTube star who rose to fame making comedy shorts and rap videos. From an Indian family in the sprawling, diverse Toronto municipality of Scarborough, Singh has become known for her gregarious, upbeat persona and humour that derives much of its pull from her status as a child of South Asian immigrants. Now, with more than 9 million YouTube subscribers, she’s made the inevitable move from Toronto to Los Angeles and has landed parts in the upcoming Bad Moms and Ice Age: Collision Course, in addition to appearances on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon. Her first book will be published next March.

View this video on YouTube

youtube.com

“Sh*t Punjabi Mothers Say” is still one of Singh’s more popular videos, with around 6.2 million views. She plays a cartoonish version of her own mother, going through the clichés familiar to many Punjabis: idle threats of violence, the relentless questioning, all delivered in that particular Punjabi idiom. On its own it isn’t much, just an acting out of common phrases. But it resonated for the same reason Pal’s delicate verse cut so deeply: A feature of my own life missing from public view was suddenly made visible, the hidden intimacy of immigrant life now splashed onto the canvas of the world. When you are a minority, it is no small thing to finally see yourself.

A feature of my own life missing from public view was suddenly made visible, the hidden intimacy of immigrant life now splashed onto the canvas of the world. 

Now that Superwoman’s career is taking off, however, it is also possible to detect a change in her recent YouTube videos. If “Sh*t Punjabi Mothers Say” was perhaps obscure to some viewers, pulling its humour from cultural specificity, then Singh’s more recent work casts its net wider, evoking a sense of shared humanity despite difference. Popular topics this year have included “What School Actually Taught Me,” “Every Argument With My Parents Ever,” and “Types of Uber Drivers” — the kind of list videos that are a staple of YouTube personalities (and BuzzFeed’s many channels, too). And why wouldn’t they be? They are breezy fun and are full of the most important currency a YouTuber can possess: relatability. We don’t all have Punjabi moms, but we can all relate to the minutiae of school, dating, or family.

Yet if Superwoman’s transition from YouTube fame to the more mainstream sort — that distinction still holding for now — has rendered her more culturally specific work less relevant, less visible, it also suggests something about the limits of being a minority in a majority culture. While identity politics has sets its sights squarely on representation — on whether or not there are enough women or queer folk or people of colour in our media — the unspoken mirror image of that idea, however, is that it is just as difficult in North America to imagine a mainstream culture that isn’t so overwhelmingly white culturally. It isn’t just about who gets to be seen, but also what we consider shared, and it is always of one cultural tradition, one language. The pattern in which, for example, so-called ethnic food only becomes mainstream at the point that white people become aware of it is repeated in culture at large ad nauseam so that a minority or an immigrant only gets recognizably big at the point at that they become legible to a white mainstream. What is not comprehensible to a so-called norm — that is, the shit that Punjabi mothers say — has to be discarded in favour of what remains legible to more people. The bicultural are forever icebergs, only ever partially readable to those who don’t share our mixture, containing obscured, untranslatable depths. The bind of the immigrant entertainer is always thus to speak to one’s own or speak to the mainstream — and each entail a certain kind of loss.

The bind of the immigrant entertainer is always thus to speak to one’s own or speak to the mainstream — and each entail a certain kind of loss.

It is hard to discuss Superwoman’s rapid ascent to fame without mention of that other brown, Sikh, Toronto-based YouTube star, Jasmeet Singh, better known as JusReign. Originally from Guelph, Ontario, JusReign, like Superwoman, rose to popularity on comedy videos that play off the tropes of being a child of immigrants: South Asian house parties in the suburbs, Punjabi uncles discussing politics, or the slightly more pointed “Brown People Try White People Food.”

View this video on YouTube

youtube.com

Though both personalities have uncanny senses of comic timing, and each play off and critique cultural stereotypes, in many ways JusReign is a mirror image of Superwoman, similar but reversed. Where she is from East Toronto — incredibly diverse, but in which whites are still the most populous group — he blew up in the city’s western suburb of Brampton, where South Asians form the largest single ethnicity. Where Superwoman is Hollywood pretty and relentlessly professional, JusReign is ordinary and has an off-kilter, occasionally unhinged style. And where Superwoman has begun to shift her repertoire toward a more mainstream, vlogger-style oeuvre, expanding to activist feminism, JusReign’s output often remains more directly aimed at people like him: fluently bilingual and bicultural, but as a result, more niche.

Consider JusReign’s “Satinder Sartaaj Ratchet Tour 2013.” Sartaaj is a recently popular Punjabi folk singer, but one who also happens to have a PhD in musicology. His blending of high- and lowbrow has endeared him to Punjabi expats looking to feel both sophisticated and connected to the folk roots of the culture. JusReign’s video shows him playing Sartaaj reinterpreting hip-hop tracks as Punjabi folk — think Drake’s “Started From the Bottom” but in bhangra form. It is funny and on point, but demands at least some familiarity with Punjabi folk and American rap, as well as the flashy text and particular phrasing of the advertising used to promote Indian music concerts in North America, to make no mention of knowledge of Sartaaj himself. Perhaps even more so than Superwoman’s “Sh*t Punjabi Mothers Say,” it is aimed at not just immigrants or youths in general, but a specific identity that is equally at ease in two cultural traditions, both North Indian and North American. To invoke the cliché, JusReign has decided to stay weird, while Superwoman has gone mainstream.

View this video on YouTube

youtube.com

In a long-bygone era, it would have been impossible to think of the contrast between Superwoman’s glossy, newly mainstream persona and JusReign’s cobbled-together immigrant shtick without invoking pairs of harshly binary judgements: Of selling out versus authenticity, of loyalty to a culture versus betrayal, of high-end versus lowbrow. JusReign himself often invokes the idea of the “coconut” in his videos — he who is “brown on the outside, but white on inside.” One who, to use JusReign’s phrasing, doesn’t know much about their own culture.

Yet in both their work and their identities, both Singhs themselves trouble the simple idea of a coconut. Each mark rap videos among their most popular, and both are constantly skittering along the surface of a hybrid identity, code-switching at will. Superwoman’s popular rap anthem “IVIVI” — Toronto’s most-used area code is 416 — is a love letter to not simply the city, but the fact that it is made up of people from all over. It’s hard not to see a kind of celebration of Superwoman herself in the song; that if the whole world has come to this city, it has produced identities that, like Lilly’s, are similarly kaleidoscopic. Even in the most firm insistence upon an identity, there is always something in flux, an emerging sense of culture that is, paradoxically, most clearly marked out by its inability to be pinned down. What does it mean to be young and an immigrant in the early 21st-century Canada? It means to be a mix of everything — or at least, that is the ostensible message of both Superwoman’s song and most of her work. If JusReign claims immigrants should know about their culture, both his own work and Superwoman’s demands the response: “Okay, but which culture is actually mine?”

The trouble for immigrant entertainers is that this hybrid fusion of cultures is often illegible, or perhaps ineligible, to a mainstream audience. While most conversations about multiculturalism have focused on what we share in common, what we do not — and maybe cannot — share has proven far more difficult. After all, the contrast between those two ideals — of diversity as inclusion in a universal mainstream, or multiculturalism as everyone ensconced in their own cultures — is framed by a stark fact: Superwoman is vastly more popular and successful than JusReign. It’s of course due to more than just the ideological underpinnings of their work. Superwoman puts out significantly more videos, has worked hard to connect with both celebrities like Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and Selena Gomez and other YouTube stars, and she has an endorsement deal with Smashbox cosmetics — where, fittingly, her line is called “Bawse” (that’s a phonetic spelling of boss, fellow olds). If she’s blowing up, it’s because she’s relentlessly hustled for it.

But fame is never simply a question of the inherent qualities of the famous. It’s also about what we as a public desire. Whether it’s Jennifer Lawrence’s carefully practiced, self-effacing charm, Kim Kardashian’s entirely unabashed celebration of her own body, or Channing Tatum’s cheeky, woke masculinity, celebrity is about what we want, magnified. Singh has built a career on broad relatability, but it is of that same hyper, celebrity kind. She is gregarious yet self-deprecating, funny yet often completely sincere. Her hustle, too, has itself become a key part of her appeal to a multiculti audience, a model of grit for a generation born to hard-working immigrants — and fittingly, is the topic of her upcoming book. Her popularity is in part due to her own appeal and determination, but also because, like all expressions of fame, hers is a canvas just blank enough where we can project our own desires for ourselves.

When I stood, holding a beer in a bar, listening to a poet talk about his Punjabi mother by the stove, I felt, if only for a second, whole. Not just seen, but part of a cultural fabric larger than myself. I stepped back onto the street, and that sense of being real, of actually existing to the world at large, evaporated like steam in winter air.

To be a minority in 21st-century North America is not simply to exist in a comfortable mixture, but is instead to be engaged in a constant dance. To be seen by those like you is to be rendered inscrutable to those who are different. You are thus constantly immersed in a process of translation, at times going on at length to explain to others that you aren’t that different, but at other moments struggling to explain you aren’t quite the same either. To be a bit glib, you are either Superwoman or JusReign — but you cannot be both at once.

Still, you don't want to give up and resign yourself to this paradox quite so easily. In Superwoman’s more recent videos, the star switched to a ring light to illuminate her shots, a popular type of lighting used by professional photographers and filmmakers. When used to light the YouTube-style, talk-to-the-camera genre of video, however, it has the strange, unintended effect of making her eyes look they are lit from within, a circle of white light punctuating her irises. Singh looks like she is wearing futuristic, cyborg contacts, like Kanye at the Met Gala, or a sci-fi video game character.

Most of us look out onto a cultural landscape hoping to see ourselves reflected. But if you are an immigrant or a minority, deep down you know that the public still belongs to the majority. If media is a mirror held up to society, Western society asks you to contort yourself in certain ways in order to be able to clearly see your reflection. No, not that side: Show us what we already understand.

 Most of us look out onto a cultural landscape hoping to see ourselves reflected. But if you are an immigrant or a minority, deep down you know that the public still belongs to the majority.

Sometimes though, in those moments that YouTube still feels like the future rather than an ordinary part of the present, I watch Lilly Singh perform for her audience, her cyborg-like eyes darting around the frame, her manic comedy dragging in influence from a dizzying array of sources. Despite myself, in those moments what I often end up hoping is that, perhaps, she is looking somewhere down the road, either at a place or a time in which those harsh binaries — of minority and majority, of an ethnic niche and a white mainstream — start to soften a bit more. Perhaps over the horizon, some might see a North American culture that doesn’t define equality as everyone’s right to be the same, but instead isn’t so stubbornly, relentlessly, exhaustingly white.

This is possibly a foolish hope, but I hope nonetheless. Singh is, after all, called Superwoman. Like the other myths we choose to place our faith in, we imbue these larger-than-life figures with our desires for something better, for a world in which being a minority in the public sphere doesn’t always mean leaving part of yourself behind — that instead sets as its goal actually changing what constitutes the mainstream. And maybe even if Lilly herself can’t yet envision an ideal future in which that happens, perhaps those cyborg eyes can see something that the rest of us, no matter how hard we try, simply cannot yet.