There’s no single South Asian identity or experience, more so when you look at the Indian diaspora on a global scale. For South Asian immigrants and next generation kids, identity is multifaceted and highly nuanced. On one hand lies their heritage and the traditions of their parents that often gets even more hardened within their homes after they’ve left their homelands, while on the other is the society, culture and customs that they themselves have grown up with – be it American, British, Canadian, or any others.
It seems that our digital age of social media we’ve become more connected to those around the world. This global network and platform have become a space for many to explore their multiple identities, to try and mould new ones and even reconnect with their roots. Now, instead of lying below the radar, we’ve seen more and more South Asian rappers and musicians embracing their multiculturalism and voicing their experiences in ways we’ve never ventured down before.
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 of cultures to mould for themselves a distinctive identity and voice that is authentic and unique unto itself.
Brought up in suburban Vancouver 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 turned childhood loss and deep grief into upbeat hip-hop to share with the world.
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 to Kajal Mag. “At that time, I was just looking for some funny pun on something I could identify 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. She’ll have you thinking about her lilting, haunting melodies long after you’ve taken your headphones off.
Born in Toronto to Punjabi parents, Navraj Singh Goraya is better known by his stage name Nav. He started experimenting with song mashups in high school and soon started making his own beats and providing them to local rappers and musicians. Fast forward a couple of years and rise in the music industry, the rapper and producer has now worked with the likes of Drake, Travis Scott, Lil Uzi Vert, Metro Boomin and The Weeknd who touts him as his “first real protégé” and is signed to his label XO.
A man of few public words, so to speak, in a rare interview with COMPLEX, he talks about the responsibility and even stress that comes with now being such a prominent man of Indian descent in the music scene, saying, “It feels good to represent them, but I also have to be careful of the way I represent them. I can’t do anything too crazy. I don’t want to misrepresent them.”
Tasneem’s ethnic and personal background have always been integral to their sound. Being multilingual (French, broken Swahili and Gujarati) and identifying as non-binary Muslim, they have a truly unique worldview that has contributed to their artistic development. An artist, musician and activist from Canada, they lyrically explore “love longing identity and the state of the world in their songs.” By nature Tasneem is multi-cultural, born in Canada and raised in Oklahoma – they are the daughter of a Ugandan mother and Kenyan father both with roots in India and this eclectic swirl of cultural identities have shaped their musical journey.
Tasneem also takes a stand against the marginalisation of female artists in America with their multi-media influences and uncensored words. “I think the music industry in America has stifled women’s voices by placing them into neat boxes. I still stand by my voice and continue to create my own lane and my own music but I’m not obsessed anymore with fitting in. I believe the right people hear my music and pass it along to those who can appreciate it,” they tell Homegrown. Although their religious background doesn’t often transfer to the music they create, Tasneem is considered an American Muslim voice, a title that they’re proud to own.
Tasneem hopes that through their acting, music, writing and activism they are inciting a social change especially when it comes to how people think about women, Muslim-American voices, pluralism and identity because lyrically these are issues they’re addressing every day.
The New York-based R&B singer for several years now has been known for her jazzy compositions and dreamlike music videos. She is self-love, spirituality, and femininity. Her music is kind and healing, her videos a glimpse into a silkier world and a freer state of mind. Her experience of diaspora seeps into the narratives of her music and an undercurrent of the South Asian identity runs through her visual aesthetics—a wistfulness that is all too familiar to the immigrant experience.
“I grew up very much still surrounded by Indian culture, so I feel like embracing and nourishing both the American and Indian parts of me in my art feel authentic to me. I think when immigrants come to America, they often cling to their homeland and identities there even more, in order to create a sense of familiarity and comfort in such a disorienting and new culture. This was very much the case with my parents, and I fell in love with all things India through them. I have particularly strong associations with the jewellery, the dreamy and colourful visuals, the food,” she tells Homegrown.
Her music has always been a direct reflection of each stage of her life, and this honesty with herself seeps into her work. Her soft, smooth voice and beautiful videos linger in your mind long after its over.
VI. Leo Kalyan
With dreamy, soulful tracks, Leo Kalyan has been making waves in the UK, using his music to explore his identity. The musician came out to the world as a gay Muslim in his music video ‘Fucked Up’ and has since found a fanbase in the South Asian community, especially among those that are struggling with their sexuality.
He spent his childhood between Lahore and London and has often used his music to explore this dual identity, speaking with a raw honesty that resonates with listeners. “When I first started putting music out, I was very afraid to put my full identity out there, as either as a gay man or as my ethnicity,” he said in an interview with Paper Magazine. “My family is Muslim, and being brown-skinned with an Islamic background, especially in this day and age, felt hard to grapple with. I felt like my sexuality and my ethnicity were in the political spotlight all the time, and so I was quite afraid to actually be myself.”
“I am from a Muslim background, but I’m from London. This is my city. I very much am British and I feel British. As much as I love pop music, I also have a lot of references which are Bollywood music and Indian classical music and all the kind of stuff that I grew up with that is Eastern and Indian,” he said in an interview. “I’m always trying to find ways to bring the two things together without diluting either one. I’m always looking for ways of bringing both East and West together without it turning into a watered-down version of both things.”
VII. Anik Khan
“Curry chicken meets collard greens” is how Anik Khan described himself. A Bangladeshi-American hip-hop artist, shades of his multiculturalism shine through everything he creates. He’s carved a space for himself in the hip-hop scene wearing his Bengali heritage on his sleeve alongside the pride of Queens.
His family sought political asylum in the US following the Bangladesh Liberation War. His love for lyricism grew from watching his father, a Masters in Literature, performing Bengali poetry in front of crowds.
“As a brown person, a Bengali American doing stuff in hip-hop or just in the music industry in general, we’re very few and far between,” he said in an interview with Billboard. “With my music, I had to realize that I’m talking about a lot of sh-t people may have never heard before.”
He stepped into the spotlight with his first release ‘I Don’t Know Yet’ in 2015 and then cemented his position with acclaimed 2017 EP ‘Kites’. “People have said, ‘He might be leaning on his culture’ – that doesn’t really make any sense because you can’t lean on something if that’s just who you are,” he explained. “There might be people who are of immigrant descent where it doesn’t really matter to them, and that’s cool... but that is really who I am. I love immigrant life, I love Queens hood life.”
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