Essential listening recommendations can be a bit of a tricky business, but lately, we’ve had a handful of names from India cropping up repeatedly in the global music space that have had listeners rapt, and coming back for more.
Whether it’s slow-burning tracks that burn long and bright, or drum-driven rhythmic epiphanies, these are artists with a fresh take on what it means to be a ‘brown’ person today outside of the motherland, navigating the in-between spaces between the racial binaries of black and white, to mould themselves a distinctive identity and voice that is authentic and unique unto itself.
Here are six Indian Global Musicians manifesting this layered cultural identity into music that is as complex as the experience of being brown, itself — that, we’re happy to report, doesn’t falter from sending strong messages to listeners all over the world.
Bangalore-based vocalist and producer Nathan Menon first cut his teeth on an eponymous 5-track EP back in 2013 at 19, in a transnational collaboration with Melbourne-based producer Tom Day; a deeply atmospheric album lush with rhythm, heart-tugging melodies and Menon’s unrelenting, hair-raising falsetto.
“A lot of books and films influenced my music,” the young producer, who described his following few releases as ‘cinematic funeral music’, told Rolling Stone in what has been one of his few interviews. “I hate the present time, times as they are now. So I look at life through this black and white cinematic filter.”
The collaborations have been rolling in erratically over the years, with his collaborations ‘Memories That You Call’ with Odesza, ‘Paper Tiger’ with Laplace, and with Kodak to Graph on ‘Rakshasa’ sending shivers down the back of the global music space. [Can embed any. Rakshasa or Paper Tiger]
The themes of love, longing and solitude reign supreme within his tracks, and while he cites art films such as ‘Throw Away Your Books And Rally In The Streets’, ‘The Lovers’ and ‘Elevator To The Gallows’ as inspirations, on his ‘Falstrati’ EP released by Berlin-based Project Mooncircle, he underscored, “I think what inspires me the most about being a musician is the story telling. To be able to project your stories and memories through sound, knowing that there’s at least somebody out there that will listen to what you have to say.”
This producer — to our delight — is also a selector, and his Consolidate mix two years ago is something to take time out to dedicate a listen (or five) to. “I’m your average middle-class Indian kid,” the note accompanying the mix from the producer, whose cat Maki means the world to him, reads. “I grew up around Road Rash, Dangerous Dave, Swat Kats, Milo, Chyawanprash and Kafka, oh, and “Little Hearts”: those heart shaped biscuits that supposedly melt in your mouth. I don’t like humans; I like Kenneth Anger and Stanley Kubrick films though. I make music, mainly to cure my chronic depression. I love cats, do you? Meow.”
Latest release: Falstrati feat. collaborations with Laplace, Galimatias & Go Yama.
Josephine Shetty’s experimental dance pop project is truly a manifestation of who she is, and the ideals she believes in. The mixed-race, queer desi artist has been making music and performing since she was little, and hails from a strong technical dance and performance background, and set out with a specific vision for this project, one that would grant her complete autonomy.
“I made the name way before I started the project or had even conceived of it being a thing,” Shetty, who describes herself as a ‘cultural shapeshifter’ said. “At that time, I was just looking for some funny pun on something I could identity with culturally. I wanted to queer something. Tacking on ‘orgasm’ to ‘Koh-i-Noor’ was like queering some cultural trope for me, also evoking a history in a word that is so storied and tacking on a new history to it too.”
Synthy beats overlaid with sultry, multilingual vocals make for the hypnotic listening experience that Shetty has crafted for listeners, one that never disengages from her identity. Her latest release in 2017 is unwavering in its approach to complex topics like anxiety, self-love, history and patriarchy; she’ll have you thinking about her lilting, haunting melodies long after you’ve taken your headphones off.
Latest release: Titalee
New Zealand-based artist Aaradhna Patel’s soulful voice is everything. Of Indian and Samoan descent, she has been putting out music for over a decade now, and first became a household name with her collaboration with the Adeaze brothers on their slow jam, ‘Getting Stronger’, with the song going up to number one on local charts.
She has opened for the likes of Kanye West, Missy Elliott and Snoop Dogg, and cemented her place as a natural R&B vocalist with tracks like Downtime and I Love You Too, paving her way through a male-dominated space as a girl who really likes to sing (and has been doing it since she was 13, recording homemade demo cassette tapes with overdubbing). Having been through her fair share of shitstorms along the way, her latest release ‘Brown Girl’, released 2016, depicts an evolved version of the artist who has survived the storms with devastating grace.
‘Brown Girl’ is tinged with influences of legends like Erykah Badu and Amy Winehouse, while retaining a quality that is wholly her own; Aaradhna crafts a ‘response to people trying to put you in a box, “when there’s more to you than meets the eye”’.
“It started with name calling at school when I was a kid,” she told FADER. “I’d be called a ‘curry muncher’ or a ‘dumb coconut.’ I also saw people being ignorant towards my mum or dad, and judging them for the way they spoke, how they looked, and how they dressed. As I got older I noticed it would come from my own backyard too, with me being seen as not Indian enough, or not Samoan enough. I was being judged for what I looked like, and I came from two different cultures which made it hard for small-minded folks. But I always knew who I was and continued embracing my roots.”
The album effortlessly blends genres ranging from soul-funk to acoustic country ballad, with the thread of Aaradhna’s voice binding it tight. While ‘Brown Girl’ addresses the racist encounters the artist has faced over her life, another song she cites as important to the album is ‘Devil’s Living In the Shadow’.
“‘Devils Living In The Shadow’, that song initially came from my nightmares,” she said. “I’ve always had nightmares since I was young, but they got worse after my depression. Usually it’s about the same things, like the demons that were following me and that’s how the song started. But actually it’s a song that kind of represents a whole bunch of things, like trying to do right and I wrote it for my mum sort of. Like “stop whispering” – because my mum, she has schizophrenia, she hears voices and in the verse I say [sings “speak up, please stop following me, I don’t want your whispering in my ear no more” – that’s me in just certain lines just being inspired by Mum.”
Following Aaradhna’s journey up till her fourth studio release only underscores how authentic each step along the way has been, and this brown girl is making the bleary-eyed Kiwi R&B scene rub its eyes open.
Latest Release: Brown Girl
Remember New York-based alternative hip-hop group Das Racist? Himanshu Suri used to be one-third of the wiseass comedy rap outfit (which might or might not be joking) of ‘Combination Pizza Hut and Taco Bell’ fame, whose complex statements on race blended with humour, laid the foundations for the artist’s later work. He also founded the record label Greedhead Records in 2008, and has become a South Asian icon in his own right over the years.
Fast forward to after the band split up and Heems put out two memorable mixtapes, ‘Nehru Jackets’ and ‘Wild Water Kingdom’ — the artist went solo, rapping about everything from self-medication to racial discrimination. Heems spent many years in Asia and India, recovering from a black hole of depression following a breakup. Another element that influenced his work at this point was the trauma of witnessing the 9/11 attacks on the twin towers in New York, which he described as a ‘geopolitical heartbreak’. “I was able to be honest and write songs about what I was going through instead of hiding behind jokes, which were a coping mechanism,” he shared with Noisey.
He then came out with ‘Eat Pray Thug’, which highlighted why the deeply personal had become political with ‘post-9/11 dystopian brown man rap’ that wasn’t really ‘radio-friendly’, and didn’t want to be. Touching upon substance abuse, ‘the highs and lows of the music business, failed relationships, racism, the working class struggle’ the LP was written and recorded in Brooklyn and Bombay, with guest contributors including Dev Hynes, Harry Fraud, Rafiq Bhatia of Son Lux, and Gordon Voidwell.
“If you really mine the specificity of your own experience,” Heems said. “it resonates beyond where you think it might be, and then it speaks to the larger human experience. That’s a really validating moment, where you make something in your bubble and then you put it out there and you know that, “Oh, other people feel like this!” There is a certain vulnerability to making art and throwing it out there to the world, but when it comes back, it feels nice.”
Tracks like ‘T5’ and ‘Aaja’ are cementing the place of this rapper duo — that through their references to Trump’s then-proposed Muslim ban to their tribute to qawwali music, with a dedication to Qandeel Baloch — manages to strike just the right note, their nuanced perspectives talking about on-ground realities resonating deeply with many around the world.
Latest release: Cashmere
Brought up in suburban Vancouveur in a Sikh-Canadian family, Jasleen Powar’s hybrid of Bollywood samples and hip hop is infectious. Bred on a diet of Bollywood films, Jasleen is a performer who takes immense pride in her culture and upbringing, and said, “A lot of Hip Hop has been influenced by Indian culture and has sampled a lot of Hindi before. But it’s all about picking the right track that has the right memory attached to it. A lot of my reasons for choosing to focus on specific Hindi songs (for sampling and such) is because I have a personal relation with that song or film or moment.
“When it comes to my performance, I think without even knowing it, I pull elements from the Bollywood world. I am a theatre major after all. I love performing and luring the audience into Horsepowar. I find that the more energy, drama and spectacle I can bring to my performance, the better it is. And the more memorable. It’s not so much specifically Bollywood that has influenced me in my music, it’s simply South Asian culture. I love to show the hybrid world of being a Desi Girl living in a Canadian suburban world, and I’ll rock a salwar kameez while doing it!”
Rooted in lyricism she decided to keep from doing slam poetry in school, Horsepowar’s latest release ‘Bollywoes’ is a tribute to her love for Bollywood, a commentary on growing up in suburban Canada and a deeply personal track (‘My Motherland’) on beareavement and substance abuse, all rolled into one.
Latest release: Bollywoes
VI. Raja Kumari
Raja Kumari’s musicality is evident from the word go; the Grammy-nominated songwriter, rapper and long time lover of hip hop has been train in three Indian classical dance forms, her first interaction with art.
“My guru lived in my home since I was six years old and taught me for 15 years every day,” Raja Kumari (AKA Svetha Rao) shared. “I had a very unique opportunity to learn from the source. My appreciation of the culture came very early. I’ve had to remind my parents that they made me this vessel of art. There’s enough doctors and engineers in the world, and if I didn’t devote my life to [the culture] it might get lost.”
She started writing songs when she was 15, and went on to write for the likes of Iggy Azalea, Gwen Stefanie and Fall Out Boy before setting out solo with her own project, ‘Raja Kumari’, which fuses Indian elements with hip-hop with an intuitive sense of rhythm.
“I feel like what people really resonate with in hip hop is the rhythm,” she said, in an interview. “It’s the drums, it’s the pattern, it’s that guttural instinct that we have when we hear these sounds. And I think that that comes from tribal drums — from African drums, ancient Indian drums. I feel like when we fuse our culture into hip hop, we keep evolving it and growing it. It’s just going to keep harking back to our own pasts.”
After a struggle to incorporate her Indian heritage into her life in Southern California, Raja Kumari has really come into her own with her distinctive brand of melody-driven music that aims to unite listeners beyond language. The voice she has is authentic to the core, and fully representative of the person she’s grown to become, someone who has grown to be proud of her heritage and is eager to claim and celebrate her culture, along with its various aspects.
Latest release: The Come Up