The underground filmographer capturing protest & punk

  • Text by Jon Coen
The underground filmographer capturing protest & punk
Meet Sunny Singh — The Philadelphia local also known as Hate5Six has made a name for himself capturing the hardcore scene – and over more recent years, he’s been ramping up his coverage of the fight for social justice.

It’s mid-November but the harsh winds blowing through this city by the sea already feels like winter on a quiet Monday night in Asbury Park, New Jersey. Philadelphia videographer and underground documentarian Sunny Singh, aka Hate5Six, is in town to film the wildly original, psychedelic-percussion punk band, Zeta, from Venezuela. Singh had recently dropped his 4,500th video online. 

A fiercely dedicated hardcore-punk rocker, Singh is the busiest underground music videographer in the world, currently shooting in the neighbourhood of 700 sets per year. It’s a staggering workload that he attacks with unwavering enthusiasm and gratitude.

Escaping the cold, we’re talking at the bar of The Saint as the bands are loading in. “I’ve just wanted to do something to be a part of this community that I have always gravitated to,” he explains. Singh’s parents emigrated from India to the New Jersey suburbs just across the river from Philadelphia in the ‘70s. He began riding BMX in his early teen years and shooting bike buds with his parents VHS-C camera in the ‘90s. During high school, he took up collecting VHS tapes of live music at the same time his circle of friends formed punk and ska bands, making a natural transition to shooting live music.

But Singh stopped for a few years while attending Haverford College. “I had no interest in filming at that time because there was no way of sharing the footage,” he says. “I was just building up this library of tapes but I wanted to share it with people, so they could find new bands that they liked. By ’06, I heard about this thing called YouTube. I thought, ‘This is what I’ve been looking for.’”

Singh got a Canon GL2, popular among people filming skate at the time. The first show he shot was the reunion of New Jersey straightedge band Floorpunch in Philly in ’07, and then in the spring of ’09 he was hired as the videographer for Burning Fight – a music fest in Chicago featuring the reunions of key 90s hardcore bands. “I put it online and that was my first spike in traffic,” he remembers.

That summer, he was tapped by Joe Hardcore (a godfather figure in the Philly scene) to shoot This is Hardcore Fest, forging a relationship that would launch his career. “That was my first experience working intimately with a bigger show. After the sets went live, Joe was like ‘You’re coming back next year.’”

From there, he was able to grow the site, becoming a fixture at monumental punk events but also filming lesser-known, off-beat bands that he was interested in. In 2018, when he was laid off from his computer science job, he was able to pursue filming full time. He credits a lot of that to Philly – his growth organically paralleling the local scene.

Crowdsourcing pays his living expenses. Bands with significant followings hire him to film their sets, but he charges by a sliding scale, which enables him to shoot up-and-coming bands for virtually nothing. He has democratised the process so that community members vote on which show videos are released. In the same way the original punk rockers ignited their scenes by starting bands, labels and zines, he has created his own content economy. And the footage helps all the bands grow their following.

But there was another angle. Singh had a keen awareness for social justice. “I got into hardcore and punk for some of the political aspects,” he says. “[Social justice] issues can be at the forefront of this music that brings all these people together. I’ve always liked the idea of subverting people’s consumption of entertainment and giving them a dose of reality. I’ve been covering political protests since 2011.”

Every November, he drives to Plymouth, Massachusetts, to film and broadcast the National Day of Mourning, held by the Wampanoag Tribe to create awareness for the true history of Thanksgiving and the ongoing plight of Native Americans. “As a brown person I’ve experienced a ton of racism – just yesterday, I dealt with someone online saying some pretty racist shit. My very existence is political so that’s going to show in the work that I produce,” he explains.

In the past few years, he has ramped up his coverage of rallies, the Black Lives Matter movement, and cases of political prisoners. “As the platform grows, my reach grows,” he says. “Even if a light bulb can go on in the heads of one percent of my audience, that’s worth it.”

The pandemic meant that Singh wasn’t shooting shows and he was able to focus on the racial unrest. As uprisings began in the wake of the George Floyd murder, he retells how unprovoked authorities drove armour vehicles through predominantly African-American neighbourhoods of Philly, tear gassing the streets on 31 May 2020. “It wasn’t people who were protesting. There were elderly Black couples on their porches tear gassed and forced to run inside their homes to get away from it. The next day, the people of city came out en masse, saying, ‘Yo, that was fucked up.’ It resulted in a massive march – tens of thousands of people.” Singh was protesting and filming when the march crossed onto Rt 676, Philly’s central east/west artery.

“Cars were stopped. But people got out of their cars and threw their fists up in solidarity. None of the people I saw were agitated. But at some point, SWAT Police surrounded us and corralled us on an embankment. The only way out was to climb up a hill and scale a 10-foot wall.” Singh was simultaneously filming and live streaming the chaos. Unable to move swiftly with all of his gear, he assumed he would be arrested.

“That’s when the smoke started billowing. People began to scream, and I realised it was tear gas, even though we were clearly vacating the area.” In Singh’s video documentation, just as you hear him begging the crowd to stay calm, a tear gas canister whizzes past, clips his neck and ricochets off the wall next to him. Choking, with his contact lenses melting in his eyes, someone who recognised him from punk shows helped him over the fence to safety.

The city justified the aggression of the police as retaliation for protestors flipping a police vehicle with an officer inside. But both the local NPR affiliate and the New York Times requested Singh’s footage, reconstructing the event. The squad car had been empty and never overturned, contradicting the police department’s claim. The Philadelphia chapter of the ACLU used the footage as part of a lawsuit with the United Nations to address the use of excessive police force.

“It’s taking the skills you learn in one space and adapting them to another. People think that to get involved in political movements, you have to have all the solutions. That’s not the case. You lean into your strengths. I have a camera. I have friends who sing in bands and can get people to a protest. If you do sound at shows, you can set up the PA at a rally. If people can leverage that, we can move the needle even more.”

And so, Singh pushes on, filming punk rock – from 3,000 capacity rooms to basement shows – and the fight for social justice, often six days a week. He worked with Baltimore’s Turnstile on a promo video for their tour and record Glow On, an album that breathed new life into hardcore last summer. Then in July, activist and Rage Against the Machine guitarist, Tom Morello, reached out to Singh for footage for a new video from a forthcoming solo record that focuses on the importance of live music. 

“My objective is to amplify things, from a large venue to a band playing a show in a basement to someone giving a speech at a rally,” Singh says. “Whatever my camera is pointed at, I want it to reach the largest audience possible.”

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