by Sandy Kaur
9 min

Homegrown artist Raf-Saperra, aka Adeel Sardar Khan, has been bridging the gap between his Punjabi roots and the streets of Streatham for as long as anyone can remember, rapidly building a cult following within the South Asian diaspora like no other British-Punjabi singer has done in recent years. His latest single ‘Modern Mirza(loosely translated to Modern Prince) blends these two worlds seamlessly, paying homage to Raf’s heritage through both the visuals and modern take on a Mirza tune, as well as being the furthest thing from a typical desi song…

We caught up with artist, vocalist and filmmaker himself to learn more about the latest viral hit.

Raf, my bro! So whilst the world is still cooling down from the international heater N.L.S (Nach Le Soniye) you decide to hit us with another banger, Modern Mirza… what’s that been like?

The response to N.L.S was so insane that I genuinely thought that Modern Mirza might underperform but the audience once again prove me wrong and shower me with immense support and love. 

What was the inspiration?

Modern Mirza is a single taken from my debut mixtape ‘Ruff Around the Edges’ and this tape has a very diverse sound to showcase my versatility as a Punjabi vocalist through different music genres… We address hip-hop on this new joint.

You have Bobby Kang as producer of the song – what made you link up with Bobby specifically on this track?

As a writer-director it’s only fair to answer this in the most unnecessarily grandiose manner possible! The Bobby Kang Origin Story goes:

It’s 2020. I haven’t even released my debut song ‘Glassy Riddim’ yet. My manager mentioned that there was a vocalist and producer he met recently and that I should meet them too… I did exactly that.

In front of me was Golden Roots, a Punjabi artist hailing from West London (Roots is also on backing vocals for Modern Mirza) and his friend Bobby Kang. They had recently released some music and the project was dope. After discussing music over a meal I learnt that Bobby was a hip-hop head, and no I’m not talking about a part-time enthusiast who enjoys the occasional Biggie and Tupac – NO! He was a HIP-HOP-HEAD.

He was the only other South Asian guy I came across at that time who was also bumping Westside Gunn & Griselda as heavily as I was. I immediately knew that we needed to stay in touch.

We did… and that’s it really. I trust his ear for music, especially in hip-hop.

As a British-Punjabi and Hip-Hop fan myself, the sound of the Modern Mirza speaks to my soul blending the Punjabi mandolin with East Coast rap instrumentals. Can you talk a little more about this and the 90’s feel behind the song?

Besides being huge hip-hop heads, Bobby and I have had an eclectic upbringing around music and films. Amongst the many music genres we admire, hip-hop and Punjabi folk music are definitely up there.

When Bobby showed me this beat earlier this year, it was a no-brainer. The chopped up string samples from a classic Kuldeep Manak song fused with his own production whilst still paying homage and drawing inspiration from his hip-hop beloveds Dilla and Madlib.

There was no way this could’ve sounded like anything else!

How was it shooting (and directing) in the streets of Pakistan, Lahore and Shorkot?

Insane! I knew from the jump that I wanted to shoot this video in a very raw and ‘not-so-controlled’ shooting environment. The last video I directed with that kind of energy was for the late great Sidhu Moosewala for the song ‘Celebrity Killer’ produced by Steel Banglez, featuring Tion Wayne.

I was advised by the production crew to shoot in other areas of Lahore that were more modern and safer but that would be a lie. My aunties and cousins live in Lahore – these are the streets and neighbourhoods I’ve always visited. I wanted to show Lahore in a way that UK or international audiences haven’t seen before; the culture, traditions, food, community, madness of a Lahori summer and the erratic lives living inside the iconic city.

We shot the more rural shots in the village of Shorkot amongst family, uncles, guns, buffalos, tractors… the works. There isn’t much representation for West-Punjab in the Punjabi music scene.

As a filmmaker – I had to come correct.

The first time I saw you was at Fabric when you ad-libbed some Boliyan alongside Yung Singh, and the last time I saw you was at the premiere of his ‘The Birth of Punjabi Garage’ documentary – how has linking up with the other British-Punjabi musicians impacted not just your career but you personally?

Yung Singh. That’s Bro. He’s put my music in spaces where Punjabi music isn’t even played. He’s holding it down and pushing the culture through and through.

@rafsaperra @ FABRIC #Daytimers #yungSingh #rafsaperra #UKG #garage #grime #london #rave #kuldeepmanak #gtroadte #fashion #trending #viral #desi #friday ♬ original sound – Raf-Saperra

All of the producers in my debut mixtape (apart from one) are all homegrown British-Asian talent. Some are making their debut tracks like The Culprit with N.L.S and some have been producing in the past like Bobby Kang but the main thing that I am proudest of is that there is a new generation of talent making noise and the masses seem to like what they’ve chef’d up.

How would you describe Boliyan for those that don’t know what it is? At what age did you realise you had this talent?

Boliyan, simply put can be loosely translated to ‘couplets’ these could be from existing songs or even generation rhymes sung according to the occasion like weddings or harvest…

Boliyan are traditionally sung in accompaniment of bhangra dancers. They have a uniform rhythm and are usually sung with a powerful chest register. I didn’t think I had the talent but I still participated in a competition in 2012 named Bhangra Showdown. There was a team of bhangra dancers, a live drummer, a chimta player and me on vocals. That was the first time I ever publically sang. We won too! Realising a talent and learning a craft are two separate things. I made sure I found a vocal coach shortly after so there was skill and discipline behind the approach. 

I am still learning and currently under the tutelage of Ustaad Latafat Ali Khan, son of the Legendary Ustaad Salamat Ali Khan of the Shaam Chaurasi Gharana.

What is your favourite lyric in Modern Mirza?

“Saadeh Jeon Da Tareeka Hai Alag Ni” – “Our way of living is different to others.”

It’s hella subjective. Everyone’s finding their own poetry in that line.

You’ve also been making waves in the fashion scene with your clash of street and high-fashion. Can you explain the stylistic choices behind this video?

Fom collabs with French Montana, Riz Ahmed, and even in Bollywood Rastah have been a disruptive new force in luxury streetwear and one of the few brands that celebrates culture and tradition in an extremely contemporary manner! I feel that goes hand-in-hand with the noise I’m making in the music scene and the collab made so much sense. 

The aesthetic of juxtaposing the high fashion streetwear in the grimey inner-city of Lahore? 

One neck – three chains?

What can I say? Raf-Saperra’s a fashionable kid! 

What can we expect to hear in your upcoming mixtape Ruff Around the Edges?

So as mentioned Modern Mirza is a single from my debut mixtape ‘Ruff Around the Edges’ and the tape has a very diverse sound! This tape essentially aims to give music listeners a glimpse into my sense of identity and how that has shaped my preferences as a listener and a creative. There’s a bit of everything in there for everyone from Bhangra, UK Garage to a whole range of other genres.

N.L.S & Lalkaareh are also singles featured from this mixtape.

Do you have any advice for the next gen of Punjabi artists wanting to do what you have?

Standing up for the things you love. 

Whether it was my love for classic Punjabi folk songs, 90’s hip-hop to trashy and low budget exploitation films – I shamelessly love and stand by them and find dope ways to implement them in my work. 

People advised me in the past to lean towards things that were more ‘commercial’ but I think that’s called conforming.

Why join the crowd? Challenge yourselves to make sure you make something with mass appeal without compromising you who are as an artist or as an individual.

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