When grappling with difficult situations, people often turn to creative mediums of expression. The past year has been monumentally difficult on many counts – the onset of the pandemic, severe environmental degradation, and mass movements against oppressive systems clamping down on citizens on the basis of race or religion. Numerous Indians or South Asians born and raised abroad, keenly joined the widespread protests sparked off by the Black Lives Matter (BLM) Movement, having suffered atrocities and grave insults for years, owing to their foreign origin. This angst played out most strongly in their music. Many of them chose to connect with their roots through music, by using traditional lyrics, sounds, and iconography to express their rage against the system.
Sisters Bhagya ‘Eboshi’ Ramesh and Priya ‘Contra’ Ramesh, born in Chennai and raised in Canada, began their musical career in 2018 as popular hip-hop group Cartel Madras. Their Indian roots are integral to their artistic vision and the soundscapes and stories they grew up listening to have shaped their craft. Glen Koshy George, better known as GWS, was born in Kerala, grew up in the Middle East, and is currently studying in the USA. Each of these places have influenced his experimental music – created both in Malayalam and English.
He claims, “the pride we have in our own culture and the love for one another was the reason I wanted to focus more on Malayalam songs.”
Asad Khan aka Khanvict, is a Pakistani-born Canada-bred Music Producer who has seen monumental growth on streaming platforms in the last few years. He claims to be equally inspired by Bollywood composer A. R. Rahman as by electronic artists like Close and Troyboi and during the pandemic, his online performances and songs have been streamed over a million times. With two official remixes of Rahman’s works under his belt, he has received support from Bobby Friction (BBC), Spotify, and Sony Music India. His latest track, ‘Closer’ is a collaboration with South Asian artists of Indian origin – filmmaker Anjali Nayar who created the arresting music video, and model and activist Seema Hari.
Listen to ‘Closer‘
By using traditional Punjabi ‘Boliyan’ or songs sung by women in the villages, ‘Closer’ expresses the rage felt by South Asians towards racism and colorism. Explaining the sentiment succinctly, the director of the video says,
“This film was made in quarantine by brown people and their allies, as a creative outlet and expression of hope for a better and more equitable future, where people are not judged based on who they are, who they love and how they pray. Although this film digs deep into our South Asian heritage, there are many similarities between our caste/colorist system and the current issues in the Americas. This is our allegiance to the common cause.”
Khanvict has collaborated with numerous names across the board, and Indian-Australian Amritha Shakti is one of them. Her powerful and evocative vocals for the Tamil song ‘Kingdom’ released last year, were inspired by the tremendous popularity of one of India’s biggest icons – Rajnikanth.
Listen to ‘Kingdom‘
She claims, “most female Tamil tracks are limited to topics like love, where women almost always take on the position of being the ‘admired’ object. I wanted to flip that concept completely on its head. Having grown up in Australia watching Rajni movies, I wanted to channel his energy in this song and write a powerful number for women. Almost like creating a female equivalent of Rajni.”
Bhaveek Makan, or Skinny Local, from Canada, paid tribute to his Indian roots by collaborating with rapper duo Snotty Nose Rez Kids from the Native American community of Haisla Nation. Their collaboration, aptly titled ‘Screaming Indian’, was a stark call of attention to government-sanctioned racism. This message was creatively conveyed through the use of traditional Garba and Native American Pow Wow dancers in the music video.
Listen to ‘Screaming Indian‘
The rising popularity of artists of Indian origin raised abroad, among Indians, indicates the trend of glocalization of music. Readily available streaming platforms and easy online connectivity, make tapping into global audiences an easy task. India’s youth particularly enjoys new-age and experimental music with a hint of traditional lyrics or a familiar ‘Indianesque’ handling.
Cartel Madras claims to have a sizable Indian audience, constituting their fifth-highest listenership, and were planning an India tour before the pandemic hit. However, they are most streamed in the United States. They ascribe their popularity in India to their collaborations with artists from here. Particularly appreciative of the underground music scene in South Indian hubs like Kochi, Bengaluru, and Chennai, they have tapped into the existing network of talented artists from these places and witnessed an increase in their fan base.
Agreeing with them in principle, GWS, whose majority listenership is from Kerala, claims that collaborations with Indian artists help, but he shares the disclaimer,
“I believe in making the best art, so it is also about collaborating with the right person and not just for the sake of it. Yes, the indie scene is growing at a massive rate. New artists pop up every day but at the same time, it is also becoming saturated with similar-sounding music. So, I have been pushing to create more sonically different songs and stand out from the crowd.”
The past year has provided artistic fodder to many talented musicians, and allowed them the bandwidth to connect with other artists and a larger audience. This trend is only set to grow, both from the perspective of creators and consumers.