Lovepreet Brar was a migrant who scrapped his way from a one year diploma to New Zealand residency, before becoming an international bhangra hip hop star. In between, he was part of an epic and dangerous fraud.
In early March 2016, Arvinder Singh left his Takanini home, nestled in a small section at the end of a long shared driveway, headed for work. He noticed an unfamiliar sight: a One News station wagon in the communal parking lot. Reporter Rebecca Wright approached him, asking if he knew anyone named Lovepreet Brar. “Do you know he’s under investigation for corruption and bribery?”
Panicked, Singh returned home, where Brar waited, oblivious. “Bro, there’s media outside,” he told Brar, his flatmate and owner of the house. Brar went and hid in his room, ignoring repeated knocks at his door.
That night, Wright’s story led the news. “A One News investigation has revealed an urgent probe into the selling of New Zealand driver’s licences,” Peter Williams announced. It alleged Brar had taken thousands of dollars in bribes in return for fraudulently passing those who had failed their licence test, or in some cases not sat it at all.
Brar watched the news that night with mounting panic as the reports framed him as “a big gun online” while social media footage of him shooting guns played on screen. It went on to say he “could have been manipulating the system for over 12 months, and right now no one knows how many unqualified drivers could be on our roads as a result.”
Over the coming days, he says, media kept a vigil outside his home. He saw cameras through his kitchen window, felt himself imprisoned in his home, strictly obeying his lawyer’s advice not to show his face. When he needed to leave his friend would hide him in his car’s boot, and only once they were well away from the area would he let him out to sit in the front. (Wright says they only went to the property on one day after repeated attempts to contact him, and knocked on the front and back doors before leaving to wait in the driveway).
Over the following months the life Brar had built for himself fell apart piece by piece. He resigned from his job with the AA after it called an urgent meeting to address the allegations. His mother was hospitalised for 10 days after hearing the news, and he was ostracised from New Zealand’s Punjabi community, he says, losing thousands of Facebook friends in days. A year later Police completed their investigation and he was arrested in connection with over 160 bribes which took place over more than a year. In May 2017 he appeared in the Manukau District Court on fraud charges with the potential for up to seven years jail.
Less than six months later, he had his first international hit single.
I first heard about Brar’s case in September last year, and couldn’t believe it wasn’t more well-known: a massive, audacious fraud committed by a man who went on to multiple hit bhangra singles. Perhaps its obscurity was down to the fact Brar had never spoken to the media. I contacted his lawyer Steve Bonnar to request an interview. Bonnar replied that he would “advise [Brar] that he should not give an interview regarding his case at this stage – the case against his co-defendants is still outstanding and there is a possibility that he may be called as a witness.”
The elements of the story were too intriguing to leave it alone. Over the ensuing months, when I was in taxis playing bhangra – a very frequent occurrence in central Auckland – I would ask if they knew of Love Brar, his stage name. Invariably they did, with reactions ranging from disgust at his actions, to admiration for his music, to allegations his views were a result of laundering his bribery gains through YouTube. (I put the latter charge to Brar and he dismissed it, and the economics of buying YouTube views through promotions or more illicit means make it a very inefficient way to launder money.) Yet none admitted to knowing him personally.
I began to think I was never going to track down the elusive Love Brar. In Februray I got into a cab after the cricket and heard bhangra playing, and asked the driver the familiar question.
“Yeah I’ve heard of him,” he said. “He’s my friend. Want me to call him?”
It was nearly 1am, but after a couple of rings someone picked up. They spoke briefly, then I heard the voice on the end of the line laughingly say “Duncan, Duncan, Duncan”. He’d been hearing about nearly all my enquiries, filtering back through texts and social media. On the phone he asked me some questions, then agreed to let his friend pass on his number. A month later, we finally met and he told me about his extraordinary life.
Brar arrived in New Zealand from the Punjab on 13 November 2010, less than a month after his 18th birthday. He enrolled in a management diploma at ICL Graduate Business School, during a period of huge growth for the private tertiary sector. The main attraction was what came with the education: the opportunity to work while studying, and a path to residency on the other side.
A friend picked him up from the airport, and he moved into a flat in downtown Auckland, one he shared with six other students. It was a tiny two bedroom apartment, just 37 square metres – so cramped that one slept on a mattress half in the bathroom, half in the kitchen. He weighed 72 kilos when he arrived, but says within a month he was down to 50kgs. “I was walking five or six kilometres a day,” he says, and had little money for food.
“I started distributing my CVs all over Auckland City,” he says. “Like all Queen Street, Hobson Street, Symonds Street, there’s not even a single shop where I did not give my CV.”
Brar finally got work at Salmat, a large firm which does contract sales for many large corporates.
He was elated, but it was a very marginal job: pure commission, with no base salary. For a month he worked full-time without making a single sale. When his bank account dropped below $200 he came close to despair. “I was in the shower for hours and hours, crying, you know, ‘what to do, what to do’.” He couldn’t stand the idea of calling his father, who had already paid his course fees.
Instead, he turned to his flatmates again. The apartment functioned as a kind of sales laboratory. Sales was all they talked about, and a kind of game – they kept score by tracking how many each had made that day. “There was a lot of competition between us,” says Brar. “There was a competition in the company, which is normal, but even between us at the house as well. We always count.”
He listened to the talk, the strategies discussed. He researched techniques online. He went out with the more accomplished of the group to watch them at work. “Then, I started doing the sales. And my first salary was about $526,” he says. “Then, I did not go back.”
Once he cracked the code, that miserable period with no income or confidence was left well behind him. Years later he still has the payslip from his first big week (“my salary was $2,700 for working for four days”), and shows off a clear file filled with certificates for performance. As with any good salesperson, he was his most important product, and he regularly traded employers as better offers came along: from Salmat he moved to a Vodafone store, then to the Layaway Depot, then briefly to KiwiOwn. (Both the latter have been investigated, fined or otherwise censured by the Commerce Commission for their sales tactics.)
Brar had one singular objective through all this: New Zealand residency. To become eligible he needed to tick a number of boxes, including English proficiency, a tertiary qualification, and a level of income – as well as a managerial title. So when his former boss at Layaway Depot contacted him to ask why he’d left, he levelled with him about what he needed for his ultimate goal. By the week’s end Brar was a store manager at Layaway Depot Otāhuhu.
“I applied for my residency and I got my residency sorted in three months.”
This was an enormous milestone. “I called my family back in India,” says Brar. “It was about 3am over there. I wake them up like, ‘Please, can you call the mom and grandfather over’.” He told them his news and the whole family marvelled at his achievement. “They’re crying like, ‘Thank God, you did it. And you did it so fast. We’re so proud of you, son’.”
In a few short years he had completed what took many of his peers far longer. Not long after he went home for a celebratory holiday, spending time with his family safe in the knowledge he could come and go from New Zealand as he pleased.
When he returned, he started a new job with the AA on Albert Street in downtown Auckland. He worked as a sales rep to walk-ins, selling AA memberships and passing on leads to the insurance team.
Three months after starting, he applied for a transfer to the Meadowlands branch in Howick, largely to save time on the two hour commute to the city from his flat on Great South Rd in Manurewa. The role was the same, but he had a new product to sell: driver’s licensing tests.
He liked the work, and his colleagues. “I was the only Indian guy there,” he says, “but there were testing officers too.” They were older and employed by Vehicle Testing NZ (VTNZ), but worked out of the AA offices and shared staff facilities. Brar became friendly with a pair of testing officers, Vinesh Kumar and Mohammed Feroz, often having lunch with them.
Join the Spinoff Members to get a free book of our best work and help fund more stories like this
One day he pulled into work when he saw a friend outside the office. The friend told him he’d just passed his driver licensing test, and Brar congratulated him on the achievement.
“Bro, do you know it’s so easy to get a licence here?” his friend asked. “I paid $80 to the testing officer and he just gave me a licence – even though I did so many mistakes.”
The scheme Brar had stumbled upon was run by Kumar and Feroz, who would pass those who had failed their tests in exchange for bribes. The pair suggested Brar join them as a sales funnel. Brar says he agonised, but was eventually persuaded. “I know it was my fault. I should not have been convinced, I should not have got involved,” he says. “It was the biggest mistake of my life.”
It was a mistake that made him a lot of money. In less than two years he received over $56,000 into his bank accounts, spread over 107 transactions. He says the amount he retained was less, but it’s also true that many applicants paid in cash. Police are still unsure of either the total number of licences issued, or the amount of money the scheme netted those involved, but a police source close to the investigation believes it was likely more than $100,000.
Despite AA and VTNZ being separate entities, the scheme was able to operate due to the close proximity of those selling the licensing to those administering the tests. An internal system called Book 10 randomly distributed prospective licencees to testing officers, but because it was a small office many were inevitably allocated to the corrupt testers. Where they weren’t, the duo would simply ask fellow testers to switch with them, or be lenient.
While no major injuries or accidents have been attributed to the fraudulent licences they issued, the potential for serious harm or death is obvious. When police checked Meadowlands licences linked to the scheme against a similarly sized sample of untainted new drivers, they saw a significantly increased number of notifications in the Meadowlands batch. “There was an alarming rate of tickets and crashes,” says a police source.
The group had a price structure resembling an ordinary retail operation. Four hundred dollars bought a licence where the applicant would otherwise have failed, while $550 brought a licence without even sitting the test. Worse were the heavy vehicle licences – allowing bearers to drive trucks – available for between $1500 and $2500. The police source described this as the element he found most troubling. Investigators heard of drivers unable to carry out even the most basic manoeuvres. “They had to get one of the guys from the warehouse to back the truck in.”
The police source was at pains to point out that the Indian community in New Zealand was appalled when the crimes were first reported on. “They were outraged,” he said. “And still are.” This echoes Brar’s statements, that chief among the sins he committed was having brought shame to his own people.
For a while, it seemed like the trio had found a perfect crime, and during the period when the bribes were flowing, they lived well. Colleagues at the AA saw elaborate banquets in the staff lunchroom, and Brar purchased his home in Takanini for $622,000 in the midst of the bribery spree. The VTNZ officers were diligent in accepting only cash and communicating solely through the messaging service Viber, which is end-to-end encrypted and thus near-impossible for police to access.
It was the addition of Brar to the scheme which would eventually unravel it, as he was far less careful. Payments were made directly into his personal bank accounts, and he arranged everything via text messages. Police say they became aware of the scheme through a separate warrant, during which a subject happened to communicate with Brar about licences. From there, they followed the chain to the testing officers. Brar says Wright was tipped off by a former friend who was jealous of his success. The friend texted him “how much for a licence?”, then passed the reply on to TVNZ 1 (it’s standard journalistic practice to protect sources, so this cannot be verified).
Between the 1 News and Police investigations, the game was up, a fact the testing officers became aware of early in 2016. Brar was on holiday in India at the time, when he received a message from one. It read: “don’t come back”.
Even though he was terrified, he says he wanted to face up to whatever was coming. A spokesperson for the AA says he was informed that he was suspended pending an investigation, but “resigned prior to coming in to speak to the claims”.
After his appearance on the news Brar became a pariah within New Zealand’s Punjabi community. “All my friends deleted their photos with me,” he says, and Facebook became flooded with innuendo about his activity. At its height, with a border alert for his name, friends seriously suggested he stowaway on a boat to escape the charges.
Life changed quickly. He took a far lower paying job working overnights at a BP in Rosedale on the North Shore to get away from the story (“it’s mostly white people,” he says. “There’s not many Punjabis or Indians”). After a year, he was invited in to the Manukau police station through his lawyer, arrested, charged with fraud and released on bail after two hours in custody.
That was the lowest point in his life. All he had accomplished was in jeopardy – the career, the residency, the house, the car. Yet this perilous time was also when he decided to fulfil a long-held dream.
For a couple of years he and some friends had put on parties at venues around Auckland, playing the bhangra hip hop music they loved. Bhangra historically meant a style of Punjabi dance, but now is a name associated with a style of Indian pop music which fuses traditional Punjabi folk instrumentation and melodies with hip hop-derived drums. Its biggest mainstream moment came with Panjabi MC’s ‘Mundian to Bach Ke’, which sampled the Knightrider theme’s bassline and became a worldwide smash in the early ‘00s, helped by a remix featuring Jay-Z. But while its sonic influence was briefly ubiquitous in the production of Timbaland and the Neptunes, and Jamaican music, modern bhangra itself remained most beloved in India, and amongst the huge Punjabi diaspora in Europe, North America and Australasia.
In 2017, after his first court appearance but before sentencing, Brar and his friends flew a prominent bhangra artist named Elly Mangat down from his base in Canada to play at a bar named Good Times on K Rd.
While here, Brar confided in Mangat his desire to become an artist. “I was kind of a bathroom singer, you can say. I used to sing when I was in the shower, used to sing a lot.” He sang a few of the songs he’d been writing, and says Mangat encouraged him to take it further. They went into the studio and, pleased with the result, commissioned a video to accompany it.
“When I wanted to come in the music industry, I wanted to do something different or I don’t want to come,” says the artist now known as Love Brar. “If I come to the music industry, I want to do something big so that everyone knows.”
No one watching the video could deny the scale of his aspiration. He flew in Lospro, a prolific director from India whose work has hundreds of millions of views, and headed to a black sand beach near Waiuku in shining 4WDs to create his first clip. ‘Connections’ features Brar driving in a Range Rover and Jeep Wrangler, through surf and across pristine ironsand, or dancing in the middle of a large circle of friends in a wrecker’s yard. The music is hard and percussive, with high-pitched rhythmic vocals alternating with heavy sub-bass drops.
It was released on the YouTube channel of Game Killerz records, which has over 500,000 subscribers, and quickly racked up hundreds of thousands of views, trending in Canada and New Zealand and establishing him as name to watch amongst Bhangra fans.
Immediately Brar saw his social fortunes reverse. After watching his Facebook friends plummet in the aftermath of the 1 News story, suddenly he was popular again, and maxed out the 5000 limit the social network imposes on personal friendships in a matter of weeks. People who had deleted all images of themselves with Brar posted shots of them together as profile pics. In a matter of weeks he swung from a source of shame to a star within Auckland’s Punjabi community.
All this was nothing compared to what was coming. ‘25 Pind’ was released on November 17, and became a worldwide Bhangra smash, thanks in part to a guest appearance from Gurlej Akhtar, a major star who has multiple songs with over 50m YouTube views apiece. The ‘25 Pind’ video, again shot by Lospro, racked up over 12m views, a peak which places him ahead of Six60 amongst New Zealand artists, and behind a tiny group made up of the likes of Lorde and Broods.
The clip is one of the most opulent scenes ever filmed in New Zealand. In it Brar and Akhtar perform in a vast garage, filled with vintage Rolls Royces, loaned to the production by a friend of Brar’s. The pair carry shotguns and dance in front of cars with the plates XSWAGX and 1BRARI, which feature on a variety of vehicles in most of his videos. Interspersed are shots of Brar and his distinctive curly moustache, in chic evening wear out front of a mansion. At one point a man with a lush beard pours Moet into what appears to be a bowl of Nutrigrain.
The video made Brar a star, giving him a fanbase around the world and led to offers to play shows in Australia and Canada. Offers he could not fulfil, because he was out on bail, and not allowed to leave the country. It was a maddening paradox – he was building a shiny new identity and reputation just as his previous one threatened to drag him down.
It’s natural to draw a line between his success and his fraud, but he claims the illicit money he made was incidental to his music. That he bought the house and car and funded his career with hard work. His clearfile full of employer testimonials, job history and commitment to night shifts demonstrate a serious work ethic. Yet if you overlay the timelines, it’s clear his journey from starving migrant to recording star markedly accelerated around the time he took tens of thousands in bribes.
There was nothing he could do to outrun his fate. The police case marched on, and in May of 2018 he pled guilty to a representative charge of obtaining by deception in relation to the vast number of unqualified drivers he and his co-defendants unleashed on Auckland.
In late March I drove out to Takanini, past streets of villas and down a right of way at the end of a cul-de-sac, into a driveway where a bungalow awaited with the legend BRAR BROTHERS across the top. Inside the front door was a gold-plated AK-47 shisha bong and a pair of green leather sofas. Brar invited me to sit, brought a glass of water on a tray, and proceeded to tell me his extraordinary story over the course of 90 minutes.
We met at his home for a simple reason: because there was nowhere else we could meet. He wears a transponder on his ankle as a condition of the 11 month home detention sentence handed down to him in September of last year. It could have been worse: an initial assessment recommended jail time, not because guidelines suggested it, but, Brar says, because his assessor did not think him penitent enough. It was only strenuous argument from his counsel which kept him out.
Since sentencing he leaves the house only to work the graveyard shift at a North Shore gas station, leaving after dark, sleeping all day. He’s never stopped releasing music or speaking to the more than 100,000 who now follow him across various social media formats. He knows what he did was wrong, and says his guilty plea was his way of trying to start the atonement process. Still, the state may not be finished with him yet – Immigration NZ has the right to revoke his residency due to his conviction, and he doesn’t yet know where he will ultimately live after the sentence finishes.
The idea of the state throwing out someone who is by some metrics one of New Zealand’s most successful musicians seems absurd. Equally, it’s hard to imagine someone convicted of such serious offences, with clear potential for injury or death, being allowed to stay on.
Yet this turmoil is something Brar has been living with for years. The reality of going unpaid if he didn’t make a sale. The battle to gain residency. The gut-churning sensation of breaking the law, and terrible weight of being caught. Then all the tension of becoming an artist while counting down the days until sentencing.
Instead of focusing on all that, while he stays trapped in his home, he dreams on his future as an artist. The recordings he’ll make, the tours he’ll complete. The life waiting when he’s allowed to remove that ankle bracelet.
“I never lose hope,” he says. “You never know where you’re going to be tomorrow. If today you are in bad times, it’s OK. You’re not going to be in bad times your whole life.”
Join The Spinoff Members for as little as $1 to help us hire more journalists and carry out more investigations. Or pay $8 a month and get a free Toby Morris-designed tea towel!
The Spinoff Weekly compiles the best stories of the week – an essential guide to modern life in New Zealand, emailed out on Monday evenings.