Saturday, August 02, 2003

NY Times on the South Asian Influence in Hip-Hop

Now, the New York Times has published an article on Panjabi MC, Raje Shwari, and the whole South Asian influence on American hip-hop. While I like most of the article, I do want to note that the Times, just like most papers, erred in the captions of the images that they associated with the article. The captions for the images indicate that they are from the Mundian to Bach Ke video, while they are instead from the video for PMC's single Jogi.

The one place where I think the article, and many others like it are shortsighted, is when they limit the discussion to the openness and inclusiveness of the American hip-hop genre, and fail to mention, even the slgihtest bit, about the increasing status of South Asians in mainstream America, not just in music or medecine, but in journalism, in government, in literature, or whatever. I think for many South Asians, that is where part of our pride in PMC, Bend it Like Beckahm, Bombay Dreams, or Parminder Nagra's success comes from, from the fact that perhaps mainstream America finally recognizes the contributions that South Asians are making to this country in everyday life, outside of bhangra, samosas, naan, and tandoori chicken. Or maybe it is just me.

Incidentally, the author does make a reference to Raje Shwari--who I mentioned the other day.

"The singer Raje Shwari is a case study in this freewheeling exchange. Her parents are from Gujarat, India, but she was born and raised near Philadelphia. She says she would never have become interested in Indian music if hip-hop hadn't led the way. "I was making my demo in July of 2002," Ms. Shwari said. "I was hearing Indian samples in hip-hop, so I sang some background vocals and made them sound like samples, because of Timbaland." Bill Pettaway, an associate of Timbaland's, got a copy of the demo, called Ms. Shwari and made her sing to Timbaland over the phone. Within weeks, she had recorded tracks for Jay-Z and Bubba Sparxxx. And recently she recorded a track with Timbaland himself, in which she reworks some lyrics from a Bollywood song over samples of an early 90's bhangra tune. The track, called "Indian Style," has gotten heavy play from Asian music shows on BBC radio, but the response suggests South Asians aren't uniformly comfortable with cross-cultural sampling. On a BBC online bulletin board, a listener who calls himself "max pain" lashed out at the song's fans: "You say it's authentic? It's just the same tune from that Bollywood flick but you think its cool now cz a hip-hop producer redone it. Talk about being easily lead!!! Indian people need to wake up and realize that they're selling you your own music, but you think its cool cz it's a black man behind it. It's such a sad state of affairs."

I think "Max Pain" makes a good point. Are South Asians who are supporting this manipulation of South Asian music bandwagoning on a negative trend? And are we just supporting something that is going to be yesterdays trend? If so, the question then becomes, what can we do about it, and really, is there anything that can be done. We are currently in an era of Asian Cool, an era that has been going on for some time now. But how long is this going to last?

"Ms. Shwari says she has even been criticized for not sounding authentic enough, or for being Guajarati rather than Punjabi. Of course, these distinctions will be invisible to most American listeners, even those with a particular interest in the music. "I don't really try to figure out the difference between what y'all call bhangra or ragas or whatever," Timbaland said via an e-mail message. "I just have known for a long time that Indian music is dope. As far as the sampling goes, I probably was the first to do the `Indian' thing, and it definitely started moving hip-hop in a new direction, but now we're doing `world hip-hop.' " Ms. Shwari is continuing to work with Timbaland on her coming solo debut and on "Under Construction 2," his third album with the rapper Magoo. She describes "Indian Flute," the track on which she sings, as a response to "these MC's who sample Indian music without understanding it." "I sing in Hindi, and Tim and Magoo rap in Hindi," she added. "All of it rhymes. It's the most amazing Indian urban record yet." Do you think Tim and Magoo, understand the music, or understand the Hindi they rhyme in?

In a way, I think Raje is not just behind her times, but a little naive when she references Timbaland's new album as being the most "amazing Indian urban record yet." Specifically because I doubt Tim or Magoo have lived Indian lives, and are far from rapping or talking about it. I am not saying that Indian-Americans have had it harder than African Americans, and in fact I am not even trying to make the comparison. But if we claimed that Eminem or a couple of Indian MC's have made the most amazing whatever "urban record yet." We would be laughed off the Internet, or whatever medium that claim was made on.

And secondly, South Asians in America have been doing this South Asian hip-hop for some time, whether it is rapping in English, Hindi, Gujarati, Punjabi or whatever. In fact, two subjects in which I have just written on for Mantram magazine come to mind. (I will post these after the magazine goes to print) The first is the rap group Karmacy, who have rapped in English, Gujarati, and Spanish on Rukus Avenue Records. The other, is the1shanti who is part of the Dum Dum Project, whose hip-hop remix of Shakalaka Baby appears on Andrew Lloyd Webber's soundtrack for the play Bombay Dreams. Both group's music have appeared on Bobby Friction and Nihal's radio show on BBC one--a necessary listen for those interested in diasporic South Asian sounds.

There is a lot to think about in this post, and I know my thoughts are kinda scatterred, but in the end, I think it is important to support desi artists who are taking the sound to the mainstream, although we should not support it blindly.


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