by Nigel Webber
”Catch a swollen heart from not rollin’ smart” – GZA
Winnipeg has slept on one of our own, only for the rest of the world to wake up first. Queen Desi Ma may be born and raised in Canada but she’s turning a whole lot of heads in the UK and her ancestral homeland of India. Desi Ma has developed a vast and wildly impressive skillset, which includes being able to not only switch between rapping and singing but to do so in three different languages, English, Punjabi, and Hindi, at times in the same song. Talent is a prerequisite for the music industry but it’s the individuals with those intangible factors of drive and passion coupled with hustle and a little bit of luck that mould into an artist as unique as Queen Desi Ma.
Representing her culture is so important to Queen Desi Ma that she put it right in her name. Desi is a term that broadly refers to people whose ancestral origins are in the Indian subcontinent, and as Desi Ma says, “I really wanted to make sure I’m representing for my heritage.” Having spent a lot of time in India over the years visiting her family and of course growing up in Canada, Desi Ma already spoke English and Punjabi. However, only since becoming a hip-hop artist has she learned Hindi enough to write and sing in a language she was unfamiliar with only a few years prior. With a lot of support behind her, Desi Ma decided to pursue the potentially lucrative enterprise of making music for Bollywood films. Both the films and the songs on the accompanying soundtrack are predominantly in Hindi, and so Desi Ma learned Hindi. In 2019, she performed on the soundtrack to the Bollywood film “Gully Boy” which was India’s selection for the Academy Awards’ Best Foreign Feature category. Desi Ma explains that, “It’s one of my biggest accomplishments thus far. [After] you’ve been doing it for so long, you’re really hard on yourself,” but notes that the uphill struggles and the challenges that presented themselves through her career only made that moment so much sweeter. “[Then] when you see your name in the movie titles at the end, that really made me proud. It was like, okay, yeah, you’re doing this.”
It didn’t start so easy, though. Describing first being in a studio at 16 with no idea how to count the bars in her rhyme, Queen Desi Ma was hooked from day one. Aware of how talented she could be, Desi Ma worked tirelessly on her craft, learning technical elements like song structure while also understanding the message she was conveying through her musical voice. Once the decision was made to do music as a career, nothing was going to stop Desi Ma. With time split over the years between Canada, India and the UK, Desi Ma is now living that goal. While giving credit to all the places she’s spent time over the years, the UK still holds a special place. They also just really love her music out there. Impressively, Desi Ma has been on BBC Radio 1 multiple times as well as performed in London, Birmingham, Manchester, among many other UK cities. Queen Desi Ma also spent time on a UK based record label before forming her own imprint, Queen Records, a move that may have seemed like a gamble but as she explains, “things always work out, there’s no reward without risk.”
Being her own boss has always been important for Desi Ma. Constantly on the go throughout her daily life, Desi Ma couldn’t afford not to own the masters to her own songs. It meant some headaches, some delays, some projects shelved, but in the long run it meant that Queen Desi Ma will forever own her own music. Strong on advocating for others, Desi Ma’s words of wisdom start with, “Artists have to remember that you’re the ones that are putting out the music, you’re the ones with the talent, with the ideas, so you never have to sell yourself short.” She is also able to back up her words with action; Desi Ma used to do hip-hop youth programming at the Broadway Neighbourhood Centre and also did hip-hop writing workshops in the Women’s Correctional Facility here in Winnipeg. Helping the youth was especially important for Desi Ma, saying that, “Just making sure that when these kids get those opportunities [in life], they’re ready for them.” An ultimate goal is to take the same kind of programming to India where there is a serious need.
Right now though, Queen Desi Ma is focused on something uncommon in today’s world of singles and short EPs, she is working on a double album. To be put out through her own Queen Records, Desi Ma was tired of just putting out single after single and wanted the opportunity to show off how talented she really is and truly showcase her version of Queen Desi Ma, unobstructed by outside forces. While the album is still in production, there are plans for songs in English, Punjabi, and Hindi, and some with a mix, as well as features from an as yet unnamed cavalcade of Bollywood hip-hop stars. It’s an impressive undertaking in the first place, made even more bold given the TikTok-length attention span widespread throughout today’s society but Queen Desi Ma has proved she has the talent, now is the time to showcase it.